A print of "Wisconsin" hangs in Rep. Melissa Sargent's new office. The letters L-O-V-E are superimposed on the statue that sits on top of the state Capitol building. The freshman Democrat from Madison bought the artwork last February from Craig Grabhorn, who was active in the protests that erupted after Gov. Scott Walker proposed stripping bargaining rights from most public employees. She told herself at the time she'd display it in her Capitol office if she succeeded in her campaign for state Assembly.
"It really represented my deep passion for the state of Wisconsin," says Sargent.
On Jan. 7, Sargent and two more freshmen Democratic Assembly representatives from Dane County - Dianne Hesselbein of Middleton and Robb Kahl of Monona - were sworn in with 22 other freshmen lawmakers from around the state. All three Dane County legislators have roots in either municipal or county government and say they are looking forward to a challenging and productive session, despite being members of the minority party. Republicans control the Senate 18-15 and the Assembly 59-39.
"People are cautiously optimistic," says Kahl about bipartisan cooperation. "The tone we're hearing is, 'Bring us your ideas. We want your bills. We want your amendments. We want to hear what some of your ideas are.'
"[Republicans] are telling us they truly want to turn a page from last session, so we'll see."
Since Kahl spoke those words, Republicans have reintroduced contentious mining legislation and angered Democrats and anti-mining advocates by saying there will be just one public hearing on the proposal.
Hesselbein says she's hopeful of finding common ground, but remains skeptical. "As far as everyone talking about bipartisanship, I don't know if that's possible. It's been a really bad two years," says Hesselbein who, like Sargent, will finish her term on the Dane County Board in April 2014.
The Democratic freshmen took part in a special ceremony arranged by Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha). They each recited their oaths in front of Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson and family, friends and supporters who could not fit in the Assembly chambers for the group swearing-in.
"That was an amazing day," says Sargent, clearly emotional. "That was a gift."
Drawing on experience
After Walker delivered his State of the State address Jan. 15, Hesselbein says she fielded concerns from constituents worried about the governor's desire to expand school choice options, including private school vouchers. Education is a priority for Hesselbein, a former school board member in the Middleton Cross Plains Area School District. And she says she's excited to have been appointed to the Education and the Colleges and Universities committees. Hesselbein will also serve on the Veterans; Tourism; and Natural Resources and Sporting Heritage committees. To inform her work on the latter, she plans to go hunting for the first time with former Rep. Spencer Black next year.
Sargent says she will draw on her experience as the owner of a small art reproduction business while serving on the Financial Institutions and Small Business Development committees. And she says her grandmother's recent move into assisted living has made her appointment to the Aging and Long Term Care Committee all the more relevant.
"It's touched me on a personal basis," says Sargent. "I think that's an issue we all need to be paying more attention to as our populace ages."
Both Sargent and Hesselbein graduated from the Emerge program before running for their current offices. The program works with Democratic women who are potential candidates for political office. Newly elected Reps. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) and Mandy Wright (D-Wausau) and Sen. Nikiya Harris (D-Milwaukee) also graduated from the Emerge program.
"I tend to think that had I not gone through Emerge I probably wouldn't have had the self-confidence to run for state Assembly," says Sargent.
Kahl, who served four terms as mayor of Monona, keeps a long list of legislation he's interested in backing. He feels strongly about reinstating the Equal Pay Enforcement Act that was repealed last year, citing the projected pay difference his 2-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son will face in their lifetimes. Kahl has two other daughters, ages 6 and 8. He's looking forward to having his evenings free for activities like coaching basketball games, a luxury he didn't have as mayor with a busy evening schedule.
While Kahl is not optimistic that the Equal Pay Enforcement Act would get much traction with Republicans in control of the Assembly, he is working with Rep. Christine Sinicki (D-Milwaukee), co-author of the original bill, to introduce a new version this session.
Kahl says he also hopes to sign on to a new version of the unsuccessful Next Generation Jobs Act, which provided venture capital and other funding to biotechnology companies to support job growth.
"The devil is in the details. I want to see what the language says," says Kahl, who's concerned about transparency and accountability for businesses using state money.
"Being in the minority, [a piece of legislation] may be your idea and your bill, but you're going to have to let [majority party members] be the sponsor and have their name on it in order to actually get a hearing," says Kahl. "For me the pride of authorship and ownership has never been something that's been a big deal, as long as the end result is the right thing, and we get a good bill passed."
A waiting game
Like Kahl, Sargent accepts that as a freshman minority member she might not have much opportunity to push her own legislation. She plans to focus on constituent service but also has a long-term plan.
"I'm a gardener, so I'm planting seeds, and I'm tending," says Sargent, whose windowsill is lined with plants. "It's going to be a waiting game, and I can be patient and thoughtful about my actions, but I do believe I'll get there."
Kahl says he also hopes to be around for a while and, eventually, as part of the ruling party.
Establishing a Democratic majority, says Kahl, "is something I and my colleagues are all working toward." He says he's heard from veteran Democratic legislators that "it's a lot more fun to be in the majority."
Hesselbein and Kahl blame their party's minority status on the district maps, created during the recent Republican redistricting process, that now heavily favor GOP candidates.
"I looked at what they did with their redistricting maps," says Kahl. "It was a fight to hang onto the 39 [Democratic seats in the house] because of redistricting."
In one of their first meetings with Walker, Hesselbein says she asked the governor if he planned to include any surprises in his budget - to be released Feb. 20 - as he did with his 2011 collective bargaining proposal. Walker assured her he would not.
Minority or not, the Dane County freshmen say they share a sense of camaraderie with their incoming colleagues, including veteran Democrats and Republican opponents.
"I've never been one to simply assume that there's no middle ground with somebody," says Kahl. "Compromise to me is not a four-letter word."