Southeast Wisconsin Rules the Capitol
Almost every Republican -- and Democratic -- leader is from a small part of the state.
Southeast Wisconsin Republicans regained their lock on the most powerful Capitol jobs when Republican Rep. Bill Kramer, of Waukesha, won a secret vote to be elected Assembly majority leader.
Kramer defeated two-term Republican Rep. Dean Knudson, of Hudson, who tried to set a record for the fastest political rise – freshmen to majority leader, the second most powerful Assembly job, in 33 months.
Kramer withstood a challenge from up-and-comer Knudson because, according to one former Assembly Republican leader, “The ‘true believers’ in the caucus love him.”
But Knudson also lost votes, according to two sources, when one of his supporters, Rep. Chris Kapenga, publicly suggested that Kramer’s personality could embarrass Assembly Republicans, if he became majority leader. Ironically, Kapenga and Kramer both represent parts of Waukesha County.
A budget committee member, Knudson was a serious candidate for several reasons, including the 30 Assembly Republicans who were elected either with him in November 2010, in special elections since then, or last November.
Because there are 60 Assembly Republicans, those 30 newcomers – had they voted as a bloc – could have elected Knudson. But, although no totals from the Kramer-versus-Knudson secret vote leaked to reporters, Kramer won on the first round.
The majority leader post was open because of the resignation of Rep. Scott Suder, who traded his Assembly seat for a better-paying administrator’s job at the Public Service Commission. Suder, of Abbotsford, had been the most powerful GOP leader not from southeast Wisconsin.
If you’re scoring at home, here’s the roster of Republican leaders, and where they live, who set the Capitol agenda:
*Gov. Scott Walker, of Wauwatosa, served in the Assembly from 1993-2001, was then elected Milwaukee County executive and was elected governor in 2010. Walker will seek a second term next year.
*Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch lives in Oconomowoc in Waukesha County. Her husband, Rep. Joel Kleefisch, is serving his fifth Assembly term.
*Assembly Speaker Robin Vos is a four-term Assembly member who lives in Burlington in Racine County.
*Majority Leader Kramer, a CPA and lawyer with a concealed-carry permit, sometimes carried a small handgun while presiding over the Assembly as speaker pro tem.
*Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Tyler August, of Lake Geneva, is also serving his second term.
*Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, from Juneau, represents a district anchored in Dodge and Jefferson counties.
*Assistant Senate Majority Leader Glenn Grothman, lives in West Bend in Washington County.
*Sen. Alberta Darling, cochairman of the Joint Finance Committee, is from the Milwaukee suburb of River Hills.
Asked why all the most important Capitol leadership jobs are filled by southeast Wisconsin Republicans, political scientist and pollster Charles Franklin, of the Marquette University Law School, had a quick response: Doh!
“Southeastern Wisconsin includes the most vote-rich counties for Republicans — those that are both large in total vote and lopsidedly Republican,” says Franklin.
“By that measure, the top seven counties for the GOP are all in the southeast: Waukesha, Washington, Ozaukee, Fond du Lac, Dodge, Walworth and Sheboygan,” Franklin adds. “That gives a lot of leverage to the southeast, in terms of electoral power.”
Specifically, Franklin’s county-by-county chart of Wisconsin votes in the last four Presidential elections shows that Republican candidates got margins of 60% or more in five counties. Three of them are in metropolitan Milwaukee: Washington, 68.7%; Waukesha, 68.3%, and Ozaukee, 64.9%.
Republican legislators from southeast Wisconsin have “strong enough support back home to devote time to becoming leaders of the party in Madison,” Franklin says.
Republicans in Southeast Wisconsin suburbs also write a lot of campaign checks — large and small.
Not every southeast Republican can get a Capitol leadership job, however. Some may not want to work that hard, or they may have such strong personalities that they aren’t trusted to negotiate compromises on controversial issues, for example.
Three of the top four Democratic leaders are also from southeast Wisconsin: Senate Democratic Leader Chris Larson, of Milwaukee; Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca, of Kenosha, and Assistant Assembly Democratic Leader Sandy Pasch, of Shorewood.
According to Franklin’s numbers, in the last four Presidential elections, 64.9% of Milwaukee County residents voted for Democrats; in Kenosha County, 55.4% did.
Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. This column reflects his personal perspective. Email firstname.lastname@example.org