Poor Rep. Peter Barca (D-Kenosha). The Assembly minority leader's role seems to be as the face of a bygone, good-government era in Wisconsin history, looking on in horror as state Republicans run roughshod over everything from open meetings law to voting rights in their frenzied rush to convert our state into a one-party kleptocracy.
Back in 2011, there was the viral YouTube video of the Republicans aggressively ignoring Barca and holding a surprise committee vote on a piece of legislation no one had time to read, over his shouted objections that they were breaking the law. Last week, on the last day of the legislative session, Barca was standing by late into the night as Republicans passed a boatload of regressive bills in a 13-hour marathon.
To add insult to injury, the Wisconsin State Journal ran an editorial the same morning on the Republicans' rotten, gerrymandered voting districts, putting the blame on... Peter Barca.
How, you might ask, are voting districts engineered by Republicans in secret, illegal sessions to keep Democrats out of power Peter Barca's fault?
Well, huffed the State Journal, as Assembly speaker back when Democrats were in control, Barca had the opportunity to impose a nonpartisan district map, but he let that chance slip through his fingers, hence the headline phrase "Barca's Big Mistake as Speaker."
The problem is that Barca was never speaker. Staffer Melanie Conklin pointed out the State Journal's gaffe on Twitter. After the tweet, the State Journal revised that phrase in the headline, cutting the word "speaker" so it just read "Peter Barca's Big Mistake."
Never mind that Barca was just one of 52 Democrats the State Journal could have blamed for not pushing through nonpartisan redistricting.
"I didn't realize I had so much power," Barca joked. "They forgot when I was governor in the '80s and president of the United States...."
The reflexive middle-of-the-roadism of the State Journal (Democrats and Republicans are equally to blame, partisan gridlock, blah blah blah) has absolutely nothing to do with our current reality in Wisconsin. Every arm of state government has been taken over by an aggressive right-wing gang that has contempt for ordinary democratic process.
Never before has one party gerrymandered districts in Wisconsin by imposing total secrecy on the process, requiring legislators to sign secrecy oaths on the details of the new district maps, refusing to produce documents on the process after a judge demanded them, and apparently destroying the evidence. That's how we got an all-Republican state government despite Democratic wins in every statewide election in 2012.
Sure, the Democrats should have locked in nonpartisan redistricting when they were in power. But to compare the fecklessness and self-interest of the Democrats when they controlled the Legislature to the all-out aggression and criminality of the current regime is to totally miss the story.
Take a look at what the Assembly Republicans rammed through between Thursday and Friday last week. On top of voter ID and shorter voting hours, they are proposing a constitutional amendment to make it harder to recall them. Another constitutional amendment would get rid of the seniority system for picking the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, just because they don't like Shirley Abrahamson.
Barca was left to observe that while constitutions are historically amended to enhance and protect people's rights, the Republicans are trying to amend the constitution to take away rights from the people.
"How many ways can we do power grabs and suppress votes?" Barca said of the flurry of antidemocratic bills.
These included taking away control from local elections clerks and restricting voting hours, making it harder for people to get to the polls.
"One thing that strikes me is it's really the politicians versus the people," Barca says. "The whole idea is to frustrate people from even participating in their democracy."
The State Journal is right: The only answer is for the people to wrest back control of their democracy, and fair, nonpartisan district maps are key.
Back before the wipeout of 2010, when the Republicans took control of state government and began their campaign of destruction, Rep. Spencer Black (D-Madison) proposed that Wisconsin adopt the Iowa model -- a nonpartisan map that could be drawn up every 10 years by the Legislative Reference Bureau (the same system the State Journal endorsed).
"It would have been nice if we could have gotten it done," says Barca. "We didn't have the votes."
But, bless him, Barca is actually optimistic.
"As you look at the other states, state by state is going this way. Eventually it will happen in Wisconsin."
I hope Speaker Barca is there to see it.
Ruth Conniff is the editor of The Progressive.