Extended Conversation on Politics: Mordecai Lee and Charles Franklin

A UW-Milwaukee urban planning professor and the director of Marquette Law School Poll talk about politics.

Inside the Wave

Mordecai Lee, urban planning professor, UW-Milwaukee
Charles Franklin, director, Marquette Law School Poll

November’s midterm election brought about a regime change in Wisconsin, in the form of a new Democratic governor, Tony Evers, and a new Democratic attorney general, Josh Kaul. At the same time, it left much of the state’s underlying political infrastructure in place. Republicans still control the state Legislature, and they and Evers will have to find a way to work together if they want to pass budgets and accomplish major goals.

To strategize (unofficially) about all this and pick apart what the election means long-term, former Democratic Milwaukee state Sen. Mordecai Lee chatted with Marquette pollster Charles Franklin. (Their conversation took place just after the election but before the Legislature’s controversial lame-duck session in early December.) – Moderated by Matt Hrodey

A condensed version of this conversation was published in the January 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine’s cover story: Let’s Talk It Out.

Inside the Wave: Mordecai Lee and Charles Franklin

Photo by Chris Kessler

CF: Thos election virtually guarantees a deadlock over redistricting because the governor will have a veto over any redistricting bill, and so either you accept going to the courts as we did in the past or you come to some compromise. I know you’ve spun out of the scenario in which they might compromise on that, and I’ll leave that to you to talk about. But this does mean that the single-party government redistricting we saw in 2011 almost surely will not be possible in the 2021 redistricting.

ML: Let’s assume that the Supreme Court with [Brett] Kavanaugh upholds the current reapportionment. The Supreme Court will not give a new principle of partisan gerrymander. They’re willing to look at race. They’re willing to look at other issues like that, but the thing about a partisan gap – So, you’re [Assembly Speaker] Robin Vos, you’re [Senate Majority Leader Scott] Fitzgerald. If you’re a politician, would you prefer to roll the dice, keep your fingers crossed, or is the certainty of a compromise preferable politically?

CF: You know, it used to be I would say politicians are risk-averse, and a compromise you control is better than throwing the dice for a court that you don’t know. I think that is the most powerful reason to think that we might see some kind of compromise. But I thought the initial reporting of the tone of the Walker/Evers phone conversation was pretty positive and normal. “My staff will help you in the transition” kind of tone. To then hear the speaker say, “We might have a special session that considers limits on the government’s power,” seemed like the gauntlet cast down that we’ve seen that led to zero party cooperation.

ML: There was a time, I think it was Gaylord Nelson’s first term as governor, he had a Republican Legislature and they weren’t getting along. Gaylord Nelson gave a famous speech … He said, “Go home.” It was such a fabulous moment, but it was sort of an early version of what might be happening. The thing that will save Evers is [line-item veto] – he can change any number and any word [in the budget] as long as it’s a whole sentence and it’s a smaller number.

CF: This has been Walker’s power in all of the budget negotiations for the last eight years as well. Sometimes with his own party striking deals with senators for votes that then become vetoes. Evers could dramatically change Republican initiatives if he wants to through that veto power, and the votes are not there for override. So that really is a power for him, but it only comes at the very end of the process. Now the question is, is a deal possible on any kind of topic that requires the legislator to vote for something trusting that Evers will not veto it in the end? That level of trust presumably has to be built up and earned over time.

ML: You don’t think a gas tax compromise as part of the budget will be the get?

CF: I think the gas tax compromise could be part of the get. It’s gonna be quite a problem in the Senate of passing it with a Republican majority but Democratic votes primarily, plus a handful of Republican votes, I suspect. That is not something that we’ve seen happen in the past, but it’s more possible now with a Democratic governor. I think the trouble for Republicans, especially senators, is voting for any kind of gas tax increase. Remember, this all goes back to decision to end indexing of the gas tax in 2006, I think it was.

ML: Talk radio picked up on it. Jim Doyle was governor, and Republicans reluctantly went along with it because at that point they were still friends with the highway lobby.

