State Sen. Dale Schultz at his farm near Richland Center.

‘I’m not focused on the next election.’

It’s one of many predictable, easily dismissed platitudes that politicians regularly feed the press. In politics, the next campaign is everything.

But state Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, just might be telling the truth when he says it. Faced with a daunting primary race next year in which most insiders consider him the underdog, the veteran legislator has hardly bothered to raise any money to match his opponent, state Rep. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green. In the most recent reporting period, Schultz reported raising a meager $684 compared to Marklein’s $94,000.

Schultz seems annoyed when I called last week to ask if he is still undecided about running for re-election or whether he may run as an independent, as some have suggested.

“Same thing I said in February,” Schultz answers. “I’m not focused on that right now.”

Two years ago, the idea of Schultz facing a primary, let alone losing one, would have been unthinkable. A fixture in southwestern Wisconsin politics since winning his first legislative race in 1982, Schultz was the Senate majority leader as recently as 2005, when he was elected by a coalition of moderate and rural Republicans over the current majority leader, Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, who was largely supported by conservatives from southeastern Wisconsin.

Now Schultz is viewed as a RINO (Republican in name only), a perpetual target of scorn from conservative radio hosts and bloggers. Whereas most incumbents can be assured of the support of party leaders when they face a primary challenge, Gov. Scott Walker and Schultz’s legislative colleagues have avoided speaking up on his behalf.

Marklein, who could not be reached for comment on this article, resisted bashing Schultz in an interview with The Capital Times in April. However, he has emphasized his support for the Walker initiatives that Schultz has opposed, including the recently approved mining bill and Act 10. He’s confident that he will win.

“I heard from a lot of people throughout the district, so I wouldn’t be doing this if there wasn’t support,” he said at the time.

So what is it exactly that has changed? Is it Schultz? The Republican Party? The people of Wisconsin?

Answers to those big questions can wait. Up first is a thorough tour of the 210-acre farm in western Sauk County that has been in his family for over a century. He enthusiastically describes the fields of corn and soybeans, as well as the flora and fauna that inhabit the surrounding hills.

Finally, at my prodding, the discussion turns to politics. How and why did he join the Republican Party so long ago? Was it a family tradition?

Not at all, he says.

“I’m the black sheep of my family,” he chuckles. “My brother has a blue fist on his window,” he adds, referring to the ubiquitous union solidarity symbol of the 2011 protests. Most of his other five brothers and sisters, he says, are also Democrats.

“My mother grew up in a Democratic socialist family,” he recalls, invoking the “s” word — a term rarely uttered even by progressive Democrats — as matter-of-factly as a political theorist. There’s no hint of contempt or regret, and he has no story about how he rebelled against his family or arrived at a moment when he determined their views were wrong.

On the contrary: His mother, a Madison attorney, instilled in him the values of independent thinking and tolerance.

“It was very important for her to have her kids sit down at dinner every night having read The Capital Times — we got The Capital Times! — and then be able to discuss issues,” he says. “Being a free thinker was important to my parents, that we should be able to think for ourselves.”

In increasingly polarized Wisconsin, it’s no wonder Schultz may be forced to call it quits soon.

Schultz and Walker

Schultz’s first impression of Scott Walker was very positive. He was one of the first Republican legislators from outside of the Milwaukee area to endorse the then-Milwaukee County executive during his run for governor in 2010.

“I did not know Scott Walker well but I could see that he was a guy who would follow through and that was attractive to me,” Schultz says.

He was also impressed by Walker’s bold promises to cut government spending and spur job growth through pro-business policies.

“I wanted him to succeed,” he says. “I was one of the people in the Republican caucus who said, ‘We need to make a measurable impact on job creation.’”

And then came Act 10, Walker’s signature legislation that stripped public workers of most of their collective bargaining rights.

“I had not at all realized the revolutionary nature of what was going on,” he admits.

To Schultz, any money saved as a result of gutting unions would not make up for the damage in morale and the disruption of labor balance that Schultz says the state had benefited from for decades.

