Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Sorry Dem leggies, but Dane County primaries are a good thing

As I head out to lunch from my bureaucratic job these days, I occasionally see State Sen. Fred Risser gathering nomination signatures around the Capitol Square area. Risser is running for yet another term this Fall. Risser has been in the State Legislature since 1957, and in the State Senate since 1962, and in that time period the City of Madison has grown from just over 125,000 in 1960 to nearly 250,000 today. In those 59 years, there have been whole generations of progressives come and go through the Mad City, but Risser has stayed in office, usually without any challengers from his fellow Democrats. As of this writing, there doesn't seem to be a primary challenger willing to take on Sen. Risser this August, despite the fact that Risser turns 89 next week and would be 93 when his term ends.

The lack of a challenge to Sen. Risser in the growing, progressive city of Madison leads me back to an article that came out last weekend which caused a bit of consternation within certain corners of progressive Wisconsin. It dealt with Fitchburg's Jimmy Anderson deciding to challenge incumbent Rep. Robb Kahl in the Democratic primary election this August. Anderson claimed that Kahl wasn't progressive enough for the district, citing Kahl's vote for Gov Scott Walker in 2010, and in Kahl going along with Republicans on a bill toughening penalties for trafficking food stamps.

Anderson's primary challenge disturbed some established Democrats, including State Rep. Gordon Hintz, who said Dems have a hard enough time in this state without having to use time and resources for intra-party primaries.
"This is such a distraction," said Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh. "Think about this. Hopefully all 35 of us (Democrats in the Assembly) are going to come out strongly for Robb. Every dollar and every door that we do for our colleague is another dollar and another door that we’re not doing in a Republican district that we can win. When we pick up a seat or two fewer in the fall, I’m going to think about these so-called progressive hypocrites that went after this unnecessary seat to make themselves happy or to high-five their friends at the co-op."
Gordon, I like you, and I've cited you plenty of times on this site, but you are way off here. And not just for the tactless "progressive hypocrites/friends at the co-op" slam.

The bigger reason I have a problem with Rep. Hintz's quote is that I don't buy his reasoning. If Robb Kahl is a worthy enough Assemblyman, he shouldn't have to worry about some unknown newcomer knocking him out of office, and he shouldn't need a major effort from other party members to do so (why would they stick their nose into that business anyway?). The district is strongly Democratic, and the winner will likely be unchallenged in the November election, let alone have to spend any sizable resources. And if Hintz is right, and the Democratic Party might fail to pick a seat statewide because one candidate might have to spend a few thousand dollars in August, they have MUCH bigger problems than Jimmy Anderson challenging an incumbent Dem Rep.

Now that doesn't excuse others who went off the deep end in reaction to Hintz's comments, such as Jeff Simpson in Cognitive Dissidence, who gave a childish rant against Hintz and the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, using personal slams and a right-wing framework to do so. I said my piece in the comments section of that column, and there's no need to reiterate them here, but I thought that was every bit as inappropriate as Rep. Hintz's original comments.

There's a better way to question why DPW officials (elected and otherwise) have such a problem with the prospect of primary challenges. Isthmus's Alan Talaga showed how you do it in a thoughtful commentary that ran this week. Talaga turns Hintz's complaints about a lack of Dem seats in the Assembly on its head, and says having primary competition can improve the caliber of Dem candidates, and get their messages out in front of an audience that doesn't hear enough about Democratic positions and values.
Now, putting aside Hintz’s AM talk radio-esque dig at the high-turnout progressive base that gives Democrats even a chance at being competitive statewide, I fully understand what he is doing. The Democratic and Republican caucuses are teams — you show support for your fellow team members. Plus, Hintz is correct when he says that a Democratic purity test is a bad idea. I don’t want a Democratic Party where the leadership Dale Schultz-es any moderates out of its ranks.

A lack of primaries is good for current Democratic officeholders. However, what’s good for incumbents isn’t always good for voters, or the Democratic Party as a whole.

This is a party that needs more leadership at a statewide level. If Democrats are ever going to retake the lower chamber of the Legislature, they need to convince voters they have a plan and an agenda that is more grandiose than “stop the onslaught of horrible, garbage legislation.”
I also like another point from Talaga- a primary challenger would finally give a reason for the politically-active area around Madison to get involved in a Summertime election.
This primary election also gives Dane County Democrats a chance to get engaged in a legislative election in their own district. With the exception of retirements and redistricting, there’s rarely a competitive race for the Wisconsin Legislature in the Madison metro area. That’s somewhat of a natural consequence — there’s a solid slate of people who represent the area in both the Assembly and Senate who draw few serious complaints.

