Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Who Will Lead the Democrats?

The party badly needs leadership, but the bench looks thin. Here are the likely candidates.

By - Nov 17th, 2014 09:32 am

And who shall lead them – Wisconsin Democrats – to better tomorrows? It’s a timely post-election question because:

*Democrats have lost eight of the last 11 elections for governor, including the 2012 recall.

Jennifer Shilling.

Jennifer Shilling.

*Senate Democrats lost one seat, dropping to 14 in the 33-member Senate. They just picked their fifth leader in eight years, Sen. Jennifer Shilling, of LaCrosse.

*Democrats will have 36 seats in the 99-member Assembly – the fewest since 1955.

Maybe the right question is: Who’s even left to lead Wisconsin Democrats?

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, of Madison, is the state’s top elected Democrat. But Baldwin, elected in 2012, hasn’t put her stamp on the party’s statewide organization.

That will change when Baldwin signals whether she wants Mike Tate to stay on as party chairman. Tate has led the party since 2009, when Democrats, led by former Gov. Jim Doyle, controlled the Capitol, but there have been many complaints about Tate in the wake of the 2014 election.

Tate has made a lot of predictions that didn’t come true, including this one at the party’s 2012 state convention: “[Republican Gov.] Scott Walker will see the inside of a jail cell before he sees the inside of another term.” Instead, Walker survived the 2012 recall election, John Doe probes and won a second term on Nov. 4.

Congressman Rep. Ron Kind, who has represented western Wisconsin in the U.S. House since 1997, is the most senior Democrat in the Congressional delegation. But Kind has a risk-avoidance problem, having passed on repeated chances to run for governor. And Kind is laying the groundwork to run against first-term Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson in 2016. U.S. Senate and presidential elections – both of which occur in 2016 – are the races Wisconsin Democrats have won consistently.

Kind will only run against Johnson in 2016 if former Democratic U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold does not, however. Feingold is now a special U.S. State Department emissary to Africa. Former Assembly Speaker Tom Loftus predicted in a WisconsinEye interview that Feingold will challenge Johnson in 2016. And another former party official agreed, saying Feingold plans to return to Wisconsin early next year.

Other Democrats disagree, saying Feingold has moved on, personally and politically. And, they note, in Feingold’s 18 years in the Senate, he was always more about Russ-building than party-building. There were no Feingold sightings in Wisconsin before the Nov. 4 elections.

Two other Wisconsin Democrats serve in Congress: U.S. Reps. Gwen Moore, whose power base is Milwaukee, and Mark Pocan, of Madison. Pocan is an excellent long-term political strategist. But Washington Democrats have recognized that and are likely to keep him too busy to lead party-rebuilding back in Wisconsin.

Sometimes, candidates who run statewide credible races – as Democrat Mary Burke did in her 5.7% loss to Walker – want to shape the party’s future. But Burke told reporters last week she answered a “call to duty” when she ran for governor, spent $5 million of her own money doing so and lost in a nastier-than-expected race. She is done with partisan politics.

One hope for Wisconsin Democrats is its new generation of women leaders. The Capitol has a boys’ club history; it took until 1925 for a woman to serve in the Assembly and until 1975 in the Senate.

Jefferson County District Attorney Susan Happ, for example, introduced herself in Democratic politics with an impressive three-way primary win for attorney general before losing on Nov. 4. What role does Happ want to pay in the party’s future?

And, Shilling and six other women will be half of the 14 Senate Democrats. Retiring Sen. Bob Jauch said that’s a good thing: “They are all mothers. They are all daughters.” The female Democratic senators have a total of 15 children between them.

In a WisconsinEye interview, Shilling agreed that women focus more on family issues like the best education for children, safe communities, health care for children and caring for aging parents. Women have a different style of leadership,” Shilling added.

Another new female leader is first-term Democrat Rep. Katrina Shankland, of Stevens Point, who was elected assistant Assembly Democratic leader. Shankland will challenge the traditional leadership style of Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca, who survived a challenge from second-term Milwaukee Rep. Evan Goyke.

Two ambitious county executives – ex-Assembly members Joe Parisi, of Dane County, and Tom Nelson, of Outagamie County – also want to play bigger roles in the Democratic Party’s future.

Who will lead Wisconsin Democrats? There are 15 names dropped in this column and a lot of ground to be made up by the party.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the WisconsinEye public affairs channel. Contact him at

3 thoughts on “The State of Politics: Who Will Lead the Democrats?”

  1. Allison says:

    I nominate Bruce Murphy

  2. John says:

    …and Vinehout?

  3. Good question, who will lead? You seem to have posed the question in the usual way, which is top-down. And that top-down survey you’ve done, describes why the Democrats are in this situation. I don’t see the DPW doing leadership development at the deeply local level. That would mean doing a radically different kind of grassroots organizing based on developing local leaders with a wide and deep grasp on the situation in which We, The People find ourselves, rather than grassroots organizing to build a politician’s career.

    A local of insurgent Democrats, or The Green Party or any alternative party, whether it’s Libertarian or Constitution or the Socialist Alternative, needs to focus on this deeply local leadership development. Look around at your local Village Boards, Township Boards, your City Council races and so on. Why does no one seem to want to step up and serve at even such low levels, and then build on that experience to serve the people at higher levels like in the Legislature, or Congress? The People are so disengaged from even the most local and familiar government–or even civil society such as their farm co-op or labor union local–that the leadership development process is badly broken. Perhaps this is how the plutocracy prefers the situation to remain?

    Wisconsin faces five gravely serious environmental issues brought on by giant corporations seeking to have thing their way, even to the point of taking over these local government units. You have frac-sand mines which have already destroyed some 20,000+ acres of Wisconsin farms, forests and wetlands to feed the fracking boom in the shale regions, a boom that will have already gone bust in one short decade. The “Chamber of Commerce” DNR has no interest in reigning these mines in via stiff regulation, let alone limiting their number. You have CAFO farms gravely polluting trout streams and wetlands with massive manure spills because the 1% wealthiest agri-businessmen can get away with it, again with no DNR to stop them. You have the Enbridge Line 61 tar sands pipeline expansion which Enbridge is trying to bully-through the small governmental units which seem powerless to stop them. The line will carry more tar sands than Keystone XL if the capacity expansion is approve. You have the absurd notion of an iron ore mine in the Penokee Hills, in an economy in which iron ore prices are plunging and the additional ore is not needed on the world market. Yet the super-rich pour money into Iron County Board elections–something that never happened in the past. And you have Bakken crude rail shipments (the so-called “Bomb Trains” running through your city, with your Emergency Managers probably unaware.

    Yes, there needs to be new leadership stood up and trained so as to stand up to these rapacious corporations. I don’t think you’ll find it at the top levels of the Democratic Party, though.

    Join us in the Green Party, if you want to work at the radically local level to start home-growing a new kind of leadership to face the intractable environmental and economic problems ahead.


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