After having served a total of approximately 24 years in the Wisconsin Assembly and state Senate, I often hear commentary that the political atmosphere during my 1975-1998 service is in major contrast in agenda, behavior and the reason for serving in political office to that found today. The same observation is being made by those who have served in Congress over a number of decades.
I have not been a part of the Legislature for about the last 18 years, and thus cannot provide a firsthand account of internal operations today, but I am told by those who are still there after many years that things are very different.
I do have vivid recollections of the makeup of the Assembly during my early years, and particularly impressions of my first year, 1975. The most vivid image I have is the number of members who were of a more mature age, and had (or still did) served in local government as town, county, or school board members, or in some other unit of local government. The presence of those with that background made them be very task-oriented, and not strongly partisan agenda-driven. Their local government experience gave them a real worldview that government was to serve the people, and to try to address the problems we face, in spite of our differing political philosophies.
So, while there were partisan differences on what should be done, and how much spent on the effort, no one felt a need to stall government for any valid reason. The state budget, in some form, needed to be passed as there were local units of government waiting for printouts as to what school aid, shared revenue or road aid levels were to be expected so they could in turn prepare their budgets.
With a task-oriented view prevalent, meetings of legislators of both parties were scheduled to try to find common ground. Discussion and compromise on every one's part was possible. At standing committee meetings, especially executive sessions where bills were prepared for advancement to the floor, constructive input was valuable from those who had real world and local government experience.
Compared to today's more recent assault on the local ability to zone or control certain activities, the overall guiding principle was local control. Private group agendas, trying to circumvent various local regulations, were secondary to preserving the ability of local officials to do their job in doing what was best for their area.
The loss of government as a problem-addressing-and-solving mechanism has brought the demise of special study committees such as those compiled over many years by the nonpartisan service group the Legislative Council. These special topic study committees were a respected off-session expectation. Membership usually totaled 15-20 members, with a combination of legislators and public members holding expertise in the topic being studied. Out of these numerous committees each session came suggested legislation, which received priority treatment in the following session due to its respected origin. Gone today, due to special interest domination and self-serving legislators, are those public-serving studies and solutions — which is a loss for all of us.
Socially, while Democrats and Republicans generally dined in separate groups, the commonly used favorite Madison restaurants found frequent conversations and greetings exchanged between party members while in those establishments. Civility and a sense of comradeship was a code of conduct. No one felt inhibited, or was discouraged, from being seen or communicating with a person of another political party. Legislative staffs from both sides of the aisle frequently interacted and held friendships. When traveling to a function, it was not out of the question to carpool with a legislator of a different party.
Many serving in today's Congress and state legislatures seem to have lost the feeling that serving the common good is why they should be holding public office, and that somehow partisan agendas and interests take precedence. Special interest and partisan agendas are the driving force. A younger group, without a history of local government service, has often accepted a view that government is the problem, and that private selfish interests need to be given more rein in what decisions are made. Education on all levels, resource and environmental protection, local control, and many other areas now take a back seat to serving partisan and moneyed interests. A self-and-private-serving attitude has also brought us legislative agendas seeking to protect those with this new mentality, with unregulated campaign financing, gerrymandered safe legislative districts, and restrictions placed on investigations of political misconduct being part of the current legislative legacy.
All Wisconsinites are worse off as a result of this transformation. While not perfect, politics and state government was better back then. We should think about how we devolved over the years and take corrective action to get back to where we were, when the peoples’ interests came first.
Calvin Potter, of Sheboygan Falls, was a Democratic state representative from 1975-1991 and a Wisconsin state senator from 1991-1999. He currently serves on the Common Cause in Wisconsin State Governing Board.
Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.