Mr. President, this morning, I announce my decision not to run for re-election this fall. With that, I hope that you will allow me to share a few additional comments about civil democracy.
When my term is up this next January, I will have had the honor to serve as an elected official for 24 years. In those nearly two and a half decades, I have always cared deeply about running a legislature in a way that is consistent with the responsibility of a representative body such as ours.
In my early years as a county board supervisor, I and the other freshmen supervisors organized our large class of incoming county supervisors-- nearly one third of the entire board -- to debate civilly and to persuade veteran members to do likewise.
During my second term in the Assembly, Republican State Senator Ted Kanavas and I undertook to implement the New Patriotism Caucus, an effort by the Harwood Institute to encourage responsible citizenship by voters, the media, and legislators in selected states.
Approximately one quarter of our colleagues from both houses participated in the initial meetings of the New Patriotism Caucus, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, including the current co-chair of Joint Finance, the Senator from the 8th. Republican Rep Al Ott distributed mirrors to all 99 members of the Assembly. His message was that if we wanted a better functioning legislative body, we needed to look no further than ourselves, we needed to “look in the mirror.”
For the past six years I participated in the National Institute for Civil Discourse as a facilitator to other state legislatures to help them determine more effective and responsible governing practices. These efforts met with mixed success, largely dependent on the commitment of the participants.
What I have learned is that responsible governance goes beyond Mason’s Manual or technical rules, it demands building and maintaining a culture of respect – respect for the institution, respect for the opposition party and respect for the voters who entrust us with this awesome responsibility. Without this culture of respect and responsibility, we undermine public confidence in our democratic institutions.
Sadly, a winner-take-all culture has come to dominate not only our political campaigns, but also the way our government operates. As a result, public confidence has eroded at both the national level and right here in our state, which for many years was regarded as a shining example of good government.
I know that many of you share my concern for the integrity of our legislative bodies. A legislature is a human institution like marriage that requires proactive and mindful maintenance and support in order to remain strong.
I believe that we can promote responsible democratic governance at many levels -- from the mundane to the critical, by the individual and the body politic.
On the mundane side, we could assign our physical offices by seniority rather than by majority. This would increase proximity of senators from different parties.
More substantively, we could agree to schedule committee hearings and executive sessions on any bill with bipartisan authorship. This would provide a massive incentive to seek out more bipartisan sponsorship of bills. Bipartisan bills used to be the gold standard legislators strove for. We see this when we have a split legislature. Working together and across the aisle built respect, which in turn strengthened – not weakened – public policy because it would more likely survive a partisan change of the majority.
We could agree to provide at least a week’s notice of agendas prior to committee meetings or floor sessions. This would provide better preparation for meetings and session and would allow a better opportunity for public input.
These changes could be accomplished by agreement or by modifying Senate rules. Other changes require legislation
The most significant legislation that would strengthen public faith in government would be a non-partisan process for mapping legislative districts. Extreme, one-sided, partisan map-drawing results in fewer competitive districts. I know this too well as the 2011 redistricting made my 16th Senate district an overwhelmingly safe Democratic seat. Since the last redistricting, no Republican has challenged me, weakening the public exchange of ideas and opinions and narrowing the voters’ opinions at the ballot box to one.
Safe partisan districts tend to elect the most extreme ideological representatives, hollowing out the moderate middle critical that can form the catalyst for compromise. When redistricting is so manipulated that election results do not accurately reflect the voter’s will, we further undermine public confidence in our electoral system.
None of this is meant to imply that we will not have ferocious disagreement.
I will miss this place. I will miss working with a talented office staff. I will miss working with the professionals in the legislative support agencies.
I will miss fighting for clean water, for better education for both children and adults, for expanded health care for all, and for responsible governance, but I am comfortable with my decision to retire.
In spite of the inordinate influence of powerful special interests and often malevolent social media, our future as a state remains ultimately in the hands of the voters. It is my hope they will make good choices so that all Wisconsinites can prosper and thrive in the years to come.
It is also my hope, Mr. President, that you will find ways to use the power of your office to make this institution operate in a way that respects the voters who sent us here.”
Senator Darling, with unanimous consent, asked that the Senate adjourn in honor of her Chief of Staff, Jerry Ponio, who went to three Rose Bowls, and he got to play with Russell Wilson. That is the claim to fame in the Darling office.
Senator Carpenter, with unanimous consent, asked that the Senate adjourn in honor of Doris Miller, Mess Attendant 2nd Class, who was the first African American to receive the Navy Cross for the courage of his actions during the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. He helped in the evacuation of the West Virginia battleship before it sank and fired a machine gun at Japanese attackers until he ran out of ammunition. He was the son of a sharecropper and the descendent of slaves. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2020, a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier was named in his honor, the first time this had been done in honor of an African American.
Senator Carpenter, with unanimous consent, asked that the Senate adjourn in honor of Senator Hanson and Miller for their decades of public service.
Senator Wirch, with unanimous consent, asked that the Senate adjourn in honor of Ralph Tenuta. Ralph was a kind, generous man who loved his family and community. Ralph ran a great small business in Kenosha.
Senator Fitzgerald, with unanimous consent, asked that the Senate stand adjourned until 6:30 P.M. on Wednesday, January 22, 2020.
4:11 P.M.