CF: They may have thought, “Oh, he would veto it,” and then he didn’t.

ML: Did you see those billboards about potholes vs. Scott-holes?

CF: Yeah.

ML: The highway lobby used to be very influential in Wisconsin.

CF: Just recently we’ve passed a constitutional amendment to make the highway fund sacrosanct.

ML: Right.

CF: And even that wasn’t enough to keep up with the demands before road construction or road builders. I think it is a fascinating development that Walker’s long-standing political aversion to tax increases, and gas taxes in particular, stands out. But it’s also, in this case, Walker responding to public opinion. In our polling data, voters are about 60 percent willing to pay more property tax to go to school, but there is 60 percent unwilling to pay more gas tax for better highways. We’ve seen some version of that reluctance for the six years we’ve been doing polling on the question: Voters complain about the roads, and hence the Scott-hole billboard. But when you ask them, “Are you willing to pay more for it?” They’re not. In our last poll, for the people that rated roads the most important problem, only 51 or 52 percent said they were willing to increase taxes. And of the much bigger group that didn’t rate it No. 1, way over 60 percent said they wouldn’t.

ML: That surprises me so much, because every week when we fill up our gas tank, it’s a different price. Now, let’s say the gas tax went up a bit. You wouldn’t even notice it.

CF: It’s really interesting that people are so sensitive to it. It’s like the sales tax, which these days, when you ask about it, people are more happy with sales taxes than they are with either income or property.

ML: Right.

CF: But the advantage of those kinds of taxes, including the gas tax, is you pay it incrementally every time you buy gas. Yeah, it’s a part of your gas bill, but it’s paid out over every purchase over the year. I used to think that the problem with property tax was that you’ve got this one big statement at the end of the year, and you maybe have to write a big check or at least your escrow had to write a big check; and it really hit you how large that property tax was all at once.

ML: It hit you, but apparently it wasn’t as potent this year as it usually was. Scott Walker kept saying, “We’re in good times.” Not only is jobless rate down, not only is employment up, but your property tax is lower than it was X number of years ago. It did nothing. I don’t understand it.

CF: Didn’t help, no. I think it is partly a matter that he has succeeded in limiting property tax increases or actually provided modest increases over his term. At the same time, we were in a housing crisis in a financial recession back in 2010 when he first came in, and people are a little bit better off now. Maybe that shoe doesn’t pinch as much as it used to, so folks are moving on to other issues. It’s also the positive appeal of schools. We really saw in 2015 that while people may have gone along with Act 10 and other cuts to K-12 education in (Walker’s) early budgets, by 2015 people were pushing back pretty hard that they thought schools needed better support, better financing. But again, what was surprising was at that point they were then willing to pay for it. In the past they had not been willing to pay higher property tax.

ML: Let me add an X to our predictions about government and legislators getting along in the spring. I think the X is, who in the Republican legislatire wants to run for a statewide office, and what are the lessons that are taken from Scott Walker’s and Schimel’s lot? So if you want to be the Republican candidate for AG, you want to be the Republican candidate for governor. You want to be the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate because Ron Johnson is going to be sitting out. What is the political price to pay for being oppositional and dogmatic and doctrinaire and then turning to the public and for those 4 percent of the independent swing voters, appeal to them?

CF: I think that’s a great question and it’s certainly one that every ambitious legislator has to be thinking about. You see it partly in the idea to mobilize the base, keep them with you. This was Leah Vukmir’s strategy because of Trump and the Republican base. Didn’t work so well for her, but Walker’s accommodation, to the extent that he was trying to have it both ways, he was trying to sound softer on a number of things. Didn’t quite get him over the finish line either, so it leaves an open question to Republicans out there. It is striking that Walker under-performed in Waukesha and Ozaukee counties. That’s the hint of this election that maybe Republicans are going to have more trouble in their previously most loyal suburbs. Not that Walker didn’t win those counties by a lot, but he didn’t win them by as much as he did in 2014.

