Republican State Sen. Dale Schultz of Richland Center and Democratic State Sen. Timothy Cullen of Janesville did two things a few months ago that were quite remarkable in the light of the super-charged, partisan atmosphere in Madison (and elsewhere) this year.
For one, they had lunch together. And for another, they decided to spend a day in each other’s districts, trying to get a better grasp of the perspective of people who lived different lifestyles and had different views from the people in their own districts. Schultz represents a strongly rural state Senate district, while Cullen’s district, which includes Beloit, is more oriented toward cities and factories.
Schultz and Cullen agreed on quite a few things: The legislative process in Madison had become too divisive. Good policy requires the support of at least half the people of the state and not just people on one side. Both parties were guilty of pushing through momentous decisions without significant support from the other party – in the case of the Republicans in Wisconsin, it was the collective bargaining bill that triggered an uproar in Madison earlier this year, in the case of the Democrats in Washington, it was the health care bill passed in 2010.
The two decided they should work together on an idea that could change things. They settled on trying to reform the way state Supreme Court justices are selected so that process is less partisan and less subject to influence from special interests.
And they decided to go on the road around Wisconsin with what they labeled their common ground tour.
The tour brought them on Friday to the Law School’s Eckstein Hall for an “On the Issues” session with Mike Gousha, distinguished fellow in law and public policy. “Are you howling at the moon?” Gousha asked them. Will people within political circles listen to what Schlutz and Cullen are saying?
Cullen responded that a lot of people in the Democratic Senate caucus think “I just don’t get it” and that he is too old-fashioned. He agreed there are people in the Legislature “who wake up in the morning to have a olitical war.”
Schultz said he believed there were at least a few other Republicans in the Senate who agreed that there was a need for more “functional” legislation. “I call myself a passionate pragmatist, because I’m not a milquetoast,” Schultz said. “The challenges that face this nation and this state need all of us.”
“We believe we are taking the correct course,” Cullen said of the common ground effort. But, he added, “to restore some sanity to Wisconsin politics may not be so easy.” For one thing, he said, “there’s not big centrist money” to support campaigns by people such as him. The big money is on both the right and the left.
One of the results of Wisconsin’s episodes in all-out partisanship this year is that Schultz and Cullen – and maybe a few others — have gained influence as many people have reacted adversely to heavily partisan approaches. In the aftermath of the August recall elections, the Republicans are down from 19 to 17 members in the 33-member Senate, giving them a one-vote majority. If a matter splits strongly along party lines, one defection among the Republicans stops the action. Schultz downplays his potential role as that one person who needs to be kept on board, but that remains a possibility to take seriously.
The upshot, Cullen and Schultz suggested, is that some major upcoming issues, such as proposals for overhauling the state’s rules on mining or legislation related to venture capital investing, are likely to have a more moderate and even bipartisan tone. Gov. Scott Walker, who was adamant about not compromising during the collective bargaining tumult, talks often now about wanting everyone at the table on issues such as education reform.
Cullen said the altered atmosphere in the Capitol did not mean things that were done earlier this year, particularly the Act 10 revision of labor union powers, were going to get undone now.
Cullen and Schultz are in general agreement that the way Supreme Court justices are selected needs to be revamped so that merit is the main factor. They suggest a process in which a non-partisan panel screens people who want to join the court and recommends a list to the governor, who selects one to serve. Schultz likes the idea of having justices, at a later point, face an election in which people would vote whether to give the justice another term, but without a specific opponent on the ballot at the same time. Cullen is not sold on that idea.
But they each think, as Schultz put it, “it’s time for a citizen movement to take back our courts.” And they’re eager to talk about it, both together and with people around the state, in hopes of coming with a practical plan that could be adopted with wide support.
Which, of course, if you listen to partisans on both sides, is a pursuit that will not succeed.
The “On the Issues” session can be viewed by clicking here.