“If you talk to any municipal official, they’ve got tons of horror stories about union shop rules that are inefficient,” Schultz says. “But on the other hand, when you see people being abused and the callous attitude toward the working individual in our society, you know something has to be done. Collective bargaining was an honest attempt to try to get people to use a mechanism to resolve our disputes so we could all go forward together.”

While other Republicans predicted the backlash to Act 10 would be quick and relatively painless, Schultz feared for the worst — a return to the labor disputes that preceded the state’s binding arbitration law, including a bitter teachers strike in Hortonville in 1974 and a statewide prison guard walkout in 1977.

“This state has a long history of labor strife,” he says, listing off other prominent strikes throughout the state’s history in both the public and private sectors. “In many ways, it defines who we are.”

In vain, Schultz tried to broach a compromise with the governor in which collective bargaining rights would be suspended for only two years. It was an attempt, he says, to avoid what he calls a “win-lose” situation. The governor was not interested.

While Schultz was seeking a compromise that would still allow the legislature to rein in public spending, the governor and other GOP leaders had a political objective in mind that would not be accomplished with a temporary suspension of collective bargaining.

“It was about busting unions,” Schultz explains.

It’s not as if Schultz has been a reliable union supporter throughout his career.

“I’ve fought with big labor as much as I’ve fought with big business,” he says. But while other Republicans cast unions as nothing less than public enemies, Schultz sees them as an important check on the power of employers.

“Absolute power is a dangerous thing,” he says. “When it’s always a win-lose situation and one side’s always losing, you strip people of their dignity. They lose hope and they get angry. I think that’s what 125,000 people came down to Madison to tell us. They didn’t believe what was going on was fair.”

Schultz believes those who think independently or seek compromise are viewed as threats by the special interests, which finance campaigns with the expectation of dictating policy once their preferred candidates take office.

“I think increasingly legislation is coming to the legislature entirely pre-packaged,” says Schultz. “And anybody who wants to work on it, who wants to think about it, or wants to change it gets in trouble.”

Case in point: The mining bill.

“Over in the Assembly this bill arrives, nobody is the father of it until (the Republican leadership) all stood up and said, ‘I’m Spartacus,’” he chuckles.

“Silly us that thought we were going to have some opportunity to impact something,” he adds, referring to the alternative mining proposal he worked on with Sens. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, and Bob Jauch, D-Poplar.

For what purpose do people even pursue elected office these days, he wonders.

“When some think tank comes up with the legislation and tells you not to fool with it, why are you even a legislator anymore?” he asks. “You just sit there and take votes and you’re kind of a feudal serf for folks with a lot of money.”

And yet the will to crush the opposition in today’s political climate extends beyond matters that interest big-money donors. Some Republicans seem to have made a sport out of stomping on liberals, or perceived liberals. Schultz cites the crackdown on the Solidarity Sing Along at the Capitol.

“I think it is a sideshow designed to divert people from the real issues,” he says. “I mean, many days there weren’t even many people there anymore. Well somebody had to prove we could bang heads and we could rip their faces off and get ‘em in line, so they come in with the heavy hand and what’s the natural reaction? Ten times as many people showed up. Now, what did that solve?”

Perversely, senseless policy is sometimes good politics.

“I think people who don’t want to work on real solutions find it easier just to gin up the base these days to score political points rather than sit down and have a real discussion of the issues,” he explains.

As much as Schultz appears to dislike base politics, he rejects the term “moderate,” which implies a certain political ideology. He prefers instead to identify with his desire to work for solutions. His term: “Passionate pragmatist.”

From another era

It’s certainly not that Schultz, 60, has softened after 30 years in public office. State politics has just become much more polarized.

For instance, recalling his first campaign for Assembly in 1982, Schultz can’t say who the more “conservative” candidate in his Republican primary was. His own message to GOP primary voters was relatively apolitical: he emphasized his commitment to listening to constituents and representing their concerns in Madison.

He describes the Democrats of the time as typically more closely aligned with unions and more aggressive in advocating for social welfare programs and increased environmental regulations, but the political parties weren’t ideologically defined as they are today.