ML: Why don’t we ever use the phrase “soccer mom” anymore? Because I think Waukesha County soccer moms have shifted away from Republicans. Several of them – maybe not as strongly in some other states, where it was just a tidal wave – but enough of them started feeling comfortable with Democratic candidates. So if you’re that politician who wants to win back the Waukesha County soccer mom, being oppositional and obstructionist is not good politics.

CF: I think that’s right, and maybe what you’re picking up is the non-college white men who we know have been moving in the opposite directions strongly. The college white women have been moving a bit in a Democratic direction. The non-college men even more in the Republican direction. So that’s been driving up the gender gap, but it also means the decision that this politician has to make is, which of these two groups are going to be their bread and butter? The future of Republican politics.

ML: Which is the plus for a November election?

CF: Yes, and I don’t know yet. Also, whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, what issues do you want to [emphasize] in 2020 that you think could be the issue of that period? Can you anticipate or start working towards creating that issue? Arguably, Tammy Baldwin had brought up pre-existing conditions pretty early, and in her election cycle, if you think of it that way, that has turned into a really good issue for Democrats. If you think about what working-class voters, and especially white working-class voters, are concerned about, the health care premiums and the availability of health insurance remains very high on the list, with or without pre-existing conditions. Pre-existing caught an element of the health care issue that practically everybody’s concerned about.

ML: Tangibly.

CF: Especially this year, the rhetoric has reminded people of how many of them actually have a pre-existing condition. That would affect their health coverage. But the availability of Medicaid is an example of this. For people who are at the lower end of the economic spectrum, in rural areas in particular, having that Medicaid coverage is a big element of their well-being, and it solves that specific problem of having health coverage. That’s an issue that has divided the party sharply, is still dividing them on Medicaid expansion, for example, but that’s one of the issues that I think we could see further develop, as well as the pre-existing conditions but other elements of the Affordable Care Act, like, no cap on lifetime benefits as well as covering your kids. In a way, the Congress last year, in its not very successful repeal of Obamacare, took out the most unpopular element, the individual mandate. But oddly enough, that leaves what’s in the Affordable Care Act things that are wildly popular, including pre-existing coverage.

ML: So let’s say the Republican Legislature refuses to expand Medicaid.

CF: Which I think is very likely.

ML: Right. So, you’ve got somebody running in a rural area, or a manufacturing area, and saying to the non-college white males, “Your parents could have gotten Medicaid if not for Robin Vos and Scott Fitzgerald.”

CF: Yeah.

ML: Is would-have a powerful enough attraction as opposed to the tangible, I-can-touch-it?

CF: I think that’s one of the great dilemmas that this hypothetical Democrat has that. We’ve seen, even in this cycle, how relatively low awareness is that pre-existing conditions are protected by the very bill that the governor and the attorney general are trying to repeal. I think even in all the discussion we heard of it this fall, the connection between the Affordable Care Act and these protections you like remained tenuous, even in the campaign rhetoric. So, for the woulda’s, people have to be aware of that connection. It’s a complicated one. It’s hard to communicate.

ML: Is the tea party dead?

CF: I think as far as any meaningful entity, it is. I think it’s been replaced by Trumpism, if you can use that term. I see no immediate reason to believe the Republican Party has been sent a message to moderate, with a warning shot on pre-existing conditions. You can’t be opposed to that, but it’s a question of how far you can go on things like environmental regulatory issues, DNR, plus regulations on industry and construction and so on. Look at how absolutely minimal the state legislative changes were.

ML: Right.

CF: There’s no message I can see there. Yeah, there’s a new Democratic governor who’s closely aligned with education and its issues –very popular issues. Maybe at the margin there’s some move on health care, but the other thing about the pre-existing conditions discussion is that it ignores that most of that is a matter of federal policy at this point. So, it’s not really a hot potato to land in legislatures right this minute, though if ACA were struck down, then that would be a whole new problem.

[Editor’s note: A federal judge in Texas struck down the Affordable Care Act in mid-December.)

ML: And it won’t be as long as there is a Democratic Congress.

CF: One would think.

