Donald Trump confirms on a daily basis that Republicans can be dishonest, dishonorable and, if we’re honest about it, loathsome. But is Trump really the most reprehensible of the political grifters who have taken over the once honorable Republican Party? Sadly, no.
If the measure of true terribleness is cruelty, then Trump has plenty of competition, in Washington and in Wisconsin.
Consider the case of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester.
Vos serves as speaker not because he or his party is particularly popular in Wisconsin but because he and his allies gerrymandered district lines for Assembly seats so radically that the will of the people is not reflected in the makeup of the chamber.
In 2018, 1,306,878 Wisconsin voters backed Democratic candidates for the Assembly, while 1,103,505 Wisconsin voters backed Vos’ Republicans. If the makeup of the Assembly were roughly reflective of the will of the voters, 53 Assembly seats would be held by Democrats, 45 would be held by Republicans and one might be occupied by an independent.
But the current gerrymandering is so extreme that Vos’ Republican caucus has 63 members, while the Democratic caucus headed by Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, has just 36 seats.
That’s absurd. But not as absurd as what Vos has done with his illegitimate power. A long habit of governing without having to take seriously the will of the people leads to callousness with regard to democratic norms and the basic requirements of civility. This is generally true. Vos, however, has taken things to extremes.
Immediately after the 2018 election, Vos led an effort to disempower the Democrats who had won every statewide post that was on the ballot. The lame-duck power grab made it harder for newly elected Gov. Tony Evers to do his job, even though the voters had turned out former Gov. Scott Walker in order to put Evers in charge. The Vos power grab also undermined the state’s newly elected attorney general, Josh Kaul, who the voters had chosen to serve as the state’s chief law enforcement officer.
But Vos did not stop there. Once the legislative session began, he made it his mission to give state Rep. Jimmy Anderson, D-Fitchburg, a hard time.
Anderson, who uses a wheelchair, is one of hardest working and most engaged members of the Assembly. To ensure that he could fully participate in committee meetings, he asked in January to be allowed to phone into some sessions. He explained that it can be physically difficult for him to get to meetings that begin early in the day. Additionally, he explained that it is not healthy for him to remain in his wheelchair for long periods of time.
What Anderson proposed was accepted practice in other legislative bodies — including the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Senate. Yet Vos opposed the request, dismissing it as “disruptive.” He accused Anderson of not being serious and charged that the Democratic legislator was engaging in "political grandstanding.” Those remarks stirred an international outcry, and rightly so.
The speaker was trying to present himself as the victim in a dispute with a man who has been paralyzed from the chest down since 2010, when a drunken driver smashed into the vehicle he was in. That accident killed Anderson's parents and brother. Anderson’s story of rebuilding his life, graduating from law school, starting the nonprofit group Drive Clear, and getting elected to the state Legislature is an inspiring record of perseverance and achievement. Yet Vos had the audacity to criticize Anderson’s public statements about the need to make accommodations for Americans with disabilities. "This is an unfortunate way to communicate,” wrote the speaker in a letter to his colleague. “It calls into question your seriousness.”
Even for Vos, that was a stunning line of attack.
It wasn’t just that Vos was being cruelly dismissive of a reasonable request from a fellow legislator. Vos was sending an ominous signal to people with disabilities who speak up for themselves on the job. The speaker was rejecting the legal and moral intent of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Vos and his Republican colleagues felt the heat, but resisted acting until last week. But even then, they got it so wrong that Anderson was forced to oppose the reforms he had requested. Initially, Vos tried to attach the provision that permitted calling in to committee meetings to a sweeping set of rule changes that were designed to undermine the governor’s veto power. That scheme crashed and burned when Anderson and others said that would oppose the proposal. Then Vos and the Republicans separated the proposals. But they still refused to address key elements of the request made by Anderson.
It was a grotesque charade.
When it comes to cruelty, Vos really does give Trump a run for his money.
We know Trump operates on a bigger stage and does more harm. We understand how awful he can be. We have watched in horror as the president has deliberately mocked people with disabilities. But Vos has shown he can be just as cruel as Trump. He has used his illegitimate authority — a speakership obtained via the most crooked of all political ploys: gerrymandering — to disrespect and disregard a reasonable request from a legislator who has overcome tremendous adversity.
There is plenty of shame to go around in today’s Republican Party. But don’t lie to yourself and imagine that Trump is always and inevitably the worst of the lot. When he puts his mind to it, Robin Vos can be every bit as shameful as his president.
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