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Waelti: Wisconsin politics - From blue to purple to red
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Wisconsin, once a proud, leading state in many ways, is now adrift, like a ship that has lost its moorings.

Gov. Scott Walker's obsequious lackeys in our gerrymandered legislature axed the Government Accountability Board (GAB), considered a national model that was charged with enforcing political ethical standards and ensuring fair elections. Because it was functioning as intended, the Republican faithful replaced the GAB with two overtly partisan commissions, one dealing with ethics, and one dealing with elections. This is a clear regression, and invitation to improprieties.

The University of Wisconsin, supported by farmers and workers of this medium-sized state, is a world premier university. In a ham-handed attempt, our governor sought to remove its statutorily embedded mission statement that it be a force for the broader public good. After blowback from the public, the governor assured us that this was a mere "drafting error."

National surveys consistently rank Wisconsin's roads and highways among the worst in the nation. A recent survey by researchers using US Department of Transportation data ranked Wisconsin 48th in road conditions. Only Connecticut and Illinois ranked below us.

The list could go on. It wasn't always like this.

Wisconsin's once-progressive tradition is highlighted by "Fighting Bob La Follette." After serving as a congressman and governor, he served as U.S. Senator from 1906 to 1925. He is celebrated as a proponent of progressivism and vocal opponent of railroad trusts, bossism, and the growing dominance of corporations over government.

La Follette ran for resident of the United States as nominee of his own Progressive Party in 1924, carrying Wisconsin and winning 17 percent of the national popular vote. In a 1982 survey, historians ranked him tied for first with Henry Clay as one of the "ten greatest senators in the nation's history" based on "accomplishments in office" and "long range impact on American history."

The University of Wisconsin's contributions to agriculture, science, medicine, and government are too numerous to list, but let's review some public policy examples. Professor John Commons was a labor economist at UW from 1904-1933. He helped develop the state's employee compensation program and civil service law. He was known as the "spiritual father of Social Security." This successful and popular system is based largely on work of two of his students who later became professors in UW's Economics Department. These two economists, Edwin Witte and Arthur Altmeyer, along with one of Witte's research assistants, Wilbur Cohen, were key figures in developing Social Security, and served in the Roosevelt Administration.

Wisconsin's progressive tradition had its glitches, chief of which was the unfortunate and disastrous reign of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, beginning in 1946. The senator from the Fox River Valley rocketed to fame with a speech to the County Republican Women in Wheeling, West Virginia, waving his fictitious list of 209 "Communists in the State Department." Included in honorable careers ended by his false charges were State Department officials knowledgeable of China and Southeast Asia. Had these honorable and knowledgeable men remained in the State Department, tragic foreign policy errors of the 1960s may have been avoided.

In 1954 came McCarthy's televised hearings, intended to expose Communist infiltration in the Army. As people watched him intimidate witnesses, his aura of invulnerability began to wane. When media icon Edward R. Murrow eventually called him out, other media commentators finally found the courage to nail him for the oppressive tyrant that he was.

McCarthy's influence finally ended with censure by the Senate in December 1954. He held his seat until death in 1957 with complications associated with alcoholism.

McCarthy's seat was won by Democrat William Proxmire, who labeled McCarthy as a "disgrace to Wisconsin, the Senate, and to America." Proxmire held that seat for the next 32 years.

During the latter decades of the century, Wisconsin was governed by Democrats and moderate Republicans. Beginning in 1988, Wisconsin was reliably Democratic for presidential elections, having voted for the Democratic candidate seven successive times.

The Tea Party movement in 2010 was ominous, giving us the master of "divide and conquer," Mr. Walker; Koch Brothers' darling, Sen. Ronald Johnson; and total GOP control over the state legislature. The powerful chair of the House budget committee, Democratic Congressman David Obey from northern Wisconsin, was replaced by Tea Party ideologue Sean Duffy.

With the Republicans in control during the 2010 decennial redistricting process, they drew legislative district lines that guaranteed their control for at least a decade.

The consequences of redistricting are understood by too few people.

For a close to home example, Green County was wholly contained in the old 80th assembly district, with Monroe the geographic and demographic center. With redistricting, Green County was carved into three pieces. The more Democratic northern part was peeled off and joined with the already Democratic district that includes west suburban Madison. Instead of being the center of a district, Monroe is now on the extreme southeastern edge of the new 51st Assembly district and the 17th State Senate district that extend west and far north.

Instead of dealing with one state assemblymen and one state senator, our county officials have to deal with three state assemblymen and three state senators, neither of which have Green County as their main constituents.

The broader concern of this system is that it fosters perverse incentives. Instead of voters selecting their legislators, the legislators in power choose their constituents.

Each state has its own method of redistricting. Students of this process observe that our neighboring state of Iowa has a superior system. An independent commission draws the district lines, paying attention to county and municipal boundary lines.

We should credit editorial staffs of our state's newspapers for advocating a reformed redistricting process. However, as long as it's in the interests of those in power to maintain power, and there is no popular outcry, reform will not happen.

Next week: Continuing drift from blue to red.

- John Waelti of Monroe, a retired professor of economics, can be reached at His column appears Fridays in The Monroe Times.