MADISON — If there’s anything that can bring together the most politically divided state in America — yes, we’re talking to you, Wisconsin — it’s beer and brats.
That was the theory behind Gov. Scott Walker’s invitation to the entire Legislature to come to the governor’s mansion for a “beer and brats summit” Tuesday afternoon.
“I’m looking forward to a great cookout. We’ve got some fantastic, authentic Wisconsin products that we will be sharing with legislators of both political parties and their staff. I am hopeful this get-together will forge relationships that will make it easier to work together to help create jobs,” Walker said in a statement.
The peace offering is sound strategy, said John McAdams, political scientist at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
“It’s important to understand, as is true of all chief executives — whether we’re talking Reagan in ‘82 or Obama in 2010 — in their second year in office, especially when they’ve passed highly consequential legislation in the first year, their political capital is somewhat reduced,” McAdams said.
But McAdams wasn’t sure the cookout itself would produce any real breakthrough.
“At one end, this is publicity. All politicians think about their public image and think about their re-election,” he said. “At the max, it might be that with this and some other conversations, some highly consensual legislation might be possible. It would have to be something Walker and the legislature can agree on, that can give both Walker and legislature something to brag to their constituents about. Spending money for motherhood and apple pie type things — like jobs — is usually non-partisan. Anything that can be sold as a jobs package might fit the bill.”
Ninety-eight legislators said they’d attend the summit, while at least three others released statements of protest.
Democratic Reps. Kelda Helen Roys and Mark Pocan, both of Madison and seeking the U.S. Congress seat being vacated by Tammy Baldwin, dismissed the governor’s invitation as little more than a dog and pony show — or maybe a wiener dog and pony show.
“If you are truly interested in working with Democrats to move our state forward, I suggest offering meaningful compromise on policy rather than a photo-opportunity cookout at the mansion,” Roys said in a statement.
Pocan’s statement called it “a media stunt.”
Except of course that the media wasn’t invited to the party. Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie says the media’s exclusion is to provide a “relaxed environment for legislators to socialize,” with a high pork-to-reporters ratio.
State Rep. Steven Nass, R-Whitewater, also said in a statement he won’t attend the barbeque because, “Democratic leaders continue their offensive comments and threats of legislative chaos. We encourage our children to stand up to bullies. That’s exactly what must happen in the Legislature.”
“It is good PR for Walker and his administration to appear to be conciliatory,” said McAdams, who also noted it was good politics for Democrats not to play the role of “sore loser.”
Except for the presence of two dozen heckling protesters, Wisconsin’s lawmakers appeared congenial exiting the party.
“This is a great bipartisan event. I give the governor a great deal of credit for setting this up, for bringing people together. This is a very good first step after the recall to come together and find some common ground,” said state Rep. Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford. Protesters yelled “you’re a liar” at him.
Suder added Walker — who handled the grilling — was a “hell of a cook.”
State Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Madison, a notable critic of Walker’s environmental regulation reforms, agreed with Suder — in his own way.
“It was definitely bratwurst posturing, but the bratwurst was tasty,” said Hulsey. “The question is not what happened today, but what’s going to happen different tomorrow. Are we going to see real progress or more political BS?” he said.
That “different tomorrow” may have to wait until January, when the next legislative session is scheduled to begin.
Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, said, “I think it’s more important that we come back into session and pass a couple bills,” including mining, venture capital and funding for tech schools.
He added that the odds of the Legislature being called into a special session, now that Democrats appear to control the state senate, was “very, very slim.”
For all the political conjecture, the summit appeared to be a congenial affair.
“We’ve had way too much sizzle in the state, and we need more social interaction,” said state Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, who ate a bison brat. “The fact is that this process works based upon trust. And trust has broken down in this state.”