Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Democrats Lose Experience In Legislature

10 years of Republican control helps creates Legislature with less experienced Democrats.

By - Sep 20th, 2021 11:25 am
Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Rosina Peixoto [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Rosina Peixoto (CC BY-SA 3.0), from Wikimedia Commons

Democrats have lost experience in the Wisconsin Legislature as lawmakers have retired, resigned or were defeated, a 20-year review of the Assembly and Senate membership shows.

Assembly Democrats had an average of almost 10 years of legislative experience in the 2001-02 session, for example. But that average dropped to eight years in the 2011-12 session – the Act 10 session – and fell to only six years in the current session.

The average experience of Senate Democrats fell from almost 18 years in the 2011-12 session to 14 in the current session. That drop reflected the retirement last year of three veteran Democratic senators: Fred Risser, of Madison, who served in the Legislature for a record 64 years; Mark Miller, also of Madison, and Dave Hansen, of Green Bay,

Republicans have done much better at maintaining legislative experience during that period, records show.

The average Senate Republican had almost 15 years of legislative experience in the 2001-02 session and 13 years of experience in both the 2011-12 and current sessions.

Assembly Republicans averaged seven years of experience in the 2001-02 session and about five years of experience in the 2011-12 session. But that number actually rose – to about seven years of experience – in the current session.

The longer legislators serve, the more effective they can become. That’s because they figure out how the Legislature works and can move up the power ladder into roles as committee chairs, maybe to the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee and then into party leadership slots in each chamber.

Former Democratic Sen. Tim Cullen, of Janesville, has a unique perspective on serving in the Legislature. He served as Senate majority leader in the 1980s and then returned to the Senate from 2011-15. Cullen said most legislators don’t leave “because they’re getting beat,” since Republicans drew legislative district lines in 2011 that guaranteed Republican control of both houses for 10 years. In the process they created many seats where incumbents of both parties were safe from a challenge.

For most legislators, “it’s almost impossible to get beat” in a November general election, Cullen added.

The only real danger most incumbent legislators face is a primary challenge, which they can face if they have bucked their party’s leaders, Cullen said. “You avoid a primary by doing exactly what leaders tell you to do.”

Some legislators leave because they “just don’t want to put up with that,” Cullen said. “They say, ‘Somebody else can do this’.”

That was one reason why Cullen did not seek re-election in 2014. “All I was doing was speaking against (Republican) bills, sitting down and losing” in votes on those bills.

It was “just so different” in the 1980s, when he led the Senate, Cullen noted. Then, legislators “got more satisfaction out of their job. They could be independent of their leadership and not be punished for it.”

The most senior members of the Legislature are:

Former Republican Sen. Luther Olsen, of Ripon, retired last year after serving 26 years in both Assembly and Senate. Asked about turnover in the Legislature, Olsen cited a number of factors.

“It doesn’t pay that good,” Olsen said of the salary of about $51,000 a year, plus “per diem” expense allowances.

Olsen said many legislators use that experience as a “stepping stone” to jobs that pay much more as lobbyists, running statewide trade associations or in local government.

Five former Assembly Democrats are now mayors or county executives. Five-term Democratic Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa left the Assembly last year to join Milwaukee’s Common Council where the salary ($73,222) is much higher.

“Young people decide, ‘OK, it’s time to do something else’,” Olsen said.

More “polarization” on issues has also made a legislator’s job harder, Olsen noted. On social media and in emails and office visits, “People are not afraid to kick you up one side and down the other. They want immediate answers.”

Overall, Olsen added, “It’s probably not as enjoyable” to serve in the Legislature.

Steven Walters started covering the Capitol in 1988. Contact him at stevenscotwalters@gmail.com

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