How We Got to Gill v. Whitford, the Wisconsin Gerrymandering Case

We Wisconsin political watchers are used to having the Badger State’s redistricting fights end up in court. So used to it, in fact, that some form of court has played a role in the matter since 1931.

What is surprising this time, is that redistricting has ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

While much of the political world has their attention focused on Gill v. Whitford, the case which could decide the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering, the reality for most Wisconsinites is that the case is nothing but the culmination of decades of backdoor deals, partisan incumbents protecting their own, recall elections to try to overturn previous election results, more.

In other words: Politics as usual.

To understand how Wisconsin got into this position, one must not only understand the circumstances around the 2011 round of redistricting, but the 2001 round as well. Simply put, 2001 set the table for 2011; whether Democrats who are pushing for “redistricting reform” wish to admit it or not.

Reapportionment, Backroom Deals, and Split Government

Like many upper Midwest states, the 2000 Census was not kind to Wisconsin. Along with neighboring states Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, the Badger State found itself on the losing end of congressional reapportioning, seeing the number of seats it held in Congress fall from nine to eight.

With Milwaukee, the state’s largest city, seeing substandard population growth from 1991-2000, there was little justification for the city to continue having two House seats. So, it was proposed to merge the two seats into one “Metro Milwaukee” district and then place the remaining suburban parts of the old districts into those represented by Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Menomonee Falls) and Paul Ryan (R-Janesville).

Most locals were behind this plan, except state and Milwaukee Democrats who saw it as a loss of political power. At the time, Democrats controlled five of the state’s nine congressional seats, so the loss of either Milwaukee seat would have tied up the delegation at four seats apiece.

Naturally, they went to court claiming that any change in Milwaukee-area representation was racist.

The battle over how to redistrict the U.S. congressional lines to eliminate one of Wisconsin’s seats continues as the state Supreme Court announced Tuesday they will not take up the state redistricting case as requested by Republican lawmakers.

The high court urged the Legislature to move quickly on re-mapping legislative districts.

This means the decision over redistricting maps will be decided by a federal court panel in Milwaukee.

Proposed state maps are due Feb. 20, Democratic attorneys said.

Milwaukee Democrats have submitted an alternate district map for consideration to Federal Courts, under the Voting Rights Act.

That day in court never came—the case was eventually dismissed—as two deals were quietly struck behind closed doors. The first was between the two Milwaukee Democratic congressmen: Jerry Kleckza and Tom Barrett. Instead of deciding to enter a primary with each other, Barrett announced he’d be entering a different Democratic primary—the one for governor scheduled for that fall.

With the Milwaukee congressional delegation’s political fate decided, another deal brokered by the Wisconsin house delegation’s most senior members. As Barrett announced he would be seeking his political fortunes elsewhere, congressmen Dave Obey (D-Wausau) and Sensenbrenner sat down to determine the fate of two of it youngest members: Paul Ryan and Tammy Baldwin, both elected to the House in 1998.

In the case of Wisconsin’s 1st congressional district, it wasn’t about protecting Ryan (he won his initial 2000 re-election with 67 percent), it was about ensuring another Republican could win the seat if Ryan ever left. Sensenbrenner saw a bright political future in front of Paul Ryan years before others did and always believed something—be it a Senate run or Cabinet post—would lure him away from the House.

To plan for that eventuality, Sensenbrenner gave Ryan the southern half of Republican-rich Waukesha County. In addition to that gain, the western half of Democratic-heavy Rock County and the city of Beloit (while simultaneously keeping Ryan’s hometown of Janesville within the district) were moved into a newly redrawn 2nd District. Since then, the boundaries of Wisconsin’s 1st congressional district have remained largely unchanged.

While the machinations surrounding the 1st district were about making the seat more Republican, those used for redesigning the 2nd were all about saving Tammy Baldwin’s political career. Never a great politician, Baldwin eked out her first re-election in 2000 with 51 percent of the vote (By comparison, Al Gore received 58 in the same district in 2000). Seeing her as crucial to Democratic hopes in retaking the House (not to mention avoiding the embarrassment of seeing liberal Madison represented by even a moderate Republican as it was by former U.S. Rep. Scott Klug from 1992-1998), Obey pushed to make Baldwin’s new district one of the safest Democratic districts in the country.

Just how Democratic was explained by Philip J. McDade in a 2002 article for Wisconsin Interest magazine:

[Baldwin’s] newly drawn district will almost certainly make her less vulnerable. Baldwin’s old district included all of Sauk, Richland, Iowa and Lafayette counties in south-central Wisconsin. She lost all of those counties to [Republican John] Sharpless in 2000, failing to garner even 40 percent of the vote in Lafayette County. Her new district sheds all of those counties, save for a chunk of eastern Sauk County around the Wisconsin Dells area that trends Democratic in presidential election years. It sheds a portion of her district that was in heavily Republican Dodge County—an area she lost by a nearly 2-to-1 margin in 2000. The new 2nd District does take in the western half of Jefferson County, but it’s a chunk of territory that split nearly 50-50 between Bush and Gore in the last presidential election. Mapmakers even gave Baldwin the only part of heavily Republican Walworth County — the university town of Whitewater — that reliably leans Democratic. Most significantly for Baldwin, her new district includes the western half of Rock County, including the city of Beloit. The small towns of western Rock County—places like Evansville, Orfordville, and Edgerton — are reliably Democratic communities, harking back to their days as fertile territory for rural Progressive candidates. But Beloit provides the greatest potential electoral cushion for Baldwin. In the 2000 presidential election, Beloit gave Gore a solid 63 percent of its votes. Portions of Beloit rival Madison’s Isthmus for their allegiance to Democratic candidates. One section of Beloit — wards 12 through 16 — gave Gore an astounding 84 percent of the vote.

Baldwin won her 2002 reelection with 66 percent of the vote.

Same Song, Same Dance with State Legislative Redistricting

So how did state legislative redistricting get decided after the 2000 census? The same way it had after the 1980 and 1990 Census: with lines drawn by a federal judge.

With both parties controlling at least one chamber of the Wisconsin state legislature after the 2000 elections, each party drew up their own series of maps for the state assembly and state senate. The resulting stalemate lasted until July 2002 when federal Judge Charles Calvert of Wisconsin’s eastern district, a Clinton appointee, issued a ruling establishing the districts for the rest of the decade.

The cost to Wisconsin taxpayers to litigate these lawsuits was more than $2 million.

What no one expected was how that decade would end: with Wisconsin Republicans celebrating November 2010 with majorities in both state legislative chambers, the governor’s mansion, a majority of U.S. House seats, and a U.S. Senate seat for the first time since 1992. All of which set up a new era of conservative reforms in the Badger State, and a liberal temper tantrum for the ages.

In Part II, we look at how the aftermath of the 2010 midterm elections, the 2011 “Capital Chaos” in Madison, and the recall elections that followed all played a role in Wisconsin’s most recent round of redistricting and eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court.

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard

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