It may seem to Democrats in the Wisconsin Assembly that having been gerrymandered into the minority, it is impossible to soon become the majority. But the impossible in politics is often the inevitable.
How so? Two ways.
First is the history of elections that changed the partisan landscape regardless of past voting behavior. Districts may remain the same but voters change. This is often abetted by hubris — the party in power thinking and acting as if it will always be in power.
Consider the politicians sitting in the safe gerrymandered district: "politico gerrymandus." A puffed up, rooster-like specimen.
Evolution has passed them by. They are now capons and are eating kernels of corn that have fermented — they are tipsy. Crowing not just at sunrise but all the live-long day.
Like Chanticleer, the rooster in "Canterbury Tales," these politicians start to trust the fox that flatters them. "Why campaign?" asks the fox. "You are safe. You are loved. You speak the truth."
They don't hear the the fox's soliloquy to their voters: "His truth is blather. Kick him out of the barnyard." Then the fox waits — for the next election.
Enough of this fowl humor. What are the elections the Assembly Democrats should look to where the voters changed?
In the 1931-32 session of the Wisconsin Legislature there were two Democrats. They were outnumbered by the eight socialists. The other 89 legislators were Republicans.
In the 1932 election of Franklin Roosevelt, 60 Democrats were elected to the Wisconsin Assembly. Many had to be called to be told they had been elected. Pundits rated the chances of their election less than that of a three-legged horse winning the Kentucky Derby. (The winner of the Kentucky Derby in 1932 was Burgoo King, who went off at a 6 to 1 shot.)
Cornelius T. Young of Milwaukee was elected speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly at the tender age of 25. The former U.S. minister to Norway, Madison Mayor Albert Schmedeman, was elected governor.
A very good thing Democrats fielded candidates throughout the state that year. A lesson.
Perhaps a repeat of 1932 is unlikely. However, it is reasonable to expect 2020 to be an election like 1976. I remember it well, as I was then first elected to the Assembly.
Ronald Reagan challenged the incumbent president, Republican Gerald Ford, weakening him considerably. And the least likely person to win the nomination, Jimmy Carter, won the nomination and went on to defeat President Ford.
The Democrats in the state Assembly increased their majority and won every district the numbers had said were safely Republican.
The second reason the Assembly Democrats should take heart is the reapportionment cases now before the U.S. Supreme Court regarding gerrymandering in North Carolina and Maryland. If the court sides with the plaintiffs, saying yes, there is such a thing as partisan gerrymandering, then the 2016 Wisconsin reapportionment litigation remains very much alive. There, a panel of federal judges ruled the Wisconsin Assembly was indeed gerrymandered to favor Republicans.
Just like that, there would be a mandate that a new map of Assembly districts be in place for the 2020 election, either through an act of the Legislature — it would be impossible to gerrymander again with Gov. Evers' veto threat hanging over the deliberations — or by the federal court drawing the districts, which has happened repeatedly in Wisconsin.
Regardless of how the court rules, there will be a reapportionment after the 2020 census and Gov. Evers has the power to veto any legislation putting forth a map that is gerrymandered.
It is not a new fight. I am sure you recall the British Parliament's Reform Act of 1832, when the Cornish district of East Looe was abolished because it represented only 167 houses and 38 voters.
So, Assembly Democrats, recruit Democratic candidates in every district, even though those districts are gerrymandered. Build on the terrific crop of candidates who ran in 2018 despite being told they couldn't win.
Know what the fox knows.
Footnote: Historical partisan voting patterns for the Legislature changed for a generation when Pat Lucey was elected governor in 1970. Assembly Republicans were swept from power, even those is safe seats. The Democrats went from 48 seats to 67 and held the majority for 24 years.
Tom Loftus of Sun Prairie is a former member of the UW Board of Regents and speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly, and was the Democratic candidate for governor in 1990. He was ambassador to Norway from 1993 to 1998. From 1998 to 2005 he was the special adviser to the director general of the World Health Organization.
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