ML: Let me play out a different scenario. The AP forecast showed how strongly the Evers voters felt about the environment, about stringent environmental protection, going back to the 1960’s. The governor appoints a DNR secretary who’s an environmentalist. He appoints to the board, even though the board doesn’t have much power, strict environmentalists. Now, any administrative rule that they’d try to pass, will be vetoed by the Legislature. So, all of a sudden, we’re gonna have a governor who’s set up like an Obama situation, where they’ve gotta explore the maximum of their executive powers, without the Legislature being able to infringe on it. In other words, DACA-style executive orders where he starts trying to crack down on the environment. And we’re gonna be in court, but Evers might win those court dates.

CF: Well, we’ll be in court, but we’ll be in court with an attorney general backing the governor in this case.

ML: That’s right, but a conservative Supreme Court.

CF: Yes. So who knows, at that point, where it goes.

ML: Right.

CF: I do think this a very good thing that’s gotten too little attention during the fall campaign: that environmental issues are of concern to voters. When people volunteer a most important problem to us, environmental wasn’t overwhelming, but it was the most frequent one that was mentioned. And in our polling over the four years, we’ve done a lot of polling on water issues, Lake Michigan issues, diversion of water … and on the trade-off between economic and environmental policies. And, at least in the polling, people are much more likely to prefer to protect the environment.

Baldwin did outperform more in the north and north-central region, some in the Fox Valley area as well. So, there is a bit of a regional difference there that she did better than expected, if you will, or better than Evers did in some of those areas. The campaign spent a fair bit of time and money on advertising in the north. That’s one of the things a very big campaign budget can allow you to do is to campaign outside of your base areas. She’s also reflected the old Wisconsin Democratic orientation of being more skeptical on trade. It comes from the labor days of skepticism about free trade and NAFTA. She, paradoxically, was a little more like Trump on tariffs and trade issues, especially in the northern parts of the state.

ML: Right, the “Built in Wisconsin” is the perfect thing –

CF: Yes! Exactly. It’s built here! That applies to a long-standing Democratic constituency and also provides some crossover rationale for people who are not adamantly opposed to it.

ML: Describe to me the voter that voted for her and the voter that voted for Scott Walker.

CF: Sure. In our data and also in the exit poll, it’s about 6 percent of all voters that voted for Walker and Baldwin. They are in some ways just what you would expect. They are more independent than partisan. They are more moderate, rather than ideological. But they also tend to be younger. In general, they are a bit less likely to turn out to vote and they say they pay less attention to politics on a day-to-day basis. But that’s exactly who you expect –not consumed by politics, who may judge candidates on their personality or, “Have they done an OK job in the position they’ve held? I don’t discriminate between the conservative policies and the more liberal policies, I just think they’ve both done an OK job, or a good job.” So, that’s the sort of picture that we have of them from our data. Less partisan, less ideological, younger, and not as consumed by politics, or just paying less attention.

ML: So, it’s the Tommy Thompson voter.

CF: Yeah. A politician who can appeal on a personal level and on a results level has a real advantage with these kinds of voters. Because they’re not voters who are so sharply divided over partisanship that they would never, ever dream of voting of the other party. So, I think one of the things that comes up, and it’s revealing of those of us that see the world through this polarized partisan-land, that there are a set of voters out there, and maybe it’s 6 percent, maybe it’s a bit more, for whom the absolute partisan divide makes it unthinkable to support Baldwin and Walker on partisan or ideological logical grounds, is far less important than the fact that I like them, I trust them in some way, and in general, I think that they have done an OK or a good job.

ML: You know, I think that Tammy Baldwin is the new [William] Proxmire. In other words, she’s proven that she can succeed in any election, under any conditions, no matter what’s thrown at her, and people like her.

CF: She has!

ML: And, it’s astonishing in this era. She’s probably a senator for life now.

CF: I’m not gonna go quite that far!

ML: He sticks to facts! I get to speculate.

CF: Her campaigns spent more than Bill Proxmire’s campaigns did.

ML: His last two, he spent real money.

