BRAINERD, Minn. — The ink is dry. The bills are signed. The deed is done — a December sun sets on Madison, Wis., and a new era of charged partisan politics in Wisconsin dawns.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed a bevy of bills Friday, Dec. 14, that limit the power of the incoming Democratic gov.-elect and state attorney general, as well as restructuring of the statewide electoral process looming in 2020. It’s the culmination of efforts by Republican lawmakers in the state House and Wisconsin Senate, who have not been shy about their stated intentions to curb the powers of the incoming liberal regime.
Steve Wenzel, a former Minnesota state representative and political science instructor at Central Lakes College, said there’s inherent risk to this ruthless brand of partisanship — namely, it works well when you’re on top, but there’s always the inevitable backlash from the opposing camp.
“When there’s ever been a party too much in control, there’s been a revolt by the people,” Wenzel cautioned. “It seems to me that the Republicans, led by Scott Walker, they came together and wrote a redistricting plan that was extremely partisan. They did their work for a party exceptionally well to get that kind of result.”
Wenzel pointed to the 1978 election, where the DFL — despite enjoying an imposing supermajority of 103-31 in the Minnesota House in the wake of the Watergate Scandal — ultimately surrendered a landslide of seats back to Republicans because of their aggressive politics. It became known as the “Minnesota Massacre.”
Out-of-state spectators may look at Wisconsin — and similar political sagas playing out in Michigan and North Carolina — and wonder how a party can get such a stranglehold in state institutions.
There are a number of factors at play here, but the root of the issue is how districts are redrawn and who holds the pen. Both major parties have actively participated in gerrymandering at many points in their respective histories.
Minnesota, along with Wisconsin, leave districting responsibilities to the state Legislature — or, as is often the case, the ruling majority party — a traditional approach that’s been criticized as a systemic, institutionalized conflict of interest.
In nine states of the union, an independent bipartisan commission is appointed to draw the districts and a 10th — Alaska — leaves the ultimate authority in the hands of its governor, a statewide-elected official.
Lines drawn in Cheesehead country
State Rep. Robin Vos, the GOP House speaker in Wisconsin, justified his party’s tactics as fulfilling the mandate of the state Legislature, the “most representative branch of government.”
That’s all well and good on paper, but that’s also the crux of the issue, because the Wisconsin state Legislature doesn’t look all that representative — judging by the numbers.
Wisconsin’s state Legislature districts are unconstitutionally drawn to favor Republicans and pigeonhole Democrats, effectively gerrymandered — per a ruling by a panel of federal judges in 2016 — and the results are telling.
In the State House, Republicans maintained their dominance they’ve enjoyed since 2011 — which is to say, they lost one seat to Democrats, bringing the tally to 62 Republicans and 37 Democrats. This, after an election that saw Wisconsinites cast 53 percent of ballots for Democrats against 45 percent for Republicans across the state.
When districts are taken out of the equation for a statewide race, Democrats sweep the Republican opposition.
A brief history of politics in St. Paul
When Wenzel speaks of Minnesota politics, he does so from a unique perspective — a 30-year veteran of the state House, a conservative DFLer and politico who rubs shoulders with a number of figures across the political spectrum.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, redistricting was passed through the state Legislature and then — as was often the case dominated by split government, much as it is now — the issue was then handed to the federal courts for final deliberation, Wenzel said.
That all changed in the ‘90s, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state supreme courts had the final say when it came to redistricting — through it all, it’s been largely a story of split government, where both sides were forced to compromise, Wenzel said. As such, neither side has been able to effectively implement gerrymandering, especially on a scale on par with Wisconsin.
Downsizing in ‘71
Back in the days of yore, when the Minnesota Legislature was still non-partisan (officially, anyway) between 1916 to 1975, the 1972 redistricting process played out oddly between the narrow conservative majority in both houses and the DFL governor, Wendell Anderson.
“What they did was very unusual. They passed a redistricting plan that passed muster with both sides — the conservatives in the (state) House and Senate, as well as the DFL governor,” Wenzel said. “What happened, in the redistricting bill that they passed, they reduced the size of the Legislature tremendously. The districts just became huge, just huge.”
Staring at downsizing across the board — from 134 members to 100 in the House, as well as 67 to 30 in the Minnesota Senate — lawsuits were brought and the Supreme Court weighed in, ultimately overruling the Legislature and drawing up their own map.
Redistricting in ‘81 (and 2001, and 2011)
In many ways, this was a reversal of ‘72 — featuring a Republican governor, Al Quie, locking horns with a DFL majority in the state Legislature.
“We passed a plan. The governor vetoed it. It went to the federal courts and we were back to square one,” said Wenzel, who noted that split government in redistricting years has led to stalemates, whether it’s Gov. Jesse Ventura and a Republican Legislature, or Gov. Tim Pawlenty and a DFL majority.
The “Botched Veto” of 1991
With Republican Arnie Carlson and a DFL majority in the state Legislature, it looked like another take on ‘72 and ‘82 — which is to say, a stalemate between both sides that ended in the hands of higher powers.
“The DFL passed a redistricting plan that favored the DFL House and Senate, and Arnie Carlson vetoed it,” Wenzel said.
However,a loophole was discovered by a young House staffer per the Minnesota Constitution. Once a bill is vetoed, Wenzel said, it’s supposed to go back to its original governing body and signers. Because the bill ultimately went back first to the state Senate and then the House — where it originated — the veto was deemed void by the Minnesota Supreme Court.
As such, the DFLers’ map stood and the ‘90s were dictated by their vision.
Eyes on 2021
With the GOP loss in the state House, it ends Republican hopes to consolidate congressional districts in the 4th and 5th — centered in the Twin Cities metro — which would weaken Democratic representation and enable Republicans to pick up another seat on Capitol Hill.
Now, if the DFL wants to overhaul districting, it will be a matter of taking the Minnesota Senate in 2020 — thereby giving them the majority they require to do so, Wenzel noted. Until then, the one-seat edge by Republicans presents a barrier.
So, could a gerrymandered state on par with Wisconsin and North Carolina be possible in the not-so-distant future?
“I just don’t see that happening here in Minnesota,” Wenzel said.