However, the high rates of Dane County incumbency make it difficult to get local people engaged in legislative races. Local races are how you move voters from making social media posts to getting out in the community and talking to other voters. A high-stakes primary has the potential to raise energy for the party, regardless of who wins. Getting local residents mobilized for Kahl and Anderson in the primary — knocking on doors, making phone calls — builds up a Democratic base that can be used to knock on doors and make phone calls in other Assembly and Senate races in the general election.
I can't agree with this more. It is absurd that much of the City of Madison has had the same state senator for more than 50 years, and that's not to rip on the effectiveness or positions of Fred Risser. But don't the voters in this growing, changing city deserve the chance to decide if Risser should be retained or replace him with a potential upgrade? This bowing to incumbents has kept a number of good progressives in Madison from moving up the ranks and making their own name, and it hasn't helped the state party in the last 20 years either, as the ability to promote new names stagnated 20 years ago. Now state Dems are in need of a boost more than ever, but it doesn't help to have the same names stay in the same spots for decades and block others.

There's one other positive to having a primary challenge in Madison and other Dem-leaning college areas- a contested August election is a good reason to get young voters registered and "in the book", which could pay huge dividends for the general election in November. Getting pre-registered would also lessen some of the huge lines Republicans have tried to impose with voter ID and other rigging of elections.

Besides, isn't it better for Chris Taylor to run for statewide office as a Majority member of the State Senate rather than being stuck as a Minority member of the State Assembly? Or have someone like Kathleen Vinehout or Jen Shilling run for Congress after Ron Kind moves on to his next gig after numerous terms in the House? Or have any of Milwaukee's numerous under-40 Assembly and Common Council members move onto DC to speak up for Wisconsin's largest city in place of Gwen Moore?

Oh wait! Did I just say that? It's just a hypothetical, folks. And given that the Democratic Party seems to be OK with having its elected officials be entitled to jobs for life, it wouldn't be anything we'd get to see in the next few years. Even though we should.


  1. Got some explanation fron the Hintz-Kahl side of this story, which I think gives good insight into the worries Dem legislators may have about primaries (beyond their jobs being threatened).

    1. Despite his 2010 vote for Walker and ties to the pro-GOP Operating Engineers, Kahl has apparently worked hard to raise money for Dems, including when Hintz had to ward off big money from the voucher lobby to stay in office after 2014. Some of Hintz's comments stem from that, out of gratitude for Kahl's help.

    This also explains the "distraction" comment, because time and resources spent on your own election take away from time and money that could be used to help other Dems across the state. I can't say I like this answer, as it shows how post-Citizens United realities make fund-raising far too prominent, and it can separate a legislator ftom his/her first job- representing constituents. But it may also be the sad reality in 2016 Fitzwalkerstan.

    2. What might make sense to us in Madison doesn't fly in other parts of the state, where hippie-bashing is still a winning GOP talking point. Hintz's comments reflect how that's a barrier outstate Dems have to overcome. I think that should be flipped on its head to show how backwards GOPs like Jesse Kremer and Jim Steineke are embarrassing and stagnating the state while liberal Madison booms, but I also get why that reality might not work on people who live outstate.

    I'm not saying I agree with these takes, or that they are necessarily good things for the Dem party, but I do understand them.

  2. Gordon Hintz is a total moron, and I agree with 100% of everything Jeff Simpson said. It's not childish to call out Democratic members of the Wisconsin State Legislature for acting like a clique that is only interested in getting their fellow clique members elected, as well as play up the fact that Hintz was fined for sexual misconduct. That kind of clique mentality is what hurt Democrats in the 17th State Senate District primary two years ago. What Hintz did was make the Democratic establishment's clique mentality blatantly obvious to everyone who read the Cap Times article you linked to. Even worse, Hintz made his progressive-bashing remarks in reference to a state assembly race in the Madison suburbs, where the Democratic primary electorate is very progressive.

    1. After talking with a few people recently, I'd say the Party's attitude is more of a team mentality, where if you work for the team, you should be rewarded, and if you don't, then you don't get the benefit of the doubt. And by the way, that lack of benefit the doubt can make them OK with primary challenges in some situations.

      I get where they're coming from, but the obvious problem with that thinking is that it leads to being insular and less independent. And when you haven't been winning much on the state level, you might need to attract more outsiders and new people, or at least expose them to your message.