When Gov. Tony Evers selected state Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, to serve as his secretary of Revenue, Evers embraced a tradition in Wisconsin politics. It is common for governors to appoint legislators to Cabinet posts. Legislators know the workings of government, they understand the agencies they are charged with leading, and they have the added benefit of having obtained approval from the voters of their districts. In the case of Barca, who for many years served as leader of the Democratic caucus in the state Assembly, Evers also gets a Cabinet member who has earned high marks for working across lines of ideological and partisan division.
The selection of Barca also gives Evers an opportunity to renew an essential practice of democracy in Wisconsin: scheduling immediate special elections to fill legislative vacancies.
Last year, former Gov. Scott Walker refused to call special elections to fill vacancies that were created by his appointment of a pair of legislators — state Sen. Frank Lasee, of De Pere, and former state Rep. Keith Ripp, of Lodi, a pair of Republicans who quit the Legislature in December 2017 to take posts with the governor’s administration. Walker signaled last January that he would leave the seats empty until the November 2018 election. That would have left roughly 225,000 Wisconsinites without representation for the better part of a year.
This was not Walker’s only assault on democracy. But it was particularly blatant. The governor was refusing to respect the clear intent of Wisconsin’s statutes, which declare: “Any vacancy in the office of state senator or representative to the Assembly occurring before the 2nd Tuesday in May in the year in which a regular election is held to fill that seat shall be filled as promptly as possible by special election.”
Walker’s tantrum stirred a political outcry. The Capital Times editorialized, watchdog groups objected, lawsuits were filed and the courts intervened. Walker and his Republican allies in the Legislature were so determined to prevent special elections because he feared his fellow Republicans would lose that they even entertained the notion of changing state statutes in order to retroactively undermine democracy.
Finally, the governor backed off and allowed the people to choose their representatives.
But the stain on Walker’s reputation was enduring. He had exposed himself — and not for the first time — as a ruthless political operator who would lie, cheat and steal in order to gain inappropriate and illicit advantages for his partisan allies.
This is one of the reasons why Walker was defeated for re-election on Nov. 6.
Evers knows that he was elected to set a different course. And he intends to do so. When The Capital Times asked him last week about how he would handle the Assembly vacancy, the new governor minced no words.
“No delays,” Evers replied when asked about the vacancy that will be created when Barca joins the Cabinet. “We’ll have that election as soon as we can.”
Evers is so serious about this issue that he even spoke — without prompting — about the challenges of scheduling the special vote in Kenosha to parallel spring elections. (It’s difficult because spring filing deadlines have already passed.)
There will be those who suggest that the calling of a special election is a small act in the overall scheme of things. But we disagree. After the battering that Wisconsin democracy took during the Walker years, we think that every step that is taken to renew and extend the role of voters in shaping the destiny of Wisconsin is worthy of note. And celebration.
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