By Kirsten Adshead | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Democrats assumed control of the state Senate on Tuesday with pomp, circumstance and pledges of bipartisanship.
The laughter, however, was louder than the words.
“With all Republicans have done this past session to put Wisconsin on the right path …” began Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, the outgoing majority leader.
His words, however, became obscured by the laughter, much of it from gallery above, filled with people who likely disagreed with the controversial measures from Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP-led Legislature since assuming majorities in the 2010 elections.
“I call on the governor and Assembly Republicans to join us on taking action,” Senate Majority Leader Mark Miller, D-Monona, said. “It is time to move Wisconsin out of the bottom tier and get out people back to work.”
The recall elections last month gave Democrats a 17-16 edge in the Senate, and lawmakers convened Tuesday for the largely ceremonial task of swearing in newly elected Sens. John Lehman, D-Racine, and Jerry Petrowski, R-Marathon.
The process doesn’t happen without headaches or expense.
Committee memberships get reassigned, with Democrats installed as chairs. Leadership positions change.
Some senators will be moving offices, although the Senate Clerk’s office on Tuesday afternoon said the list was still being finalized.
It seems likely, however, that at least for the coming months, ceremony and better digs is all Democrats will get out
from their new majority status.
Lawmakers aren’t scheduled to reconvene until January, meaning either chamber could change hands again in November.
Democrats, though, hope Walker will call a special session – perhaps on jobs-related legislation – or that the Assembly will agree to call an extraordinary session sometime between now and Election Day.
“I think you can feel confident in saying the Assembly will not be coming back,” said Kit Beyer, spokeswoman for Rep. Robin Vos, R-Burlington, co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee.
“Look, I think there’s a lot of common ground, but we are in the middle of an election season,” said Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, who stymied the Republican mining bill last session by siding with the Democratic Party. “That makes it very difficult to get people together, to come back here, and you know, for that reason, I rather suspect we won’t be back.”
Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, a Republican, said that chamber would return to session if the Senate changed its mind on the mining legislation and would pass the Assembly bill that failed last spring, but it’s the the only issue he specifically said would tempt the Assembly back into session.
The chances of lawmakers – after the past two, four, 10 years — suddenly opting to make up and get along are probably slim.
Unlikely, though, is not impossible.
Conflict resolution expert Phil Clampitt, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, could walk them through the steps.
It begins, Clampitt said, by repairing relationships broken down by years of tit-for-tat squabbles broken only by games of one-upmanship.
“It sounds funny when I say it, but I’ve used it very effectively” with other groups, he said.
“I say, ‘Well, identify three situations where you’re typically misunderstood or people misperceive you,” he said. “Step two: After you’ve identified that, what is the underlying characteristic or attribute that really causes people to misperceive this in a particular way, and then the third part, I say, ‘Now, so what? What should people know about you to help them glean insight into that?
“I call it an instruction manual because when you buy a new product, you get an instruction manual on how to work it,” Clampitt said. “Sometimes, when we’re working with people, even people you’ve worked with for a long time, you don’t know what the instructions are for dealing with them.”
Few, if anyone, who has followed politics lately will find it easy to imagine, for example, the Fitzgerald brothers and Miller sitting down and sharing their feelings about why they feel misunderstood.
Clampitt isn’t even optimistic.
He said the divisions he sees — admittedly, as an outsider — in politics are much different than those he tries to resolve in businesses and universities, where there typically is a common goal but disagreement over how to achieve it.
“When we have a bill before us that’s important, that’ll be the test (of bipartisanship),” Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, said. “If there’s an interesting idea, a particular party putting it forward, the other party is interested in accepting amendments … we won’t know until that point. We can have all kinds of resolutions, like today, which is nice, but it isn’t the substance of what I’ve been talking about, and we’ll only know that when we have a bill that matters.”
But Clampitt said bipartisanship can begin now with relationship-building, no matter when lawmakers return to session.
There are, by the way, further steps in Clampitt’s process that involve finding compromise on smaller issues before delving into controversial areas and, ultimately, turning to a third party for help when necessary.
“That forces both parties to lay their best offers on the table and then on the basis of that, then the arbitrators must make their decision,” he said.
That is, in fact, what Clampitt believes will happen with the Legislature this year.
The arbitrators he has in mind? Voters — on Nov. 6.