The disturbing case of Wisconsin's disappearing Democrats

It’s probably just as well that my parents and grandpa are in heaven, sipping whatever nectar they serve there, because they wouldn’t be happy with the state of politics today.

Our two-flat, working-class home in Green Bay was union proud, with railroad man grandpa upstairs, my dad the union electrician and mom the Roosevelt Democrat below. So recent news that the Democratic Party won’t field a candidate in the 8th Congressional District in northeast Wisconsin would have hurt them. Republican Mike Gallagher has a free ride in the coming election, as does Republican Glenn Grothman in the 6th District that sprawls across east and east central Wisconsin.

Is something wrong here? That’s what I asked Stan Gruszynski. Yes, something is very wrong, he told me, and he’s not the least bit surprised.

Gruszynski served 10 years in the Legislature, representing the Stevens Point area, but his roots are deep in the 8th District, where he helped elect Father Robert Cornell to Congress in the 1970s, served as chair of the district party and later unsuccessfully sought the congressional seat a couple of times. Stan was a firebrand from the Ed Garvey school of politics, a straight-shooter unwilling to suffer fools, regardless of their political stripes.

Stan and I have worked together on a number of projects, so I asked him about the recent news. From his family farmstead in rural Marinette County, he was predictably candid. “We’ve established a structure that has really eliminated the two-party system at the congressional level,” he said. “You’d almost have to check your sanity to run in a district so gerrymandered that your chances of winning are slim to none. You aren’t going to have luck fielding a candidate.”

“This is what happens in a system that changes its values and focus to money. It’s been a long time coming. That’s what I don’t think people understand. This isn’t an overnight thing. This has been a methodical move on the part of the American oligarchy to create a political system they can control. It has been checked here and there, by the Great Depression or a war here or there that requires refocusing for a while, but as soon as it passes, they’re back at it.”

Gruszynski remembers meeting with former Wisconsin Manufacturing and Commerce Executive Director Jim Haney when Gruszynski was a legislator in the 1980s and ‘90s. “He made it very clear that the goal of WMC was to shape public policy by being the primary influencer of elections.” It has paid off well. “When Ed Garvey [who died in 2017] was alive, the average CEO made 200 times more than the worker in a factory. Now it’s 800 to 1,000 times more,” Gruszynski said.

At times, it seems to him that the Democrats have lost their connection to their own past and people like Father Robert Cornell, a Catholic priest who served the 8th District in Congress and who made social justice an underpinning of his candidacy, despite strong pushback from some of the Catholic hierarchy in the district.

Still, Gruszynski sees hope in a new generation of young people engaging in politics. “I’m still working hard behind the scenes to get candidates in the district,” he says. “The city of Green Bay has very good representation. If you step back and look at what has happened here in the 8th District and the country, if we can survive this assault on participatory democracy – and I’m not sure we can – and if enough old people who have a tough time understanding what the world looks like die off, then I think the younger people are going to probably take this in a different direction. The problem is, us baby boomers are holding on with a tight grip.”

Is Stan blowing smoke, or is he onto something about young people taking over? Green Bay has a progressive mayor, Eric Genrich, who previously served six years in the Legislature. Ninety miles west, in Wausau, progressive Katie Rosenberg is mayor. To the north, in Rhinelander, Mayor Kris Hanu fits the same profile.

The 6th Congressional District is a lost cause for Democrats, but the 8th is a different story. It has most often elected Republicans over the years, but Democrats have had their moments. Democrats held the 8th Congressional District more than a decade ago, when the boundaries were decided by a federal court. Democrat Steve Kagan won the district with about 51% of the vote in 2006 and then again with 54% in 2008 before losing to Republican Reid Ribble. Then came the 2010 Scott Walker/Tea Party tsunami and the resulting gerrymandering.

Speaking of Walker, though I’d rather not, he was elected in a year when Republican enthusiasm to vote was a lot higher than that of Democrats. Polls today are showing a similar enthusiasm gap. The latest Marquette Law School Poll, released this month, finds that 67% of Republicans say they are very enthusiastic to vote and 58% of Democrats saying the same. Independents are apparently thinking more about the next summer cookout. Among them, 35% were very enthusiastic. Who knows how that will play out in the coming months.

At their state party convention over the weekend in La Crosse, Democrats seemed pretty fired up, especially about fighting back and defending abortion rights after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

But the big picture for democracy is discouraging.

All else aside, it’s hard for potential candidates to get enthusiastic when they realize they’re expected to raise millions of dollars. The money issue Gruszynski referred to remains a huge obstacle. Two years ago, Amanda Stuck, a young Democrat, ran against Gallagher in the 8th District. Stuck, an ex-state legislator, raised around $400,000, compared to Gallagher’s $3 million war chest.

I met with Garvey just after the 2010 Citizens United decision in the U.S. Supreme Court, which asserted that corporations are people and removed reasonable campaign contribution limits. Sitting in an Irish pub on the square in Madison, Garvey said, “We’re screwed.” My parents and grandpa wouldn’t have put it exactly that way, but they would have dolefully agreed.


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