Over coffee, Terese Berceau apologized for sounding foggy. She was operating on four hours sleep after a state Assembly floor session that lasted until 1:40 a.m.
We talked at EVP Coffee on Midvale Boulevard, smack in the heart of her west Madison district dominated by like-minded progressives. Hours before, the Assembly had adjourned, apparently for the year, and so possibly for the last time in Berceau’s legislative career. She announced last month that she will not seek re-election this fall. Having fought the good progressive fight since her 1998 election, she was reflective.
She was actually not foggy at all, talking expansively about changes she had seen in the Republican majorities and analytically about the path forward.
“I’m really trying to figure out what is different about the Republicans these days, because some of the things are the same, but have sort of mushroomed,” she said. “I learned very early on that they adhere to authority.”
She mentioned Jonathan Haidt, a prominent New York University social psychologist who has explored how liberals and conservatives see the world differently.
“Haidt has written about the fact that a top value to them is respect for authority, which gives them no qualms about sticking together on every vote. It meshes with George Lakoff talking about a ‘father structure.’”
Lakoff is a noted author and retired professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California-Berkeley who writes about the “strict father” predisposition to help explain Republican psychology. I am familiar with both and interviewed Lakoff for a 2015 column. Still, I thought, you might not expect to hear the names of two coastal academics during the first five minutes of a local political interview.
But Berceau, 67, is no ordinary politician. She illustrated her larger point about authority with an anecdote from the recent session. Majority Republicans “decided they had to punish us for being successful with a procedural maneuver to bring up background checks, my universal background checks bill” following the Florida high school shootings.
Separately, Berceau had a bill she co-sponsored that she knew Republicans would like on sales tax exemptions for gun safe purchases. It got a hearing and was headed for the floor in the Assembly’s final session. But after the Democrats’ gun bill maneuver, that changed. “Basically, they didn’t say it, but the message was ‘you guys didn’t behave’ and they were pretty blatant about it, and this happens all through the session. If they don’t like something we say or do during session, then Democratic bills come off.”
She added, smiling ruefully, “So that’s my end-of-session happy note from the Republicans.”
Despite being in the minority for all but two of her 20 years in office, Berceau has made her mark, sponsoring laws requiring judges to consider evidence of domestic violence in custody decisions and requiring insurance companies to cover birth control in prescription plans. She fought against guns, for women’s reproductive rights and to increase the beer tax.
Democrats, she acknowledged, were also capable of political hardball, but she said the GOP is “reshaping the world by fiat.” She added, “I’ve been trying to think of how to describe this group — callous is one way and lacking compassion is another.”
Compared with her early years in the Assembly, Berceau said there is little effort by newer Republican members to know Democratic legislators. “A fair number of them are tea party. I don’t know if they go around saying they are tea party, but I’m thinking they were raised in conservative households and their first recognition of a president was Ronald Reagan.
“Their whole generation grew up with the notion that government is the problem and not anything loftier,” she said. “I mean, that just sort of breaks my heart.
“When I go to Washington D.C., I feel overwhelmed by the history and the sanctity of the place,” she said. “It’s the idea of democracy and just seeing the buildings and going in the Library of Congress, to me it just sort of fills me up.
“Then, in contrast, seeing Walker and Trump playing around in the Oval Office and letting Walker sit in the chair, that sort of thing was almost like playing around with religion to me, like making fun of it.” Berceau was referring to a picture taken shortly after President Trump’s inauguration of him standing behind Gov. Scott Walker, who was seated at the desk in the Oval Office, both men beaming.
She sees very tangible consequences for that scorn of government. Berceau said Walker and GOP state legislators “take care of the people who support them, ripping through everything on behalf of business — removing environmental protections for the Realtors and the builders, basically shredding consumer protections and stripping tenant rights in favor of landlords.
“They always go after Madison, so we can’t set up any of our own policies on wages or hours or worker protections, pointing, of course, to the need for uniformity” across the state.
Even when Republicans do good things, such as programs to address Alzheimer’s or fighting opioid addiction, it’s often because their families have been affected, she said. “They don’t seem to care about problems they haven’t experienced themselves.”
She recalled how she and Walker, when he was still in the Assembly, served on a committee together and how surprised she was at how little the future governor seemed to care about what experts said on incarceration and rehabilitation. “I think we’ve all seen that he, despite his alleged Christian values, doesn’t care about rehabilitation as much as he might talk about it,” Berceau said.
“I saw how a legislator could ignore the recommendations of very educated, experienced people, people of stature.” As a new legislator, she said, “I was stunned.”
Looking forward, Berceau said Democrats must realize that the GOP has mastered the art on focusing on a few themes such as low taxes. “We’ve never been really successful at refuting that” assertion that Republicans are the best guardians of taxpayer money, she said.
“We have seen schools get their money cut drastically by the Walker administration, forcing local communities to hold referendums and raise taxes,” yet voters apparently did not blame Walker and the GOP.
“I want to be part of something that is not happening yet, which is figuring out what’s wrong,” she said. Berceau has said she wants to work on these more existential issues away from the grind of the Legislature, perhaps for the state party.
Berceau is determined to help Democrats make their case. She talked of psychological warfare, how Nike, for example, understands “triggers,” and how it sells the image of those hard bodies, not simply shoes. Democrats, she said, have not figured that out.
She smiled and added, “We need to sharpen our tools.”