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How Redistricting Changed Wisconsin Politics


The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday in a case from Wisconsin that could change the way legislative districts get drawn across the country. The redistricting plan being challenged has already changed the types of bills the state legislature is willing to pass. Wisconsin Public Radio's Shawn Johnson reports.

SHAWN JOHNSON, BYLINE: The Wisconsin Legislature used to include more people like Dean Kaufert.




JOHNSON: Kaufert served 24 years as a Republican state representative and was considered relatively moderate. Now he's the mayor of a small city near Green Bay. Kaufert tells the fire chief that being a legislator was a lot different in the early 1990s.

KAUFERT: It used to be a lot of fun. It used to be you could have a beer, sit and have dinner, talk about, hey, where's your kid going to college this year? Blah, blah, blah. If you're seen with a Democrat now at night, the next morning, people are like, what'd do you talk about?

JOHNSON: Kaufert says that change started well before 2011, when Republicans redrew Wisconsin's legislative districts. But he says it might have been accelerated by redistricting. It's not just the culture of the legislature that's changed. It's what they pass. Kaufert says without that new legislative map, Wisconsin Republicans probably would not have approved a so-called right-to-work law to weaken private sector unions.

KAUFERT: It probably wouldn't have happened because there were always people there when I was there who wanted right to work. There was never enough of them. There was never enough safe seats to do that.

JOHNSON: That all changed under the new map. In 2012, even as Barack Obama won 53 percent of the vote in Wisconsin, Republicans won roughly 60 percent of the state legislative seats. In 2014, a better year for Republicans, they grew that majority. And about a month after the election, Republican State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald announced that a private sector right-to-work bill would be on the agenda.


SCOTT FITZGERALD: If we don't do it now, when are we going to do it? We have expanded majorities in both the Senate and the assembly. And if we're not going to do it, then somebody needs to step up to the podium and say, here's the reasons we're not going to tackle this. It's not going to be me.

JOHNSON: The announcement was a surprise. Republicans hadn't campaigned on the issue. Former Democratic state legislator John Steinbrink agrees that right to work probably wouldn't have passed without redistricting because it made the legislature so much more conservative.

JOHN STEINBRINK: I think we're losing the middle-of-the-road people, unfortunately - those that really feel comfortable working with both sides.

JOHNSON: Steinbrink counted himself among those middle-of-the-road lawmakers. He'd sometimes vote with Republicans on gun bills, for example. But the 2011 redistricting plan put him in a more Republican district against a Republican incumbent. Steinbrink ran anyway.

STEINBRINK: And a lot of the farmers I knew - they said, gee, you know, we know you. We like you. But you're a Democrat. And we can't vote for a Democrat.

JOHNSON: Steinbrink lost his election under the new legislative map. Dean Kaufert's district also got more Republican. Critics said Kaufert was too liberal, and he faced a primary opponent. Kaufert won, but he says he could see that Democrats were moving farther to the left and Republicans farther to the right.

KAUFERT: And I could see that that door was starting for that person in the middle - it was starting to close.

JOHNSON: Kaufert had seen enough. He ran for mayor instead, a job he says he loves.

KAUFERT: You get to get things done without lobbyists, special interests, the majority leader, the speaker or the governor threatening you. So I love being here.

JOHNSON: Wisconsin remains closely divided. President Trump won the state last year by the narrowest of margins. But despite that 50/50 finish, Republicans now hold nearly two-thirds of all seats in the state legislature. For NPR News, I'm Shawn Johnson in Madison. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shawn Johnson covers the State Capitol for Wisconsin Public Radio. Shawn joined the network in 2004. Prior to that he worked for WUIS-FM, a public radio station in Springfield, Illinois. There, Shawn reported on the Illinois legislature. He also managed the station's western Illinois bureau, where he produced features on issues facing rural residents. He previously worked as an Assistant Producer for WBBM-AM radio in Chicago.