If the folks at Merriam-Webster are looking for an illustration for the term “career politician,” they could do no better than a photo of Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau. The Chicago-born Fitzgerald was elected to the Senate a quarter century ago, after an ugly primary campaign in which he elbowed aside a respected Republican member of the Senate, Barbara Lorman. He attacked Lorman for being “too moderate,” which was another way of saying that she was willing to work across lines of partisanship and ideology in order to get things done.
Fitzgerald will never be accused of being “too moderate,” or of getting much done. He’s a hard-core partisan whose “service” begins with the premise that protecting his own position and power matters more than the common good. Now, he wants to go to Washington, as the replacement for retiring Congressman James Sensenbrenner, R-Menomonee Falls. Fitzgerald has been working hard to secure the seat, elbowing aside other Republicans and pursuing national money and endorsements. If he wins, as is quite possible in eastern Wisconsin’s overwhelmingly Republican 5th District, he’ll surely do his best to make a fractured and dysfunctional Congress more fractured and more dysfunctional.
So what is it that motivates Fitzgerald to bid for higher office? It’s clearly not the desire to legislate in an effective or meaningful way.
Fitzgerald will confirm his disdain for legislating next week. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers has called a special session of the Legislature to address gun violence. The governor has made two modest proposals, both of which are popular with the voters. Evers wants to expand background checks for gun purchases, and he’d like to see Wisconsin adopt a "red flag" proposal that would permit judges to take guns from individuals who have been determined to pose a risk to themselves or others. But Fitzgerald has announced that the Senate will not consider the bills. No hearings, no debates, no votes.
Fitzgerald can get away with rejecting the actual work of legislating because he has rejected the actual work of electioneering. For most of the past decade, Fitzgerald’s authority has extended not from the voters but from the gaming of the redistricting process that took place after the 2010 census.
The majority leader has enjoyed the benefits of extreme gerrymandering since he and his allies drew legislative district lines that were so uncompetitive that the will of the people is no longer reflected in election results.
In 2018, when Democrats won every statewide contest, Republicans actually picked up a state Senate seat. That year, Republican candidates attracted a few more votes than Democratic candidates. But Republicans also got the most seats in years when Democratic candidates got the most votes.
In 2016, for instance, Democrat candidates won a majority of the vote cast by Wisconsinites for state Senate seats, while Republican candidates took just 48 percent. Yet Republicans won 56 percent of the seats up for election, while Democrats took just 44 percent.
In 2012, a year that saw President Barack Obama and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin secure solid statewide victories for the Democrats, Republicans won most of the contests for the gerrymandered state Legislature. As a study conducted after the election by the nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism report concluded, “In the state Senate, Republicans won six of 11 contested races, including two seats that had been held by Democrats. The Republicans now have a 17-15 advantage in the state Senate, which will likely increase to 18-15 after a December special election in an overwhelmingly Republican district. But the Democrats actually outpolled the GOP in these contested state Senate elections, winning 50.5 percent of the 941,000 votes cast.”
Gerrymandering has been very good for Fitzgerald. Since the new district lines that he helped to formulate were put in place for the 2012 election, he has had no trouble maintaining his grip on his leadership position.
During the years when Fitzgerald’s longtime ally, Scott Walker, held the governorship, the majority leader did not have to think much about actual legislating. He served as a rubber stamp for the governor, and for the out-of-state campaign donors who the two men cultivated.
Since Walker’s 2018 defeat, however, Fitzgerald has been forced into a position where he must be more than a rubber stamp. This could have been a moment when he stepped up and actually did the work of a legislative leader. But Fitzgerald has shown no interest in that work — as it would require him to listen to others, display at least a measure of flexibility, and try to find a small measure of common ground. Instead, in a lame-duck session that was called before Evers took office, Fitzgerald conspired with Walker and the Republican speaker of the state Assembly, Robin Vos, R-Rochester, to rewrite the rules in a way that disempowered the Democratic governor and newly elected Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul.
Evers has still been able to outmaneuver Fitzgerald and Vos, especially on budget issues. And now, the governor is calling for a special session to consider ways to promote public safety, but Fitzgerald’s response is simply to say “no.”
It won’t be any different if Fitzgerald gets to Washington, which ought to give the voters of the 5th Congressional District pause.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising.
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