Standing up against gerrymandering brings hope

By Bill Kaplan

Wisconsin used to be the model for governing -- innovative social reforms, protection of the environment and assuring the well-being of the middle and working classes. No longer. A bipartisan commitment to compromise and negotiation with the minority party is retro. Wisconsin has become a laboratory for extremism and hyperpartisanship under GOP Gov. Scott Walker. Why?

The 2008-2009 Great Recession led to rage -"wave" elections in Wisconsin (and elsewhere). Fallout from deindustrialization and unfair trade deals was incendiary. Massive infusions of outside money and gerrymandering skewed state elections 2012-14.

Walker and the GOP-led legislature have consigned the Democratic opposition to permanent minority status with no leverage. Gerrymandering would immortalize extreme unpopular GOP "reforms". Prior to 2011 divided state government and judicial review prevented either party from getting much of an edge. It was not completely idyllic. Former Wisconsin Democratic Rep. Dave Obey said: "I don't think you can trust either party" with redistricting (Idaho GOP Rep. Mike Simpson called "Obey one of Congress's most honest members"). And, former state GOP Sen. Dale Schultz regrets not being more outspoken on this issue.

Both of these legislative giants want an end to hyperpartisan gerrymandering. Obey has called for establishing an independent nonpartisan commission (like one in Iowa) to do redistricting, while at the national level Wisconsin Reps. Ron Kind (D) and Reid Ribble (R) have called for a similar independent commission for congressional redistricting. Schultz has strongly endorsed this approach and more.

Schultz and former state Democratic Sen. Tim Cullen co-chair the Fair Elections Project which opposes hyperpartisan gerrymandering. The group is sponsoring a legal suit in federal court by 12 Wisconsinites challenging the 2011 "secret" redistricting of state legislative districts. These unintimidated citizens have gone big and bold. Their crackerjack Wisconsin and Chicago attorneys / experts have developed a pathfinding "mathematical formula" that shows how GOP legislators schemed to maintain control of the legislature. A three judge federal panel found merit in their suit and it goes to trial in May (one judge was appointed by President Carter (D) and the other two by Presidents Reagan (R) and Bush - 43 (R)). There's more.

The D.C. Campaign Legal Center (CLC), "a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that defends and protects our democracy in the areas of campaign finance, voting rights, political communication and government ethics", has joined the suit as co-counsel. The prestigious watchdog's board includes Charles Fried - former Solicitor General under President Reagan - as well as Tom Mann and Norman Ornstein - scholars and reform experts who set the gold standard for governing. The CLC said: "The plaintiffs look forward to presenting evidence at trial that the plan (Wisconsin redistricting) was drawn in secret, in consultation with a political scientist and without input from Democrats, in an attempt to maximize Republican wins and minimize Democratic influence over the political process for as long as the plan was in place." A court-ordered, less partisan redistricting could lead to more productive problem solving, and offer a model for the nation. Hope.

-- Kaplan wrote a guest column from Washington, D.C. for the Wisconsin State Journal from 1995 - 2009


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