Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Capitol Has New Generation of Leaders

44% of Legislature's 132 members changed in last four years.

By - Apr 24th, 2023 11:21 am
Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Dave Reid.

Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Dave Reid.

A new generation of Wisconsin legislators is about to spend the record $7-billion surplus in the 2023-25 state budget that will pass this summer.

Over several years, and especially the last four, dozens of veteran legislators have moved on from the Capitol to other elected offices, to become lobbyists or retired, clearing the way for younger, eager lawmakers dedicated to making significant change.

The Legislature now has its first Asian American, Rep. Francesca Hong, and first Muslim, Rep. Samba Baldeh. Both Democrats represent Madison districts. Five other legislators are members of the LGBTQ+ Caucus. And two first-term Milwaukee Assembly members, Reps. Ryan Clancy and Darrin Madison, are Democratic Socialists. The Wisconsin Blue Book says the last Socialists served in the Assembly in 1937.

Other numbers document the recent churn in the Legislature:

-In the last four years, 58 of the 132 legislators – or 44% – came to the Capitol as first-term members of either the Assembly or the Senate. That number includes 42 in the Assembly, including the one who will take office after a special election in Milwaukee’s northern suburbs, and 16 in the Senate, including Republican Senator-elect Dan Knodl.

-Of the 16 members of the Joint Finance Committee, which will soon begin writing its version of the 2023-25 state budget, five are first-time committee members.

-The average age of senators has fallen from 57 to 54 over the last 10 years. The average age of Assembly members has stayed about 50.

-The number of women legislators — 41 this session — has continued to grow; one-third of the 99 Assembly members and eight of the 33 senators are women. That total of 41 ties the record set two years ago for the most women legislators in state history. Of the 35 Assembly Democrats, 20 are women.

Only two of the 12 legislative leaders from the 2013-14 session are still in the Capitol.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos still leads the Republican-controlled Assembly, but Vos works with an entirely new leadership team. Ten years ago, Republicans Bill Kramer was Assembly speaker pro tem, Scott Suder was majority leader and Jim Steineke was assistant majority leader. Today, Kevin Peterson is speaker pro tem, Tyler August is majority leader and Jon Plumer is assistant majority leader.

In the 2013-14 session, Rep. Peter Barca led Assembly Democrats and Sandy Pasch was that party’s assistant leader. Today, the party’s Assembly leaders are Reps. Greta Neubauer and Kalan Haywood, who were both first elected in 2018.

The quick jump to leadership of Neubauer and Haywood illustrates how quickly new members can now move up the leadership ladder, instead of the old emphasis on seniority. Plumer, for example, was elected to the Assembly in 2018 and the new Assembly Republican caucus chair, Rep. Rob Summerfield, was first elected in 2016.

Of the Senate’s six leaders a decade ago, only Sen. Chris Larson is still in the Capitol. He and Sen. Dave Hansen led Senate Democrats then; the party’s leaders now are Senators Melissa Agard and Jeff Smith.

Republican leaders in the 2013-14 session were Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, Assistant Majority Leader Glenn Grothman, President Mike Ellis and President Pro Tem Joe Leibham. Fitzgerald and Grothman are now members of Congress.

Current Senate Republican leaders are Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, Assistant Leader Dan Feyen, President Chris Kapenga and President Pro Tem Pat Testin.

Every two years, the Legislative Reference Bureau (LFB) compiles a profile of legislators who take office at the start of the two-year session. In the latest profile, LFB analyst Laura Felone said: “The first Wisconsin Legislature convened in 1848. For most legislators elected that session, serving in the legislature was a part-time position that separated them from their families, farms, or businesses for only part of the year.

“Today, 175 years later, members of the 2023 legislature face this same challenge but serve the state in a full-time Legislature.”

This session, 44 legislators — 32 in the Assembly and 12 in the Senate — told LFB they were “full-time legislators.” Another 36 members of the Assembly described themselves as “small business owners,” 10 were attorneys and 10 others said they were farmers.

One thing that hasn’t changed is Republican control of the Legislature. In the 2013-14 session, Republicans had a 18-15 controlling margin; they now have 22 seats, a two-thirds majority. Assembly Republicans gained five seats in the last 10 years.

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

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One thought on “The State of Politics: Capitol Has New Generation of Leaders”

  1. ZeeManMke says:

    What the legislature does not have and needs is members who are lawyers. There may be five out of the 33-person Senate and 99-member Assembly. Don’t they have lawyers on staff you ask? I’m sure they do, but have those lawyers ever practiced law and seen the effect of laws the legislature enacts? That is doubtful. Former Assembly member and Court of Appeals judge Gary Sherman has said that as a lawyer, he had a greater appreciation for how proposed laws would affect people in our state.

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