When Pocan (left) and Vos (right) issued a joint statement calling for civility in politics in January 2011, they had no idea how difficult their request would become for Wisconsin lawmakers.
The friendship between state Reps. Robin Vos and Mark Pocan might best be summed up by the names of their dogs.
"Mine is named Reagan; his is named Che, after Che Guevara," Vos (R-Rochester) says, noting that both he and Pocan (D-Madison) have dogs named after political figures.
Pocan points out that the two are both small business owners. Pocan owns Budget Signs & Specialties, a sign, award and specialty firm that he started in 1988, and Vos bought Rojos Popcorn, a popcorn packaging company in Burlington, in 1996.
Pocan adds that he was the only Democratic legislator at Vos' wedding.
"We both love our spouses, and we both love Wisconsin," Vos says.
The two lawmakers -- whose political beliefs fall on opposite ends of the spectrum -- share basic values that ground their friendship, which appears to be one of the last remaining artifacts of bipartisan civility in the Wisconsin Capitol.
The way things were
Pocan and Vos both remember a time when partisanship didn't prevent friendships from developing away from the floor. Vos was a legislative staffer for about five years in the early 1990s before he bought his popcorn business and remembers that people were "very collegial then."
"You might fight on the floor, but you would go out for drinks after work ... and realize you had similar hobbies, perhaps the same background," Vos says.
When he returned to the legislature as a member of the Assembly in 2004, things had changed. He noticed that more legislators commuted back and forth to their districts on a daily basis because they had other jobs or wanted to return to their families at home. While Vos says the trend of commuting is "justifiable," it takes away the opportunity to spend time with colleagues outside of work.
"The chance to become friends with people in your own caucus, much less on the other side, is diminished," Vos says.
Vos has tried to find a balance in his own life by spending two nights per week in Madison. He says he is a "big believer in trying to get to know people," and considers staying in Madison to be part of his job.
Pocan, who was elected in 1998, says that even before he started, there was a much more congenial relationship among legislators.
"You could fight it out on the floor, but then still be able to work behind the scenes to get things done," Pocan says.
Looking back, Pocan thinks the environment first started to change when Scott Jensen became Speaker of the Assembly in 1995. He describes an incident during his freshman term when he had dinner with a Republican legislator with whom he had been friends prior to their elections. The Republican was later called into Jensen's office and told not to have dinner with Democrats.
After Jensen's term, John Gard followed as Speaker from 2003-2007. Pocan says Gard "didn't really make things a whole lot better ... at that point we kind of slipped down a bad path." He thinks that when Mike Huebsch first became Speaker in 2007, Huebsch changed the environment to encourage more respect among the parties, and his successor, Mike Sheridan, did the same.
"The real problem this session has been, obviously, the governor kind of dropped an atomic bomb on the legislature, and all hell has broken loose since then," Pocan says. "It's just added to this kind of different environment that it's an 'us against them' ... It certainly has gotten very tough as an atmosphere to try to work in a congenial way."
A different world
When Pocan and Vos issued a joint statement (PDF) calling for civility in politics in January 2011, they had no idea how difficult their request would become for Wisconsin lawmakers.
The statement was released as a response to the shooting in Tucson, Ariz. that left six people dead and 13 others injured, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. In anticipation of the first special session committee hearings, Vos and Pocan knew there would be "many contentious and lively debates" and used their friendship and mutual respect to encourage Wisconsinites to "embrace their freedoms of speech and peaceful assembly."
Assemble they did. A little more than one month later, tens of thousands of protesters descended on the Capitol to voice their opposition to Gov. Scott Walker's controversial budget repair bill.
"We put out [the statement] never knowing that we would have the strife that was caused, just because both of us thought at the time that past sessions had lost that ability to find common ground," Vos says, adding that we live in a "different world" now than times in the past, when the biggest controversy might have resulted in 100 people protesting at the Capitol.
Once collective bargaining came under attack, it was difficult to maintain civility, Pocan says. However, he praises the peaceful nature of the protests, especially because his and Vos' statement came in response to such a violent act.
"I think that's a really strong statement," Pocan says. "The public was able to have a discourse and disagree without having to [resort to violence], then certainly legislators should be able to do that."
Pocan believes the true impetus for the worst behavior among legislators was the budget repair bill. Not surprisingly, Pocan and Vos have different interpretations of the events that followed the introduction of the bill.
Vos acknowledges that both Democrats and Republicans made mistakes throughout the debate. The problem, he thinks, is that the issues became too personal. He believes Democrats put "political process ahead of discussing public policy," and feels that the "senators [who] made the decision to flee the state rather than stand up and debate" hurt the parties' ability to work together. Pocan, on the other hand, feels that the senators "had to leave the state."