CF: I do think that she’s a remarkable political success story if you think about the 2012 campaign against Thompson. Some of that came from Thompson’s weaknesses of being out of the state for 12 years, and it’s hard to capture that old magic. But the fact that she was able to win that was remarkable. Then, having been targeted early, from as early as January 2017, outside groups were running attack ads against her.

ML: On TV!

CF: On TV! She was also blessed by the sudden reversal of whether the Affordable Care Act was help or a hindrance to Democrats.

ML: Yeah.

CF: So in the Spring of ’17, much of the advertising attacking her was attacking her for her support for Obamacare. But as the Republican-led Congress and president sought to actually repeal Obamacare, we saw a flip of national opinion that went from about 10 points net negative on Obamacare to about 10 points net positive. In an ironic way, the attacks on her for Obamacare were really a boost for her in the new era in which being for Obamacare was a plus. I think it really reduced the sting of that attack that worked so well in 2010, ’12, ’14, ’16 for Republicans. Suddenly it wasn’t working for them in ’18.

And I think there’s something interesting politically going on. Because in politics, you can’t take away from somebody something they have. So, let’s say that 8 percent of Wisconsinites had Obamacare. So 8 percent of the people, but all of a sudden there was an echo. All of a sudden you had the Waukesha County soccer moms saying, I feel bad for those people. Maybe Obamacare doesn’t touch me, but I’m sympathetic to those people. And all of a sudden, there was this ripple effect.

ML: I think that’s a good point. The other thing is, the people who get subsidies from Obamacare is a relatively small set of the total public. But those, like me, that get it from my employer’s provided insurance, the regulatory things affect us even if the subsidies don’t. And so that’s the other issue here in switching from talking about universal access or the expansion of Medicaid and the marginal difference that would make in who gets a subsidy or who gets Medicaid. The issue also shifted to something that affects almost everybody, rather than one that was only primarily focused on lower-income people and people getting a subsidy

CF: Right, and Republicans were salivating about the Medicare-for-all. In fact, I was surprised that Baldwin signed on the bill. We thought that would be a winner, and it wasn’t. People weren’t afraid that the federal government was going to take away their employer-based insurance. I was stunned. This is one where the initial polling for us and for others has shown really a pretty substantial support for Medicare-for-all when it’s branded as that, but in our question we even said this would be a one-place government supported thing. It’s not at all clear to me that if we went into a debate in Congress like we went through over passage of ACA that at that point the conversation would point out all of the defects in a one-provider – a single payer under a different name, which itself was controversial back when ACA didn’t have the vote, when ACA was being voted.

This is an area back to that question: What could an ambitious politician offer to voters, and especially for less affluent voters? Medicare at age 60 or at age 55 could be a very popular bill, and I think you could possibly see it coming from either a Democratic or Republican direction, though at the moment, more likely a Democratic direction. With that idea that we’re going to ease your burdens on health care because in the polling since the early 2000s, at least the biggest concern of health care is not universal coverage, it’s what your premium is and the increased unaffordability of those premiums. To offer a shift to largely government-paid Medicare, but coming at an age when less affluent people are really struggling with their last years in the workforce, to shift that burden to the government I think would be an attractive political issue.

ML: Those blue-collar white men who have drifted to the Republican Party, especially under the last election, does the Republican offer that or does the Democrat offer that?

CF: I think that’s why it’s an opportunity for the Democrats to offer something that Republicans might have trouble matching, and that is universal enough that some of our so-called tribal divisions – racial or educational or cultural issues – might not apply as much when you’re saying to everybody, “You can get Medicare five years sooner than you could last week.”

ML: When you get Social Security at 62, you can start Medicare.

CF: Exactly. There’s a lot of ways to do it. It’s also back to the idea of dividing the pie. It’s pretty easily moved up a percent, down a year. Cost will be an issue. So there’s lots to debate about it but, again, I’m just saying that’s an issue that’s on the public’s mind that addresses something that’s of great concern: the cost of health coverage. It could be solved by Democrats as something that is appealing to a wide swath of the population including those folks that are in the Republican camp, not because they’re committed ideological conservatives, but because they’re suspicious of government programs that they don’t think they don’t benefit from. Here’s one that’s a popular government program and you can benefit.

