Take Back the Assembly: a 16-month Wisconsin project
by Peter from WI, Tue Jul 10, 2007 at 08:39:40 PM EDT
[This is an extension of the debut of my new Wisconsin-focused blog Take Back the Assembly, with content included here to bring non-Wisconsin folks up to speed.]
Back in 2006, the glory days of November brought Wisconsin some major gains for Democrats. We re-elected a Democratic governor for the first time in decades. We re-took the state senate to hold a decisive 19-15 majority. And in the state assembly, we took eight seats, bringing the Republican majority to a razor-thin margin of 51-48. Election night was just one fantastic announcement after another. But today, 16 months out from Election Day 2008, the radical right-wingers in the Wisconsin GOP passed an incredibly regressive budget, just one more example of being out of touch with people in Wisconsin and reality both. Time to retake the assembly, time to take our state back.
Our state has endured Republican control for so long, I really don't remember when Democrats had the ability to govern, much less there being anything of a progressive agenda moving forward. Republicans have held and run the state legislative majorities like their own little Norquistian experiment, an outpost of radicalism, or conservativism in a state that literally helped birth the Progressive movement.
It didn't used to be this way. In fact, the Progressive movement was in fact a creation of a radical Republican of a different kind, Robert "Fightin' Bob" La Follette. The La Follette Republicans fought internecine battles with other state Republicans over what it meant to be the Party of Lincoln at a time when activist government was just coming to be accepted as a possiblity. You see, in those days, in Wisconsin and nationwide, income inequality was at its highest even while the economy was growing overall. Corporations ran roughshod over the public interest. The world was changing at an incredible rate. Liberalism offered some solutions. And it had a party and electoral vehicle in this new "Republican" Party.
At that time, the Democratic Party didn't really exist. But as the national Republican Party regressed into a corporatist tool of Big Business and the narrow interests they prioritized over the people of the nation, the Progressives and liberal Republicans joined with some Democrats to start to build a real progressive party that would embrace progressive ideas instead of fighting them. The Republicans then began their long drift rightward.
The New Deal ushered in a new age of politics in Wisconsin, a state that was still friendly to Socialists in Milwaukee, Northern Wisconsin, and varied urban and rural areas throughout the Badger State. And through the Kennedy era and beyond, Democrats gained some degree of control. Thanks to the legacy of the La Follettes, Wisconsin was arguably the most progressive state in the nation. Advances in social and economic policy moved from Wisconsin to the national level. Life was pretty good. A high rate of unionization, a strong manufacturing economy, and highly-productive agriculture made Wisconsin a great place to live - along with our 15,081 lakes (more than Minnesota and any other state in the lower 48), beautiful forests and vibrant towns and cities.
Even while the Republicans in Wisconsin drifted further to the right, best epitomized by Joe McCarth (yes, that Joe McCarthy), there was still a cadre of moderates that were actually moderate Republicans, not some election-year re-branding to win in a state that has always evenly-divided is votes between the parties pretty well. But in the last couple of decades, ever since the Reagan years, the GOP's move to the right has been drastic. Grover Norquist, Paul Weyrich, and Jerry Falwell would have felt very much at home at a Republican Party of Wisconsin convention.
And during the era of Tommy Thompson, a governor that somehow drunkenly and adulterously stumbled his way to four elections as governor, the state's policies mirrored those of the ideals of Reaganites. Structural deficits ballooned to the largest ever. Taxes were cut for businesses and the rich, even while groups like the Big Business and right-wing front group Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce decried Wisconsin as a "tax-hell." Private matters became public issues, like the infamous "god, guns, and gays" agenda.
And Democrats to a large degree were feckless. Spineless. Afraid to stand up to these bullies. Sure, there were exceptions. In Northern Wisconsin, proteges of Dave Obey won some seats where the old socialist influence lingers to this day. In Milwaukee, truly liberal Democrats won regularly, never at a loss for another back-up on the bench if someone left office. Madison was a steady source of liberals for the state capitol. And there were some other good ones from around the state here and there.
