The Assembly Democratic leader is leaving his post.
Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, announced his decision in a statement Thursday after a four-hour, closed-door meeting that one lawmaker said focused on debating “leadership.”
“This afternoon I made the very difficult decision to step down as leader of the Assembly Democrats following deliberate, thoughtful discussions. I am grateful to my colleagues for their support over the last seven years,” Barca said. “It has been my honor to work as their leader in the fight for family-supporting jobs and an economy that works for everyone. Assembly Democrats have always fought to do what is right for Wisconsin families and workers.”
Barca’s resignation — effective Sept. 30 — came after the meeting in a conference room at the U.S. Bank building on the Capitol Square during which some Assembly Democrats were planning to raise the question of whether Barca should be replaced.
Some members of the caucus have privately expressed skepticism over Barca’s leadership as minority leader.
Last month, Barca was one of three Democrats to join majority Republicans to vote in favor of a nearly $3 billion tax incentive package to lure Taiwanese electronics giant Foxconn to southeastern Wisconsin, a project that could bring jobs and research money to his district.
No replacement was named Thursday, a Barca spokeswoman said.
Some Democrats left the meeting Thursday visibly upset. More than a dozen lawmakers refused to comment on what happened during the meeting when approached by the Wisconsin State Journal and wispolitics.com.
“Not going to (comment) — Peter’s a great friend of mine,” said Rep. Don Vruwink, D-Milton.
When Rep. Christine Sinicki, D-Milwaukee, was asked what lawmakers were debating in the closed caucus meeting, Sinicki said, “Leadership.”
And when asked if lawmakers were debating whether to replace Barca and if she supported him as minority leader, Sinicki said, “I’ll put it this way: I’ve always supported Peter.”
She later told Wisconsin Public Radio: “We have a group of fairly young legislators who pretty much led this coup who feel that our current leader is not moving the caucus forward.”
Barca said in his statement that Assembly Democrats “ended our discussion this afternoon with a very constructive strategy session, and we are very focused on the work we must do to improve Gov. Walker’s short-sighted budget. We are well prepared for the work ahead.”
He declined to speak with reporters after the meeting.
Leader since 2011
Barca has been the leader of the Assembly Democrats since 2011, the year Gov. Scott Walker successfully pushed legislation that nearly eliminated collective bargaining for most public employees, thereby crushing a significant source of state Democrats’ fundraising through union membership losses.
That was the same year a new legislative district map went into effect. The map is being challenged in U.S. Supreme Court by a group of state Democrats who argue the plan was designed to heavily favor Republican candidates in state legislative races, giving them a built-in advantage to retain a large majority of seats in Wisconsin’s legislative houses — despite statewide vote totals in presidential races that typically split nearly evenly between Republicans and Democrats.
In the 2016 election, Assembly Democrats expected to gain at least a few seats in the contest. Instead, alongside a surprisingly strong showing by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, the GOP caucus returned all of its incumbents.
Republicans also gained one seat in the 92nd Assembly District, where Treig Pronschinske, R-Mondovi, beat Rep. Chris Danou, D-Trempealeau.
Assembly Republicans now have a 64-35 edge over Democrats in the Assembly, their largest majority since 1957.
Flak from colleagues
Barca was criticized by Rep. Lisa Subeck, D-Madison, recently after he voted as one of three Assembly Democrats to support the $3 billion taxpayer incentive for Foxconn.
Subeck accused Barca of failing “on all accounts” of differentiating his views on Foxconn with that of the rest of Democrats, according to The Associated Press.
Rep. Jimmy Anderson, D-Fitchburg, in a statement last month to the Wisconsin State Journal, echoed many of Subeck’s concerns.
“I get that Rep. Barca believes that Foxconn will be good for his district, but the vast majority of the caucus disagreed with the Foxconn deal,” Anderson said. “What resulted was a confusing display of contradictory public statements and more complaints about the process rather than the very serious substantive concerns about the bill.”
Barca should have let another Democrat serve as the voice of the caucus during that debate, Anderson said.
State Republicans said Barca’s announcement is related to the Foxconn vote.
“Peter Barca took a reasonable vote in favor of good-paying Wisconsin jobs, and his extreme Democrat caucus ousted him for it,” said Mark Morgan, executive director of the state Republican Party. “Until Wisconsin Democrats offer real ideas and a message that will connect with the lives of hard-working Wisconsin families, they’ll remain in a dangerous race to the left. Wisconsin Democrats are in complete state of disarray and it’s only getting worse.”
State Journal reporter Mark Sommerhauser contributed to this report.