In a dramatic, late-night hearing on Tuesday, four outraged Democrats on the Joint Finance Committee confronted...
Next Tuesday the Wisconsin state senate will meet in extraordinary session to vote on three redistricting bills. One redrawing state legislative boundaries, one redrawing state congressional district boundaries, and the other to change the law so that the first two bills are legal.
This afternoon the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Utilities, Commerce and Government Operations met in executive session to pass SB 148, 149 and 150 out of committee and onto the full senate. Earlier this week they held a joint session with the Assembly Committee on Homeland Security and State Affairs that entertained nearly 8 hours of testimony from legislative staffers and members of the public.
The Republican plans to redistrict have come to be known as “Fitzmandering” after the gerrymandering schemes of the brothers Fitzgerald who lead both houses of the state legislature. In these plans, districts have been drawn to divide and conquer, creating fewer competitive districts and more solidly partisan ones.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald chose not to attend the public hearing, sending staffers, Tad Ottman and Adam Holtz, in their steads. The two staffers ducked questions about who in particular was involved in directing boundary changes and why the process was moving so quickly. They began to sound like broken records, falling back on “the need to balance competing redistricting principles” of districts with equal sized populations, concerns for communities of interest and minority communities, and concerns for the compactness of districts as their defense of the clearly partisan plans.
Looking at the maps, however, none of that balance is evident. Far from creating compact districts or uniting communities of interest, this plan stretches some like taffy, extending one congressional district 2/3 of the way across the state, while splattering others, Pollock-like, into discontinuous enclaves of partisan division.
In outraged, eloquent testimony, Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign said, “In a democracy voters are supposed to choose their representatives, not the other way around. This does violence to this basic principle of democracy.” Citing the extreme partisan nature of the plan, he went on to point out that, “You are only here because you are under orders to get this completed ahead of the recall elections in August, because you know you could lose total control over the way these maps are redrawn after those recall elections occur.”
Among those testifying against the bill were Andrea Kaminski, Executive Director of the Wisconsin League of Women Voters, and veteran Wisconsin congressman David Obey. Referring to the chaotic consequences of these bills Kaminski said, “As if it’s not bad enough they have to adapt to new voter id laws, the purpose of this is to further confuse voters and suppress voting in upcoming elections. Any redistricting should reflect the tenor of the state and not the tenure of incumbent politicians.” Obey added, “this is a raw manipulation of power in defiance of the public interest.”
Traditionally, state legislative and congressional districts are based on lines drawn by counties and municipalities for supervisory and aldermanic districts. However, SB 150 changes state law to completely reverse the sequence for redistricting. It compels counties and municipalities to wait for the state to finish its redistricting work, and forces them to accommodate their boundaries to state plans.
Juan Carlos Ruiz of the Latino Redistricting Committee of Wisconsin detailed the painstaking efforts that the City of Milwaukee took to engage the community in redrawing aldermanic district boundaries earlier this year. It took weeks of meetings and hundreds of volunteer hours to get an aldermanic map passed that was based on a broad consensus of stakeholders in the city. Now, SB 150 throws all that work in the garbage.
“This is a circus,” said Ruiz of the warp-speed timeline for passage of legislative redistricting. “At least give us an opportunity for us to present you a map. We respectfully ask you to please delay this process at least three weeks so that we can analyze the maps, translate them (into Spanish) and use the process you’ve created for us to participate in.”
Steve Taylor, Republican Common Council Chairman for the city of Franklin also testified in opposition to both redistricting plans and SB 150. “For weeks and months we’ve been working on redistricting. Local control is important and I’d rather have locals decide what’s best for us.” Describing the procedural chaos SB 150 creates for local units of government, he noted, “The city clerk spent weeks working on our 6 aldermanic districts. Our tentative map was approved on July 5. We have a public hearing scheduled for August 2, and the map is already up on our website.” All that will have to change if this law goes into effect.
Another provision of SB 150 requires the Supreme Court to assign a three-judge panel to hear any challenges to redistricting plans. Not only that, it dictates procedures for the Court to use in creating this panel, and cuts out the Court of Appeals from any appeal process. The recent Supreme Court decision in Ozanne v. Fitzgerald held an extreme position based on separation of powers. They concluded that the Courts do not have jurisdiction over the state legislature which is essentially above the law. SB 150 is a radical breach of that very principle, asserting that the legislature has jurisdiction over Supreme Court procedure. One wonders how they will decide when the inevitable barrage of challenges confronts them.
Throughout the hearing on Wednesday, Democratic assembly representative Janet Bewely from Ashland kept asking her chair, Republican Karl Van Roy from Green Bay, why assembly representatives had to be present at the hearing since the Assembly Committee has no vote or meaningful participation in working on these bills.
Senator Jon Erpenbach finally interjected bluntly: “We’re doing a joint hearing to bypass the vote in the Assembly.”
Van Roys: “We’ve been asked to joint this hearing and I’ve accepted that from the leadership.”
Bewely: “I’m asking you to ask leadership to have this go to Assembly.”
Van Roys: “We’re just following procedure. Procedurally there’s never been a companion bill on this.”
Bewely: “Then why am I here today if I don’t have a vote?”
This is a question more and more Wisconsin voters will be asking themselves as they go to the polls under the Walker/Fitzgerald regime.
If you liked this story by Rebecca Kemble, check out "We Need to More Effectively Publicize Wisconsin Struggle." Rebecca Kemble is an Anthropologist who studied decolonization in Kenya. She serves on the Board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and as the President of the Dane County TimeBank.