Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Democrats Rejected Redistricting Reform

Legislative leaders rejected reforms proposed in 2009-2010 session.

By - Jun 25th, 2018 10:15 am
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Dave Hansen. Photo from State of Wisconsin Blue Book 2011-12.

Dave Hansen. Photo from State of Wisconsin Blue Book 2011-12.

Democratic legislative leaders instantly condemned last week’s U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on the lawsuit challenging district boundaries Republicans drew in 2011 that punted the case back to lower courts.

“Republican efforts to suppress voters, restrict voting rights and rig elections through gerrymandered maps have demonstrated just how desperate they’ve become to cling to power,” said Senate Democratic Leader Jennifer Shilling.

She added: “Despite this delay, Democrats will continue to champion non-partisan redistricting reform to empower citizens and restore fairness to our election process.”

“It is now up to the next governor and Legislature to take up non-partisan redistricting reform,” said Assembly Democratic Leader Gordon Hintz. “Wisconsinites know that voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around.

“Wisconsin has a rich tradition of electing candidates and majorities from both parties,” he added. “In recent years, Republicans have denied voters the right to choose their representatives to suppress public opposition of their extreme agenda.”

Such outrage.

Question: What action did Democrats take in the 2009-10 session – the last time they controlled the Capitol with Democrat Gov. Jim Doyle in the East Wing and Democratic majorities in both houses of the Legislature – to reform the process of drawing new legislative district lines every 10 years based on new Census numbers?

Nothing. Well, next to nothing.

In the 2009-10 session, Assembly Joint Resolution 29 (AJR 29), sponsored by five of the 52 Assembly Democrats and only one of the 18 Senate Democrats, would have started the three- or four-year process of amending the State Constitution to take the power of drawing new districts away from the political party then controlling the Capitol.

AJR 29 got a public hearing on Nov. 17, 2009, but no vote – either in committee or in the Assembly or Senate, records show. It died when the session ended on April 22, 2010.

Shilling and Hintz were in the Assembly in the 2009-10 session, but were not leaders who could have forced a vote on AJR 29 or any bill on redistricting reform. Hintz was a cosponsor of AJR 29.

Last week, four Democratic leaders in the 2009-10 session were asked why redistricting reform went nowhere: Senate President Fred Risser, Senate President Pro Tempore Pat Kreitlow, Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dave Hansen and Rep. Fred Kessler, the Milwaukee Democrat who has been a national consultant on the issue.

Only Hansen responded.

“I don’t recall the subject of redistricting coming up in [the Senate Democratic] caucus,” Hansen said, adding: “I think most of our efforts were focused on trying to get the economy back on its feet after the Wall Street-led global economic crash.

“I’m sure, had we known how far the Republicans and Gov. Walker would go to cement their power and how that would translate into the policies they would later adopt, it would have led to some type of action on a fair redistricting plan.”

But, Hansen said, Republicans who took control of the Capitol in 2011 would have killed anything Democrats had passed the previous session.

Still, passing redistricting reform – if it only was a first step toward changing the constitution – would have given Democrats the right to claim they had taken the issue very seriously when they had the chance.

Democratic Rep. Jeff Smith, of Eau Claire, chaired the Assembly Elections and Campaign Reform Committee that held the November 2009 hearing on AJR 29. He lost his third-term bid in 2010. Smith, now running for the State Senate, said last week he was told that no redistricting reforms were going to pass the 2009-10 session.

Why?

“Every party that comes into power, their leaders … are convinced – as my legislative leaders were – ‘Oh, we’re going to draw the [next] lines’,” Smith said in a WisconsinEye campaign interview.

Smith said he and now-retired Democratic Rep. Spencer Black repeatedly pushed Assembly party leaders to act on redistricting reform. They refused.

“I wanted [reform] to pass,” Smith added.

“Unfortunately, those Democratic leaders learned a hard lesson,” Smith said, referring to maps that punished Democrats enacted by Republican legislators and signed into laws by Gov. Scott Walker in 2011.

Whether the Constitution is amended or state law is changed to allow the non-partisan Legislative Reference Bureau to draw new districts that legislators must then approve, the long-term goal is the same.

The process, Smith said, must be taken “out of the hands of legislators.”

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at stevenscotwalters@gmail.com

More about the Gerrymandering of Legislative Districts

One thought on “The State of Politics: Democrats Rejected Redistricting Reform”

  1. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    This is true, and Dems paid a price for not doing enough to change things economically and ethically after the Bush-led collapse in 2008. Hilariously, Scoty Walker and other GOPs rode to power claiming they would “clean up corruption” and not “legislate in secret” (no, I’m not kidding!)

    My question- why has the Wisconsin GOP not paid a price for their choices to rig elections, do more corrupt, secret and surprise legislation (including the redistricting maps), and cause Wisconsin’s economic recovery to badly lag behind the country’s?

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