Fasten your seatbelts, we are now ready for departure…

The story of the week in Madison was State Senator Russ Decker voting to prevent approval of 17 state employee union contracts in a lame duck session of the legislature. The action came following a sweep in the November elections that will flip the Assembly, Senate and governor’s mansion from Democratic to GOP control in January. The former union bricklayer had risen to majority leader with the strong support of unions during his 20-year legislative career and his parting shot was read as a betrayal of people who helped him along in two decades as a senator.  He was stripped of his leadership post after the vote, but it didn’t change the outcome and with November’s outcome for both Decker and the Democrats,  it was an office he was moving out of anyway.

I stopped by his makeshift and temporary capitol office the day after the vote to offer my condolences to the lone, young staffer who was left to go through the e-mails and voice mails that had arrived overnight. Considering what people were willing to say in public, one can only imagine what their one-on-one comments were like, because the reaction had been swift and shrill:

“No one expected it, but Decker’s a whore. He’s whoring for (Gov.-elect Scott) Walker; he’s whoring for someone, for himself. That’s my only comment. There’s no other excuse,” fumed Marty Beil, executive director of AFSCME, the state’s largest public employee union. “Psychologists probably write books about this type of behavior. It’s a disorder that’s probably now being named.”

Long-time colleague Senator Bob Jauch didn’t mince any words, either. “It is the most disgusting behavior by any public official I have seen in 28 years. A leader who abandons his principals, the senate, the workers and left a legacy of being a loser. He’s been here for almost 20 years and he will be remembered by this one sad moment in life. That’s a shame… “I’m dumbfounded. No matter what his motive is, he’s sticking it to a lot of middle class workers. I’ve never seen anything this selfish.”

And that was what his (former) friends had to say. What did Decker have to say? Quite a bit, actually – and you can read it here:
 If all else fails, a person could take Decker’s statement at face value. Almost nobody but Republicans has shown much inclination to do that and it’s not unanimous there, either:

“I really feel bad for these people, for the state workers. They’re good people; they got shafted by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, it’s as simple of that,” incoming Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Ellis said. “You have a governor and a majority leader that hate each other. You’ve got a former majority leader (Chuck Chvala) running the show from the back room, and all these things came together in one big deal. And who is the loser?” (It is at this point that we need to point out that as sorry as Mike Ellis might feel for state workers, his “No” vote counted just as much as Decker’s did. The other Democratic vote to scuttle the contracts was Senator Jeff Plale’s. He was ousted by a wide margin in the September primary in his South Milwaukee district.)

Like the unions, I go back a ways with Decker. I handed out literature for him at plant gates in 1990. He was taking on long-time State Senator Walter John Chilsen, who had been in office since 1966.  At the time, I didn’t think Decker had a snowball’s chance in hell in that race, but he had a pit bull working the campaign by the name of Don Gehrhardt. Don was a government affairs representative with the Teamsters the last time I ran into him. In 1990, he was a staffer for Congressman Dave Obey. Decker’s win was a tribute to what an aggressive, well-run campaign it really was.

Personally, I’ve always liked Russ Decker. As a legislator, I sometimes found him maddening. I seethed when he fattened up public employee pensions based on the stock market bubble in the late 1990s because I saw it as a “heads I win, tails you lose” deal for taxpayers. It was — and I had to vote several times to fund larger pension liabilities on the part of taxpayers when I was serving as a city council member after the bubble burst. Reducing the number of Class B reserve liquor licenses in municipalities across the state and raising the cost to $10,000 at the behest of the Tavern League was pure crap, in my view. There was a workaround that the Wausau City Council never wanted to adopt when I brought it up, but the need for it was always because of Decker’s legislation.

Constantly advocating for things like uncased guns in vehicles, firing DNR deer managers, a phone-a-friend system for a deer tag — they all seemed like bad ideas, poor priorities and pandering to me. The continuing association with disgraced former Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala always struck me as surprisingly poor judgement. He made a few other poor judgements along the way, too.

On the other hand, Decker was a reliable supporter of Democratic values. A lot of things could be taken for granted with Decker and that is no small thing. There were plenty of things that would never make it to a committee or come out of one while he was majority leader or sitting on Joint Finance. Pay attention over the coming session of the legislature, if that doesn’t seem important. Ideology matters. Just ask train maker Talgo, the mayors of Milwaukee and Madison or the thousands of workers who might have been employed building an $810 million high-speed rail project in southern Wisconsin. As Russ Decker correctly pointed out, elections have consequences.

I’m not ready to make a pronouncement about Russ Decker. Judging motivations is a tricky business. Could it have been a desire to deny Governor Doyle a chance to wrap up the contracts for not bringing them to the legislature sooner? (That said, it also seems significant that three quarters of the work under these contracts has already been done, since they cover a largely retroactive period that began in 2009.) Is there something in the future for ex-Senator Decker that may have been conditioned upon deep-sixing the contracts? Is it retribution for supporters who didn’t rally the necessary support to take him through a tough election season that saw many Democrats go down to defeat, including U.S. Senator Russ Feingold? Some have suggested he attempted to gain a pardon for his old friend Chvala. Some have even called for a criminal investigation.

We may never know the real reason that Russ Decker did what he did on his way out the door, or we may be able to figure it out pretty easily, once we see where and how Decker finds his own way forward. He may have already told us in his statement — the one so few seem to believe right now.

As for me, I’m content to wait and see. We may someday be able to look back on this as one of the most principled acts to take place in the Wisconsin legislature during this session. Failing that, it could also turn out to be one of the least.



3 Responses to “Fasten your seatbelts, we are now ready for departure…”

  1. There are a couple different ways to interpret Mike Ellis’ comment about the Democrats “shafting” state workers.

    He could say that whereas Republicans never promised state workers these contracts, the Democrats jerked them around by dawdling at the negotiating table and then finally reneged at the last minute.

    However, a less flattering interpretation could be that Ellis is a career politico who thinks of legislating as a sport between two teams, and is disturbed that a member would betray his team or the interests who got him elected. It’s the mentality you find with a lot of lobbyists.

  2. Don Gerhardt Says:

    Greetings from far northwestern Wisconsin, Jim! Thanks for the kind words but there were a few other young, foolish, Quixotic Democratic “pit-bulls” who made that a successful campaign as well. Guys like Jim Smith. Jim went on to Decker’s staff then treasure diving in the Keys and now works for the Shop Consulting. Jim was the man who orchestrated the Dem takeover of the Assembly in 2008.

    One thing about Marty Biel: he (and a couple other “Dem” union leaders) held back support for Russ in 1990 when we needed it most because he didn’t think Decker had a prayer. Paybacks are a bitch ain’t they Marty.

    Keep up the great writing Jim. Love your stuff, especially when I’m not mentioned.

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