Wisconsin’s legislative Democrats have been structurally disempowered by the most crooked of political maneuvers. Despite the fact that Wisconsin voters are just about evenly divided politically — out of almost 3 million votes cast for president last year, barely 22,000 separated Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton — both chambers of the Legislature are dominated by the Republicans, who gerrymandered district lines to eliminate competition and prevent fair elections. The GOP controls the Assembly with 64 seats to the Democrats' 35. In the Senate, the split is 20-13.
The federal courts have weighed in, labeling Republican gerrymandering as the unconstitutional assault on democracy that it is. Now the U.S. Supreme Court is considering the Wisconsin case and Democrats are hopeful that the 2018 election cycle might produce honest maps and the prospect of election results that would represent the will of the people — as opposed to backroom deals.
There is reason to hope that the high court will rule on the side of representative democracy, and that there will be immediate action to redress the legitimate grievances of Wisconsinites who have objected to the warped and dysfunctional politics of recent years. But we recognize that, even with new lines, Gov. Scott Walker will still call on out-of-state billionaires to pour money into the campaigns of his legislative allies.
So we have no illusions that the restoration of fair elections in Wisconsin will come easily.
This reality creates a duty for the Democrats that they have not always risen to meet.
Legislative Democrats have every right to gripe about the unfairness of their circumstance. But they must do more than that. They must be a functional opposition party that spells out an absolutely distinct vision of where Wisconsin must go if it is to meet the challenges of the future.
Two months ago, Assembly Democrats signaled their desire to get out of the rut the party has been in by electing a new leader for their caucus: state Rep. Gordon Hintz. A dynamic 43-year-old progressive, Hintz has already brought needed focus and energy to the job with his objections to the crooked Foxconn deal, which steers $3 billion toward a scandal-plagued multinational corporation headquartered in Taiwan rather than supporting businesses that have roots in Wisconsin.
But Democrats have to do more than simply reject the failures of judgment and duty that have extended from the one-party rule of Walker’s Republicans. They must be for something big.
How about a guarantee that Wisconsinites who work full time will never again live in poverty?
That’s what state Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, and state Sen. Bob Wirch, D-Somers, are proposing with LRB-0287, a proposal to increase Wisconsin’s minimum wage to $15, index wages to inflation, and allow political subdivisions to enact a local minimum wage.
This is a necessary response to depressed wages in Wisconsin — an issue that has grown increasingly acute as Walker and his allies have attacked unions and undermined commitments to ensuring that workers are treated with respect in the workplace. A 2015 study conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts determined that between 2000 and 2013 Wisconsin saw the largest decline in middle-income households in the entire country. The reason for this is clear: According to the Center on Wisconsin Strategies, roughly a quarter of Wisconsin workers are employed in so-called “poverty-wage” jobs — meaning that even if they work full time, the wages are so low that they do not earn enough to keep a family of four out of poverty.
Wisconsin has an economic problem. Sargent summed it up when she said: “Wisconsin families are working hard every day — working eight hours a day and 40 hours a week — and still living in poverty. That’s unacceptable.”
This legislation addresses the problem. But it also does something else. It makes a moral commitment to the people of Wisconsin — and to the future. The Assembly and Senate Democratic caucuses should welcome and embrace that commitment by putting the proposal at the center of their advocacy — in the state Capitol and on the 2018 campaign trail.
In so doing, they should proudly and aggressively link economics and morality.
Pope Francis spoke an absolute truth when he said, "Not paying fairly, not giving a job because you are only looking at how to make a profit, that goes against God." Leaders from other faith traditions echo those sentiments, as do secular leaders who apply a moral lens to economic questions.
In this season of Thanksgiving, there is much talk about caring for those who do not have enough to get by. But talk is cheap. Action matters. And political action is necessary.
Legislators of both parties have failed Wisconsin by not moving more aggressively to raise the minimum wage and end the abomination that exists when full-time workers are cheated out of a fair day's pay for a fair day’s work.
Sargent and Wirch are offering Democrats an opportunity to address that failure clearly and unequivocally. We would hope that Republicans would join the Democrats in promoting wage hikes for workers. But if the Republicans maintain their slavish devotion to the moneychangers who choose to impoverish workers in the pursuit of profiteering, then the Democrats will have identified their party as the champion of economic common sense and moral duty. History tells us that such championship can be stronger than even gerrymandering and the legalized bribery that the billionaire class extends to its legislative serfs.
Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to email@example.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.