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Capitol Oaf Watch: Dithering Dems edition

It’s been a sloppy and embarrassing few months for the minority in Wisconsin’s Legislature.

Welcome to Capitol Oaf Watch, a Tone Madison column that tracks the horrible, foolish, and absurd things Wisconsin state legislators do and say. Look for it once per month, and perhaps more frequently in the future—keeping up with all the oafery is a tough job for a tiny publication like ours.

How are Democrats going to put up a meaningful fight against the Republican majority in the Wisconsin State Legislature during this term? Coming up with an opposition strategy is genuinely complicated: Republicans have such wide majorities in both houses because they’ve blatantly drawn the maps in their own favor, Democrats have a Governor’s veto to hold over Republicans, but Republicans haven’t shown any willingness to give an inch, because the GOP’s long-term strategy is to amass as much power as it can, mostly illegitimately. 

The majority is as determined as ever to rain holy hell on Wisconsin. In just the past week, Republicans rejected $1.6 billion in federal money that would have funded beneficial projects all over the state simply because they don’t want to expand Medicaid, moved to end the UW System’s tuition freeze, pushed another pointless bill from anti-abortion freakazoid Andre Jacque, held hearings on transphobic legislation, and began putting together their own weird little Stasi. There’s no reasoning with these folks. Democrats need a plan of attack and they need to all get on the same page about it.

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So far, this is not looking like a disciplined opposition. A couple of recent moves in the Legislature indicate that Democrats haven’t really come to terms with what they’re up against. Democrats’ votes and alignment on police reform and the goddamn dumb national anthem will allow Republicans to frame their own actions as “bipartisan,” and these days “bipartisan” usually means Democrats showing the spine of a damp noodle.

One Republican enjoying such an easy win is District 50 Rep. Tony Kurtz. Inexplicably imbued with the life force after accreting on the floor of a Supercuts, Kurtz recently introduced a bill that would require “the playing or singing of the national anthem” before any sporting event at venues built with public funds. That’s all it does. You have to hear the shitty song at the ballgame. Red meat for braying racists who just can’t get over Colin Kaepernick.

We know Republicans are going to routinely do this sort of “freedom fries” stuff. They can’t really help themselves, and they’re all-in on a strategy of stoking bigotry and resentment. In that sense, the bigger oafs are Democrats who cross the aisle to needlessly enable these sorts of things. And in the May 11 vote on Kurtz’s bill, 14 of the 38 Assembly Dems be-oafed themselves by joining the ayes. 

Most resplendent and regal in oafery among them was Minority Leader Gordon Hintz. A good thing for a minority leader to do would be to steer the Democratic caucus away from bills like this, which solve none of Wisconsin’s many real and complex problems. Hintz appeared to mock the anthem bill on Twitter, but I checked multiple times and legislative records do show him voting for it.

If you are in fact leading, maybe set yourself apart from the other side’s crass, opportunistic culture-war pandering. Send a unified statement that you’re not going to buy into rinky-dink patriotism when Wisconsinites are waiting for their legislators to lead us out of the pandemic and the economic hole it’s created. Instead, we have a minority of the Dems, including their leader, voting for this utterly pointless bill, and the rest either casting “no” votes or abstaining. It looks sloppy and weird. What the fuck are you doing, Hintz? This was an easy one. Republicans were going to pass it with or without the Dems anyway. Get it together and show them you’re more than just a pair of pretty eyes.

And so it is that we have a veritable clown car of oafs this month, packed with the other 13 Dems who voted for this silly and vile piece of legislation: Deb Andraca (District 23), Jill Billings (District 95), Steve Doyle (District 94), Evan Goyke (District 18), Tip McGuire (District 64), Beth Meyers (District 74), Tod Ohnstad (District 65), Daniel Riemer (District 7), Sara Rodriguez (District 13), Christine Sinicki (District 20), Shelia Stubbs (District 77), Robyn Vining (District 14), Don Vruwink (District 43).

Pretending to like a dumb song won’t help with re-election. On top of that, indulging bills that waste the people’s time during a crisis in a Legislature with some of the most odious members of an authoritarian cult, should be an obvious “no.” Our legislators need to realize that they are in a fight with dire consequences and start acting like it. And remember that there is a concept called “compelled speech” and it’s unconstitutional. Until then, oafs ye be, one and all!

In the higher chamber, it is District 4 Sen. Lena Taylor who reigns supreme among oafs with a “D” next to their name. Taylor has teamed up with Republican District 21 Sen. Van Wanggaard to push a package of police reform bills. As we’ve already noted, people like Wanggaard are simply not good allies in the pursuit of meaningful change to criminal justice. The task force Republicans formed on racial disparities was a bad-faith exercise in the first place and it’s frankly shameful that even a single Democrat signed on to lend it credibility. 

Four of the bills from Taylor and Wanggaard’s joint effort have so far passed the State Senate. Among other things, the bills create new reporting requirements for uses of force, new funding for “community oriented policing,” and other policies that look nice on paper but won’t stop cops from killing people. 

While teaming up on multiple proposals, Taylor and Wanggaard have also declined to partner on some law-enforcement bills. Taylor does not support Wanggaard’s proposal to cut state funding for cities that reduce police budgets, and Wanggaard does not support Taylor’s proposal to ban no-knock warrants. In fact, in an April interview with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wanggaard called the latter proposal “ludicrous” and “absolutely nuts,” demonstrating that even if you help Republicans, they still won’t treat you with respect. But the cooperation between a churlish Republican ex-cop from Racine and a Black Democrat from Milwaukee creates an irresistible narrative for people who want to think we can gradually reform our way out of the problem.

What’s worse is that some of this legislation will actually reinforce the culture of impunity in policing. One of the bills the Senate passed will require the Police and Fire Commissions in Madison and Milwaukee to include police union-approved members. Under Wisconsin law, local Police and Fire Commissions (PFCs) are the only bodies with any real power over police hiring, firing, and discipline. PFCs, including Madison’s, already do very little to actually discipline cops. They’ll do even less if they’re even more open to pressure from police unions, which are already among the most powerful forces shielding cops from accountability. So, in the name of bipartisan police reform, Taylor has voted for a bill that would make it easier for police to get away with violence and abuse. And she’s aided Wisconsin Republicans in their favorite pastime: sticking it to Madison and Milwaukee. From here, Taylor’s positioning on this reads like a most oafish betrayal.

In all fairness, not all of the Democrats in the Legislature have been feckless on police reform. Milwaukee Assembly members Jonathan Brostoff, LaKeshia Myers, and Supreme Moore Omokunde, for instance, have introduced bills that go much farther. They include proposals to eliminate qualified immunity protections for cops in civil suits, ban no-knock warrants (again, something Taylor supports), and make it harder for cops who violate their agencies’ use-of-force policies to find jobs elsewhere. May these legislators continue to walk a path where no oafs dwell.

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Of course, just about every day in Wisconsin politics involves more than one act of oafishness, so at the end of each Capitol Oaf Watch, we’ll shout out at least a couple other oafs. This time around, they are as follows. If you would like to report an oaf, please oaf-box us at [email protected].

Earning a salary to not solve problems oaf: Senator Mary Felzkowski

“His racist ass” oaf: Representative Mark Born 

Oaf who doesn’t have to listen to you: Representative John Spiros

Transphobic “humor”-enjoying oaf: Representative Shae Sortwell

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