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Capitol Oaf Watch: Puff, puff, it won’t pass edition

Wisconsin’s new senate majority leader plays same old power politics with cannabis.

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.

Achieving the rank of a true oaf does not always require a particularly off-color remark or an act of performative stupidity. Sometimes it comes down to one’s application of dry political calculus. 

Such is the dull maneuvering that lands Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) in this month’s big-boy oaf seat. LeMahieu is not loud or outlandish. You could replace him by drawing eyes and a receding hairline on your thumb. But let us be expansive in our conception of who can be an oaf. 

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Representing the 9th Senate District, LeMahieu took over the majority leader post to replace one of the Legislature’s most legendary oafs, Juneau Republican Scott Fitzgerald, who recently ascended to the horse’s-ass gallery that is Wisconsin’s Congressional delegation.

Republicans currently hold a 21-12 majority in the State Senate, which gives LeMahieu a lot of power to determine which bills the Legislature will send along to die on Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ desk. In that capacity, LeMahieu made it clear earlier in April that legalizing medical marijuana will be a non-starter. A lot of the reasoning came down to cold numbers, or at least the set of numbers that matter to him.

“First of all, we don’t have support from the caucus, and that’s pretty clear,” LeMahieu said at a WisPolitics.com event, according to Wisconsin Public Radio. “We don’t have 17 votes in the caucus for medicinal purposes or recreational purposes.”

By “the caucus,” he means simply the Republican majority in one of the Legislature’s two chambers. Whether or not there would be 17 votes among all 33 members of the State Senate is immaterial. If the Republicans can’t put something over the top on their own, then it isn’t worth doing, isn’t worth bringing to the floor, and people from Democratic districts don’t have the right to have their representatives weigh in or vote on the issue. If Republicans can’t muster the support among themselves, in conversations that largely take place out of public view, the issue is dead. But when you’re an authoritarian cult hell-bent on one-party rule, why would you even consider it?

Most of the bills Republicans would consider debating would likely not garner much Democratic support anyway, so usually “not enough Republican votes” translates to “not enough votes to pass.” But this cold, numerical power politics is particularly wrongheaded when it comes to the cannabis debate. Some Republican legislators in Wisconsin, including some very powerful ones, have expressed support for legalizing weed to one extent or another. But others still practice a backward, fearmongering approach to the issue. As Milwaukee Record pointed out in February, a lot of our anti-pot Republicans are also jackass mask truthers.

Medical marijuana, at least, has clearly emerged as a consensus issue that largely cuts across party lines, at both a national and a state level. Public polling has found majority support for legalization, even though the majority is smaller among Republican voters. It’s stronger among younger Republican voters, because honestly how many millennials get snookered into voting Republican via the rinky-dink Libertarian movement?

Wisconsin is surrounded by states with varying levels of marijuana legality. It borders two recreational states (Illinois and Michigan) and one medical state (Minnesota). In Iowa, which has a Republican governor and Republican-controlled Legislature, progress is slow, but even Republicans there have shown some support for reducing criminal penalties for cannabis possession.

When Wisconsin’s Democratic governor proposes legalization as part of a budget proposal, it actually isn’t completely impossible that at least some Republican legislators would consider it seriously. We’re talking about a way to raise the state’s revenues without increasing property taxes or income taxes, after all. Granted, that assumes that any Republican officeholders are at all capable of taking reasonable positions on anything, and that their leadership doesn’t strong-arm them back onto the party line.  

This is clearly an area where there is room for debates to be had, compromises struck, and positions evolved—supposedly the things politicians across the spectrum are pining for when they complain about how divided American politics are. LeMahieu has said, noncommittally, that legalization bills outside the state budget process “need to go through the legislative process like any other policy idea.” LeMahieu also expressed reservations about passing state-level cannabis laws that conflict with federal laws. Though such concerns haven’t stopped the Legislature from passing other bills that would do just that. The new majority leader shows every sign that he can grow into Fitzgerald’s big dumb oaf loafers.

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].

Arms growing out of my face, or something, oaf: Robin Vos

Star-spangled oaf: Tony Kurtz

Oaf who wants to remind you that George Floyd “was a criminal”: Van Wanggaard (21 minute mark in audio) 

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