Vos recalls several heated exchanges that took place in the Assembly -- including the time Rep. Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) shouted, "You're f***ing dead!" at Rep. Michelle Litjens (R-Winneconne) -- and says while he respects people's passions, raw emotion sometimes got the best of legislators. Language and interactions have become so coarse that it makes it difficult to give someone on the other side of the aisle the benefit of the doubt, he says, adding that the sad part is that there are a lot of hurt feelings on both sides.
The added element of protesters sometimes contributes to tensions.
"You had protesters who did things that are not just counterproductive, but I'd say downright stupid," Vos says. "Debate is all about convincing the other side; it's not about making a spectacle."
Pocan argues that the protesters' presence was a good thing, because people were watching state government closely and trying to be heard. He thinks having voters nearby serves as a reminder that lawmakers represent the people who elect them, not "conservative special interests in Washington."
A shrinking middle ground
Pocan and Vos agree that a common ground should exist between parties, but as Vos points out, legislators run for office because they hold strong beliefs -- beliefs on which they are not likely to bend.
"There should be lots of common goals," Pocan says. "We all have to fix the economy and try to create jobs, and we all should care about the quality of education in the state. We all should care about being a state that has some of the best healthcare in the country. I mean, we should all care about those things."
The war over collective bargaining is a battle Pocan thinks the state shouldn't have had to fight.
"We went to war and we tore the state apart over that money," Pocan says, adding that the amount of money the provision is expected to save is small in comparison to the total budget. Specifically, Pocan thinks Walker is the one tearing Wisconsin apart.
"Your job as governor should be, at that point, to take a pause and then try to take your case to the public and convince them why it's right," says Pocan. "Not to just keep pushing it and pushing it and not talk to the opposition party and just do what you're going to do, whether people like it or not. Because in this case, we were sort of an embarrassment nationally."
Walker, Pocan says, has led the practice of not reaching out to the opposition, which "poisons the environment at other levels."
"There's always room for compromise," Vos says. "But ... I understand why some people have said compromise is not possible, because you do have deeply held ideological beliefs. The middle ground has become smaller and smaller, and the ability to find it is tougher and tougher."
Time to cool off
A summer vacation might be a step toward civility in the Capitol. Pocan and Vos agree that taking time off, visiting home districts and allowing emotions to calm down might ease the stress of the last few months for Wisconsin's lawmakers.
The recent restoration of full access to the Capitol is also an important step, Pocan says.
"Once it's opened up, at least it's a physical sign that we're getting back to normal -- whether it's true or not, at least it's a physical sign of it," he says. "As long as we were under lockdown, you were reminding people every day… things aren't right yet. We weren't under lockdown like that after 9/11. We certainly shouldn't have been for what we just did."
Pocan is looking ahead to the upcoming recall elections with another solution in mind -- one that Vos is less likely to agree with. He thinks the "single best thing that could happen to improve relations" would be for voters to recall enough senators to flip the Senate to a Democratic majority. He adds, with a smile, that he's speaking "not just from a partisan sense ... just thinking pragmatically."
"That will force better relationships because you're going to have a Democratic Senate, Republican Assembly and Republican governor," Pocan says. "No one's going to get anything done unless they work together. So there's definitely incentive to get things done mutually."
What's at stake
Despite their partisan differences, Vos and Pocan share a strong concern that this session's activities will influence legislative behavior for years to come. This is because one-third of the members of the current Assembly are freshmen.
"The first thing they experience when they come to state government is the dysfunction that we've had, and that will probably have a decade of an impact on bad behavior, unless we find a reason to change it sooner than later," Pocan says.
Vos agrees: "This session was so contentious, I think an awful lot of freshmen have a negative impression of the way the other side does business."
Vos says he thinks people "have to be bigger and do it for the institution," rather than falling into the ruts created by partisan differences.
"I think people have to figure out a way to do it," Pocan says. "I think it was the best when you could argue on the floor and then still be friends enough to get together, because at that point, you at least kept the opposition party in mind as you thought about things."
Finding common respect
Legislators need look no further than Vos and Pocan for an example of how to maintain a level of respect in spite of ideological difference.
The two became friends after serving on the Joint Finance Committee together. Despite their heated public debates and tendency to disagree on policy issues, they spent so much time together that they began talking about other things. The two have continued their debate in a show called Civil Dialogue for WisconsinEye.
Vos explains that the Finance Committee is unique in the way it requires legislators to work in a "long, dedicated process with both parties," adding, "you get to know people."
"It's really hard to not at least understand someone else's perspective when you really know them," Pocan says. "Now, we can disagree on a lot, and we do, but we also had a lot of fun."
Coming away from such an intense legislative session, Vos says going forth it will be important to never let passions get in the way of seeing the other side as humans.
"If you can at least start with that basic human understanding ... at least you can find common respect," Vos says.
Pocan agrees: "So many issues aren't completely left or right issues, that people care about. And even then, when they are, you often find common ground that you didn't even know existed in some areas, if you really have a chance to get to know people and have that kind of conversation in a civil way, rather than on the floor ... And that takes ability to sit down and have conversations."