Wisconsin Democrats blast GOP effort to leave seats vacant

Gov. Scott Walker

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Democrats on Wednesday blasted a Republican-backed bill that would ensure that two vacant seats in the Legislature will remain open until next year, calling the proposal a blatant attempt to avoid adding to a string of recent GOP losses and saying it would deny some voters their voice in government.

A Madison judge last week ordered Gov. Scott Walker to call special elections by noon on Thursday to replace state Rep. Keith Ripp and state Sen. Frank Lasee. The two Republicans quit in December to join Walker’s administration.

Walker has been trying to get around the order. He asked the 2nd District Court of Appeals on Wednesday to consider killing the order and rule immediately that he has until April 6 to call the elections, which would give the Legislature time to pass the bill. The appeals court denied the request Wednesday afternoon, rejecting Walker’s arguments that holding special elections within months of November’s elections is a waste of taxpayer money.

“Representative government and the election of our representatives are never ‘unnecessary,’ never a ‘waste of taxpayer resources,’ and the calling of the special elections are … his ‘obligation,'” President Judge Paul F. Reilly wrote.

State attorneys had planned to ask the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which is controlled by conservative justices, to set the April 6 deadline by noon Thursday. But Wisconsin Solicitor General Misha Tseytlin filed a letter late Wednesday afternoon saying Walker has decided not to seek relief from the Supreme Court at this time. No reason was given.

State law requires Walker to call special elections to fill legislative vacancies that occur prior to May in regular election years like this one, but he has refused to do so. The court orders prompted Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald to introduce a bill that would prohibit special elections after the spring election in a regular election year. The measure would ensure that the two vacant seats wouldn’t be filled until January.

“It couldn’t be more transparent what’s happening here,” Kathleen Finnerty, chairwoman of the Door County Democratic Party in Lasee’s district, told the state Senate elections committee during a hearing Wednesday. “The governor is afraid of having a Democrat elected into this position. … Do you know how surreal it is to sit in front of you without representation? It’s demoralizing and unethical on your part.”

Fitzgerald told the committee that forcing Walker to schedule special elections now means candidates would have to campaign in both the special elections and the regular November elections at essentially the same time, confusing voters.

The multiple elections also would cost taxpayer money, he pointed out. The 2017 spring elections cost $71,729 in Ripp’s district and $234,876 in Lasee’s district, according to the state Elections Commission.

“Holding two special elections while the regularly scheduled elections are proceeding … are a waste of taxpayer money,” Fitzgerald said. “We would be hard pressed to convince any local clerk this makes sense.”

Republicans have lost more than 30 legislative seats nationwide since President Donald Trump took office. One of them was in Wisconsin, where Democrat Patty Schachtner won an open state Senate seat in a traditionally Republican district in January. Walker branded her win a wake-up call for the GOP. And earlier this month, Democrat Conor Lamb, captured what been a reliably Republican congressional seat in Pennsylvania.

If Ripp and Lasee’s open seats are filled in November, the winners wouldn’t be sworn in until January, leaving Ripp and Lasee’s constituents unrepresented for more than a year, they said.

“What the governor has done is an egregious abuse of power,” Democratic state Rep. Peter Barca said. “His efforts to disenfranchise people by putting off this election … is abhorrent to our democracy and it offends me. You bring up costs. The cost of our democracy is people dying for the right to be represented.”

Fitzgerald said he doesn’t understand the no-representation argument since Senate and Assembly districts overlap. Ripp and Lasee’s constituents can still contact their representatives in the other house, he said.

The bill is on the fast track to passage regardless of Democrats’ complaints. Republicans control both the Senate and Assembly and the two houses are expected to take up the bill in an extraordinary session April 4. Walker has promised to sign the measure into law.

State attorneys also trying to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court to save state Assembly boundaries that Walker approved in 2011. A federal court struck them down as an unconstitutional gerrymander two years ago. Justices heard oral arguments in the case in October but have yet to rule.