Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Is the State Legislature Still a Men’s Club?

By - Aug 7th, 2001 02:23 pm
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It was the gunfight at the Capitol corral and only men were invited. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala (D-Madison) and Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen (R- Madison) announced their initial choice of legislators to join them in the conference committee negotiating the budget, and not one of the four additional participants was a woman. Six men would decide the shape of the next biennial budget.

“It amazes me that this happens over and over again,” says state Sen. Alberta Darling (R- River Hills). “They need a little balance.”

Perhaps prodded by complaints like that, Chvala and Jensen added a little balance. Very little. The conference committee was expanded to eight people, bringing in one woman, Senate Minority Leader Mary Panzer (R-West Bend).

“That might be why it got done sooner,” says Rep. Bonnie Ladwig (R-Racine). “I think [women] bring a different perspective – it’s like refereeing your children.”

“The assembly hallway with all the photos of [male] speakers kind of gives me the creeps,” says state Sen. Kim Plache.

It does seem as though a referee has been needed in recent years, as the budget sessions have dragged on well past the July deadline, setting records for the length of negotiations, with Jensen and Chvala trading barbs and slugging it out. “We are kind of stuck in a leadership style that is a win-lose style,” says Darling. “Both of them should know that times have to change.”

Some women legislators argue that involving more women in leadership could improve the legislative process. “Many of us have said there are different ways to solve problems,” Darling says. “We wish we could have more partnerships, more coalition building.”

“I think women are fully capable of being tough negotiators but I think they also function better as consensus builders,” says Rep. Shirley Krug (D-Milwaukee), who was recently replaced as assembly minority leader by a man, Rep. Spencer Black (D-Madison).

Senate Minority Leader Mary Panzer (R-West Bend) is seen as someone in that mold. She replaced Mike Ellis (R-Neenah), who was accused of favoring men in his caucus. But as one longtime Republican woman legislator notes, Panzer’s more accommodating style has proven less effective at the polls, as the Democrats have gained more seats in the senate. “Under Ellis we never lost a seat,” she says. “I don’t see Panzer as the panacea.”

The whole question of equality in the state politics is a charged one. Wisconsin does seem to have dragged behind other states, only recently electing its first congresswoman, 2nd District Rep. Tammy Baldwin. Margaret Farrow has just become the state’s first Lieutenant. Governor, but we’ve yet to see a woman as governor, U.S. Senator, Assembly Speaker or Senate Majority Leader.

“The fact that men have traditionally held these leadership positions has made it more difficult for women,” says Farrow.

“As I walk down the assembly hallway with all the photos of [male] speakers, it kind of gives me the creeps,” says state Sen. Kim Plache (D-Racine).

Not one women I talked to felt there is any overt sexism in the legislature. “Some of the older guys will treat you kind of like a little girl,” says Plache. “But not when it comes to votes. It’s more the style than anything of substance.”

“I don’t think some of them get it,” says Ladwig, “and if they don’t, I remind them frequently.”

“We still get the question, ‘when will you women be satisfied?'” notes Krug.

What do women want? Full equality in gaining leadership positions. “I think in Wisconsin we don’t promote women enough,” says Darling.

But it could be argued that women have considerable power, relative to their numbers in the legislature. “In the Senate Democratic caucus, there are only three women,” Plache notes. “And two of three served on joint finance.”

With the promotion of Farrow, a state senate district held by a woman was taken over by a man, Ted Kanavas, leaving just ten women in the 33-seat senate. In the assembly, only 20 of 99 representatives are women.

After nearly two decades of steady advances, “this last year there was a slight decrease nationally in the number of women serving in state legislatures,” say Krug. “We had a slight decrease in Wisconsin as well.”

“I don’t think some of the [men] get it,” says Rep. Bonnie Ladwig, “and if they don’t, I remind them frequently.”

Krug and Plache believe the fierce electoral competition between the two parties is actually discouraging candidates from running. “As politics has become more nasty and personal, I think it’s become more difficult to find women candidates who want to run,” Krug says. “I get the question, ‘what will become of me and my family if I run for office?'”

“When I was elected [in 1988], everybody stuck to the [campaign] spending limits,” Plache recalls. “Now there are very few seats that stay within the limits. I think it raises the stakes and raises the intensity. I think women might be less inclined to put themselves through that. I know I wouldn’t have entered politics if it had looked that way back then.”

“I think that’s the biggest gender issue I see,” Plache adds. “And I don’t see the climate changing any time soon.”

Short Takes

The Bradley Center continues to expand, it seems. In preparation for its expansion and renovation, the Bradley Center has taken control of the old Ambrosio Chocolate property at 6th and Highland. The property is now owned by Towne Realty, but its spokesperson Mike Mervis says, “the Bradley Center controls its development in the future.” Mervis would not describe the specifics of the financial arrangement, but it’s clear the Bradley Center has nailed down the property in case its needed.

A recent column here suggested the Senate Democrats had the crack-brained idea of creating a Wisconsin Naval Militia. In fact, the proposal was included in Gov. Scott McCallum‘s original budget proposal. The Senate Democrats removed it from the budget in their version, and the Republicans eventually went along with that approach in the Conference Committee.

My last column suggested it was ironic that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after lambasting Mayor John Norquist in numerous articles and cartoons for going on vacation, asked to postpone a meeting with the mayor because two editorial board members were on vacation. MLS editorial page editor Mike Ruby sent me this description of what really happened: “7/26, 4:19pm: I send [mayoral aide] Steve Filmanowicz an e-mail asking whether there was a chance to get the mayor in for an edit board meeting ‘sometime soon.’ I also said I had folks on vacation, so best times would be weeks of Aug. 6 or 13.”

I leave it to readers to decide if that fits the definition of the word “ironic.”

This article was originally published by Milwaukee World.

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