A few weeks back I heard from a Democratic member of the state Senate, who wanted to raise an issue of grave concern (or rather, he wanted me to raise it): his party's failure to pass a nominal increase in the state's minimum wage, even now that Democrats control both legislative houses and the governor's office.
"We waited 20 years to get the majority, and now we can't pass a minimum wage bill," the senator told me. "It's an embarrassment to me as a Democrat."
Last January, state Dems declared raising Wisconsin's minimum wage from $6.50 to $7.60 an hour a top priority. Indeed, the Senate version of this legislation bears the name SB-1, the first bill of the new biennial session.
The bill, which includes a provision to annually adjust the minimum wage in response to inflation, promptly passed the state Senate on an 18-14 vote. Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan, a former union leader, was said to support the bill's Assembly version, AB-41, but you'd never know that from anything that's happened since. The bill was introduced last February and referred to committee, where it's remained.
I asked the senator why this was so, since the Democrats have a 52-46 majority in the state Assembly. His answer: "We have too many Assembly Democrats afraid of their own shadow. Too many business Democrats."
Could I quote him on that? He said it would depend on whether I got other Dems to also comment, on the record, which I never did. I tried to get the good senator to go public with his criticisms anyway, but he didn't call back.
Talk about being afraid of one's shadow.
Anyone who thinks this is an isolated instance of political pusillanimity has not been paying attention. Here's how it works: The Democrats talk a good game when they run for office and then betray the people who put them there.
To say that Democrats lack the courage of their convictions misses the mark. They appear to lack both courage and convictions.
Witness the first year of President Barack Obama, who was elected on a campaign slogan of "Change We Can Believe In," only to revise it post-inauguration to "Change You Can Forget About." On health care, national security, gay rights and most other issues, the Democrats are the party of cave.
Part of what's happening nationally, of course, is that Republicans are using their procedural power to frustrate the president's agenda. Their goal is to maximize the suffering of ordinary Americans to increase their party's chances in the midterm elections.
But here in Wisconsin, the Dems have only themselves to blame. One full year of Democratic rule has produced almost nothing in the way of substantive change. That's because the claim that Democrats have fundamentally different allegiances than Republicans is bogus.
Take the minimum wage bill. Wisconsin's rate rose last July from $6.50 to $7.25 to match the federal minimum, so SB-1 and AB-41, if passed, would deliver a mere 35-cent-per-hour bump, along with the automatic adjustments. But even this is apparently too much for the Dems.
I asked to discuss this issue with Assembly Speaker Sheridan, who we now know is dating a lobbyist for the payday loan industry even as he works to weaken legislation to regulate it. He didn't call back. I tried talking to the Assembly bill's lead sponsor, Rep. Cory Mason, over a period of seven weeks. He blew me off too.
The only Assembly Democrat who agreed to speak asked to do so off the record. This Democrat said the bill has not come up for a vote because it would not pass; too many Democrats would vote against it. That's because the tourism and resort industries want to pay their workers as little as possible, and these are important industries in many Democratic lawmakers' districts.
A look at the legislation's lobbying profile affirms this. Labor unions and do-gooder groups have registered support, while associations representing tourist attractions, chambers of commerce, restaurants, hotels and theaters are opposed. The Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce reported spending eight hours, half of its entire lobbying total for 2009, working to defeat this bill.
Happily for these folks, the Democrats are listening.
Back in 2005, when the state increased its minimum wage for the first time in seven years, Rep. Sheridan made a prescient statement: "As the Legislature moves on, it is my sincere hope that future increases in the minimum wage will never again be treated as a partisan issue. The needs of Wisconsin's working families are not about Democrats and Republicans."
That's precisely what has come to pass. Now both Democrats and Republicans click their heels in response to the same corporate masters, Wisconsin's working families be damned. They've in effect become the same party. If you don't believe that, ask somebody making $7.25 an hour what difference they've noticed from having Democrats in power.
What Mike Sheridan and other Assembly Dems need to do is bring AB-41 to a vote. Let everyone see which Democrats take a stand against a 35-cent-per-hour hike in the minimum wage. Otherwise, the public is right to consider the entire party complicit in this betrayal and throw them all out.
It would be better for Wisconsin if the Legislature were led by true Republicans, rather than Democrats who act just like them. And it would be best for everyone if the state's current crop of Democratic lawmakers found more useful occupations.
I hear they're hiring in the Dells.