ML: Swinging back to where we started the conversation, I think Evers and Barnes’ win is they were candidates who said government can be good, and the Republican win of the majority of both of the Legislature was the message government can never be good. So, we’re almost back to the constitution about the role of government.

CF: I think the big barrier for all of this is what we were talking about earlier on gridlock. In effect with divided government, you have veto players in the governor’s office and in the Legislature, and we really do reach a point where nothing can get done. Any popular initiative of one body is going to be vetoed at the other end of the hallway. Then you go back to a frustrated public that sees government not working here in the state as they see it not working in Washington.

I thought that was one of the relatively good appeals for Republicans was to say, government’s working here. We’re not like Washington. We get things done here. So if you revert to the same kind of gridlock here, does it lead to a sense of problems not being addressed or needs not being met, or does it lead to a stalemate that doesn’t really affect the public and the public doesn’t rebel about it? I don’t know. My crystal ball is cloudy on this.

ML: What do you think about demographic trends? In other words, Democrats are keeping their fingers crossed that over the next generation America will become a majority-minority country, and they’re going to be the beneficiaries and the Republicans will be the white party. But Wisconsin is way, way at the tail end of that kind of demographic.

CF: It is, and so our Hispanic population is modest statewide. I guess my general feeling about this is that, on the one hand, party images are created more at the national level than at the state level, and I think this is a problem for both parties, that their local politicians don’t get to go out and campaign in their state innocent of any patina from the national. They’ll always carry that burden of  “You’re a Democrat” or “You’re a Republican, therefore you must be like this.” It remains to be seen, and I don’t think we really have a good example right now, of an independent partisan in the state that can be well tailored to the state. Maybe Joe Manchin in West Virginia is sort of the example of that.

ML: Or [Montana Sen. Jon] Tester. In Scott Walker’s first campaign, [he said], “I know how to create a quarter of a million jobs, [but] I’m not going to tell you.” It worked because people were so desperate for job creation. So whether you’re talking about a statewide Democrat or statewide Republican, there’s a scenario that can work: “I can help Wisconsin, whatever you’re hearing out of Washington.” But, what’s the it?

CF: What’s the it?! What’s the problem and the solution? Somebody who can find those out in the next two to four years might be advantaged in future elections.

ML: What’s the moral of the [election] story that you take on by combining your polling with the results?

CF: I think it’s partly that no majority is ever really fixed, despite our sense that we’re so polarized that nobody can ever change their minds. Now some of Tuesday night is because of new voters. Some of it is dropouts, people who used to support Walker who didn’t vote at all. Some switched their vote, and some of the influx was new Democratic voters. That didn’t happen outside of the last four years of Walker’s performance as governor, and that includes his presidential run, which our data suggests still hurt him some, his management of the budget, especially in 2015 and ’16, clearly hurt him in our data. He had come back from a lot of that but those still, I think, left some scars.

The new issues that have arisen since he was first elected in 2010 have on balance been things favoring Democrats more than Republicans. When he was elected in 2010, holding taxes on property is a big issue, jobs and the economy is a huge issue. Those helped propel him in and set the tone for his eight years of lowering taxes or holding them down, cutting budgets, talking up job creation. Now we have under 3 percent unemployment. We have essentially completely recovered, so that issue is less critical. Walker still won big percentages of people that rated jobs most important. It just wasn’t the most important issue anymore. Then the new issues of K-12 education and health care both produced strong advantages to Evers and the Democrats.

ML: Yeah, for my last word, I’ll say four years ago there were 2.5 million Wisconsinites who voted, 55 percent of the electorate. There were about another 175,000, I might be off slightly, new voters above that, so we had 2.67 million. Those new voters probably skewed Democrat, but on the other hand, speaking as professors who are just in favor of elections and democracy, it was a good thing. We want everybody to vote. If more people voted than ever before, if there’s a record-setting election, this is a good thing for democracy.

“Let’s Talk it Out” appears in the January 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop or find the January issue on newsstands, starting Dec. 31.

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