But no charismatic leaders emerged for the long-haul. There were good ones here and there. But nobody and nothing that built anything. There was no progressive agenda. There were some wonderful and relatively effective progressive interest groups, but nothing strategic and coordinated. There was no infrastructure. Every even-numbered year, there was a good GOTV effort, but nothing structural besides labor. Sound familiar?
Wisconsin is a microcosm of the rest of the country in a lot of ways. In fact, demographically, we line up almost perfectly in a lot of different columns. Politically, in the most robust sense of the word, we have had the same things happen here that had national trends. Sure, some of the things don't align perfectly. But Wisconsin is a good metaphor for and is symbolic of the rest of the country. Hell, in 2004, we gave the narrowest margin of victory to Kerry of any state. We were the swingiest of swing states in a year where swing states were the story.
Just like 2006 saw major gains for Democrats and progressives nationally, we made strong moves in electoral strength. Besides what was mentiond above, we elected Steve Kagen to Congress, taking out the now-former assembly majority leader, the repugnant John Gard - in a seat held by the GOP candidate for governor, Mark Green, another 'winger. We won all but one constitutional office, picking up the State Treasurer but losing the Attorney General (that's another story for another day). And we came thiiiiiiiiiiiis close to majorities in both houses while retaining the governorship.
At the same time, progressive infrastructure started to get built. Progressive Majority Wisconsin helped train and elect candidates. One Wisconsin Now started to implement the infrastructure-building "Wisconsin Blueprint Project." And the state Democratic Party built a larger fundraising and activist base than what I can ever remember in a mid-term election. But there's still more to be done electorally and infrastructurally.
Today makes clear the need to complete the electoral transition in Wisconsin to Democratic control over both houses of the state legislature. The budget for the next biennium that was passed in the GOP Assembly is essentially a statement of principles for the Wisconsin GOP. No tax increases anywhere, cuts in vital programs like education, the UW-system, and healthcare, a denial of the structural deficit, and giveaways to Big Business. In the Senate, the Democrats passed a budget with a true universal healthcare program. They began to remedy the underfunding of statewide education and the University system (as well as technical colleges). They made sure business and the rich paid their fair share, while giving working- and middle-class folks a break. A perfect contrast. With the Democratic Senate budget, we'd be on our way towards a state that is among the most progressive in the country, putting our historic and current values to paper in policy. In the Republican Assembly budget, just more crap, plain and simple, taking us back to an era of Robber Barons and horrid inequality, not to mention an economic and social plan that just does not work for Wisconsin or its people.
It's time to re-take the majority in the Assembly. It's time to get Wisconsin back to its progressive roots. It's time to move this state forward. Over the next 16 months, from now until election day 2008, we need to work to take out at least three Republican Assembly members and elect good Democrats.
The good news is that we have the people of Wisconsin on our side. They favor the kinds of things that Democrats have been advancing for the past few years. The war in Iraq is a major drag on local Republicans. Same with George Bush. And there is a concerted effort to run on a progressive agenda.
The bad news is that the same right-wing conservative movement that exists nationally is alive and well in Wisconsin. Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce bought and paid for a State Supreme Court seat this past April. There are millions of dollars that will pour into our state by groups like the Club for Growth. The social conservatives are especially vitriolic here. And statewide media is dominated by the same corporatist outlets that exist nationally. Even the major daily paper in liberal Madison is conservative. And there is the power of incumbency for Republicans.
But a lot of good people will be working hard to re-take the assembly, including yours truly. I'll be helping lead a project of Democrats and progressive activists to build the effort needed to win at least three seats. We'll be working with the state party and its Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee and progressive groups to make sure that when the votes are counted in November 2008, Democrats have a majority in the Senate and the Assembly both.
So stay tuned here and over at Take Back the Assembly to hear about why we need a Democratic majority and how that's going to happen. And in the meantime, if you're feeling up to it, head on over to the the ActBlue page for the Dane County Democratic Party, where we'll center our fundraising efforts. Make a contribution of $25, $50, or maybe even $100 if you're feeling saucy. But when you do, leave your mark - make your contribution in a denomination of $.03 - 3 cents extra for 3 more seats in the Assembly.