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Milwaukee Candidates Shut Out in Assembly Leadership

Secret ballot leads to secret drama

Nov. 19, 2008
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State Rep. Mike Sheridan of Janesville was elected speaker of the state Assembly last Wednesday by the Democratic caucus, now in the majority. But just one week before the speaker’s election, three Milwaukee representatives— Pedro Colon, Fred Kessler and Jon Richards—were running against Sheridan.

What happened? How did the three Milwaukee candidates get knocked out? The Assembly speaker position in Wisconsin is very powerful—more powerful than speakers of most other state legislatures. In Wisconsin, the speaker decides what committees will exist, appoints the chairs of the committees and directs the bills to the various committees. He or she strongly influences which items get taken up on the Assembly floor and controls all of the administrative activities in the Assembly, including staffing.

After the Nov. 4 election, the Democrats took control of the Assembly for the first time since 1994 with a 52-47 margin. The majority party elects the speaker, so 27 votes in the caucus are necessary.

Leadership races are very personal. Policy and issues are important, but so are personal relationships. For example, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic majority leader in the U.S. Senate, is antiabortion, yet the overwhelmingly prochoice Democratic caucus elected him as their leader because of his personal relationships with them.

Cutting Deals Behind the Scenes

The vote for speaker of the state Assembly is a secret ballot. While many representatives are very honorable and will make their support public, others hedge their bets and cut deals with more than one candidate. If one adds up the number of votes that each speaker candidate believes he has pledged to him, it would add up to well more than the 52 total votes, since a number of people lie about their allegiances. This speaker’s race was no different.

A lot was going on behind the scenes. Mike Sheridan was Gov. Jim Doyle’s choice. Outgoing Democratic leader Jim Kreuser, now the Kenosha County executive, appointed Madison representative and Kenosha-born Mark Pocan to be the head of the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee (ADCC), the group that among other things raises money for candidates in competitive races.

Pocan put together a slate of candidates with Sheridan as the speaker and Joe Parisi from the Madison area for majority leader; Pocan would get the most powerful appointment, co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee. So Sheridan started with the behind-the-scenes support of the governor and Pocan, the person who is raising money for candidates in tough elections; he had the usual amount of anti-Milwaukee sentiment working against his rivals; and he had the benefit of being a nice guy who is liked by his colleagues. These factors made it difficult for any Milwaukee-area candidate to stop Sheridan.

The weekend before the speaker’s election, Pedro Colon realized that he could not win so he contacted Kessler and Richards and said that he was dropping out of the race. Kessler and Richards then met with Colon to seek his support. Both Kessler and Richards believed they had his support.

On Monday morning the Milwaukee caucus met with the goal of convincing either Kessler or Richards to drop out of the race so there would be just one candidate from Milwaukee. After a long discussion and debate, Kessler agreed to step out of the race so Milwaukee could unify behind one candidate, Jon Richards. From his head count, Richards felt he had the votes.

Then something strange happened between Monday’s Milwaukee caucus meeting and Wednesday’s speaker vote. Despite his denials, many believe that Colon, who was “supporting” his fellow Milwaukee colleague, Richards, in reality cut a deal with Sheridan. If all went according to their plan, Colon would support Sheridan for speaker, while Sheridan would support Colon’s bid for majority leader against Tom Nelson of Kaukauna and Parisi of Madison. If Colon lost that vote, Sheridan would appoint Colon to the powerful finance committee.

In the end, Sheridan won the speaker’s race. Parisi, the majority leader candidate in the Pocan slate, dropped out of the majority leader’s race to nominate Colon, even though Parisi is well regarded and probably would have won. Many of Richards’ supporters believe that there was some doubledealing going on. Some supposedly voted against Colon, who lost to Nelson of Kaukauna. But Sheridan then appointed Colon to be vice chairman of the Joint Finance Committee.

With no leadership positions for Milwaukee legislators in either the state Senate or the Assembly, it will be critically important for Milwaukee-area legislators to work closely together on issues affecting our city.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.


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