Monday, December 10, 2012

Redoing redistricting


By Bill Kraus

Legislative leaders have never been unimportant to the workings of this democracy. Nor have they had the kind of roller coaster ride like they’ve been on the last four decades.

Years of stability came to an end with the Watergate reforms of the early 1970s which ended the dominant role of the political parties, political bosses (remember them?) and precinct politics (if you haven’t read it, go to the library and pick up the slim volume Plunkett of Tammany Hall) in picking the legislators the leaders were to lead.

What those reforms were intended to do was correct the fundraising abuses by the Republican Party in Nixon’s 1972 campaign. When the law of unintended consequences intruded, those reforms drastically diminished the dominant role the parties and their bosses had in raising money which ended their equally important role in recruiting and slating candidates and in the management of campaigns for those they dubbed and funded.

Political Action Committees (PACs) appeared. Political contributors no longer had to donate through the filter (“the kinder mistress” the late, great Ody Fish called it) of the party finance committees.

Candidates became entrepreneurial and beholden to neither the eviscerated parties or to the legislative leaders.

The legislative leaders reacted quickly to this. They set up their own campaign committees and caucus staffs and redirected the flow of PAC and other money through them. They got their mojo back.

They went too far and set themselves up for a fall when an alert reporter found out people on these state payrolls were working on campaigns instead of government duties.

The leaders' power dropped like a rock as people went to jail and/or into disgrace.

But politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Governor Dreyfus years before had made an effort to bring the parties back into power by proposing PAC reforms which raised the limits that PACs could donate but mandated that those donations go to the parties not to individual candidates or to the legislative leaders’ organizations.

This idea went up and down the proposal flagpole so fast hardly anyone even noticed it. It did not see the light of day all these years later when the vacuum appeared. Nobody in power it seems wanted to share it with the parties.

The role the leaders had inherited when the parties floundered for lack of money was still theirs. They just had to be more careful in its execution. They quickly learned that the burden of raising the large amounts of money needed to fund 132 legislative races was beyond daunting, maybe impossible.

At this point it is probably redundant to point out that legislative leaders under pressure are nothing if not creative. What follows is going to sound like a conspiracy theory except it isn’t theoretical. It happened.

The solution to the need for the sums of money required to take over the election process without reviving the parties or resorting to the kinds of arm twisting that courts prosecute was to reduce the numbers of legislative elections that were really contested and would need significant funding.

It took time, but in the 2012 districting all the Wisconsin congressional districts were made so safe for one party or the other that spending large amounts of money in those elections would be somewhere between extravagant and wasteful.

The same was true of a huge preponderance of elections for the state Legislature. Let’s be generous and concede that there were real contests in November of 2012 for 10 percent of the seats where either of the two major party candidates had a chance to win.

This was achieved by redistricting. The weapons were a combination of creative mapping and collusion. They worked. For the legislative leaders and for the invincible incumbencies redistricting created.

There is a move afoot to change the way we carve the state into legislative, including congressional, districts, that isn’t driven by a desire, a need to have fewer competitive elections. The earliest opportunity for this to be put into practice is after the 2020 census.

All of the options for disinterested districting after the next census depend on removing the mapmaking from the hands of the incumbent officeholders who will be in office in 2021.

For this to happen those who have the power to district today, and their leaders, have to be willing to surrender this power for the greater good of representative government and governability itself.

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