“There were all kinds of Democrats who were to the right of some Republicans and in the middle there were people in both parties,” he says. “And those people in the middle sort of ran things.”

His description is echoed by Bob Schwoch, a UW-Madison professor of public relations who was an aide in the late 1980s and early 1990s to conservative Democratic Rep. Peggy Krusick and later moderate Republican Sens. Peggy Rosenzweig and Carol Buettner.

“Those middle people had a lot of power because the party discipline wasn’t such that you had to vote with the party,” Schwoch says. ”There was real negotiation going on.”

In particular, the agenda in the Senate was often driven by a group of moderate Republican women, some from the reddest parts of the state. One of them was Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, who at one point sat on the board of her local Planned Parenthood. Darling has become a reliable conservative, including on reproductive rights issues.

It was during that period that legislative leaders began to get active in statewide political fundraising.

According to Jay Heck, who was a staffer from 1988 to 1992 for the state Senate Democratic Caucus, politics was tough but quaint compared to what emerged when Waukesha Rep. Scott Jensen took over the Assembly GOP Caucus and Madison Sen. Chuck Chvala assumed leadership of the Senate Democrats.

“You could also see the difference start to develop,” Heck says. “Both were far more partisan than their predecessors. Both saw politics as a bloodsport.”

According to many old-timers, the influx of third-party money and aggressive fundraising by legislators led to a burgeoning political consulting industry, staffed by strategists who are disconnected from the day-to-day realities of governing and indifferent to the effects that mudslinging, slander and other staples of political campaigns have on state government’s ability to function.

Former Republican operative Bill Kraus, who left the GOP in the 1990s, remembers a time when those running for office in Wisconsin hardly raised any money and viewed large contributions as a potential political liability.

“We believed accepting anything more than ($100) would do more damage than it would help,” Kraus says. “You didn’t want to appear beholden to anybody outside of your district.”

Furthermore, he adds, until the 1980s the state political parties were the main fundraising organs. With the exception of Joe McCarthy, who Kraus calls an “aberration,” the state parties kept extremists out of power.

“We marginalized those people and now they’re in charge,” Kraus says matter-of-factly.

Not only had business interests not fully begun to engage in a campaign to dramatically reduce the size of government, but the religious right had not yet developed into a bonafide political force. As both of those trends accelerated throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, many moderate Republicans in the state Capitol found themselves getting nudged out of the party.

In 2004 then-Senate Majority Leader Mary Panzer, R-West Bend, lost in a landslide primary election to state Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, who highlighted Panzer’s position on abortion (she believed in exceptions for cases of rape or incest) and blamed her for failing to push approval of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which would have required all tax increases to be approved by referendum.

“It’s very clear the parties have polarized but also that more of the movement has been Republican movement to the right,” says Marquette University Law Prof. Charles Franklin. “Whereas over the last 12 years or so, the Democrats have been relatively stable but further to the left than they were 30 years ago.”

If Schultz, who voted to bar gay marriage a decade ago and is opposed to abortion except for cases of rape and incest, chooses to run for reelection, he would be in a similar situation as Panzer. That’s why many believe he either won’t run or will lose badly. Although his district, which leans slightly Democratic, is a very different beast than Grothman’s solidly red section of southeastern Wisconsin, the GOP primary electorate will not be moderate. It is unlikely conservatives will forgive Schultz’s prominent displays of dissent from the governor.

But Schultz doesn’t buy the conventional wisdom.

“Without a doubt I’ll win,” he says.

In the meantime, Schultz has not given up hope on influencing the legislative process. Even in such a polarized political environment, he insists centrists can still play a crucial role. He claims partial credit, for instance, in Walker’s decision to veto a GOP-authored budget provision to bar the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism from operating on the UW-Madison campus.

Indeed, in most ways, he has stuck by his party. Asked who he voted for in last year’s recall election, he responds without hesitation: “I voted for Scott Walker.” 

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Jack Craver is the Capital Times political reporter, focusing on elections, candidates and campaign finance.

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