Peter Barca, who led Assembly Dems through the debate over Act 10 but was unable to make progress on pulling them out of the minority over three election cycles, will resign his leadership position at the end of this month.
Barca was challenged for his leadership post after the 2014 cycle and some Dem members openly considered challenging Barca him following the November elections, when the caucus lost a seat and sunk to its smallest minority since the 1950s.
Though he hung onto power last fall, he angered some members last month, when he supported a $3 billion incentive package for Foxconn, which is planning a plant in or near his southeastern Wisconsin district. Leading up the vote, he worked with Republicans on the legislation and praised pieces of it.
“This afternoon I made the very difficult decision to step down as leader of the Assembly Democrats following deliberate, thoughtful discussions. I am grateful to my colleagues for their support over the last seven years,” Barca said in a statement.
While the timeline for Barca’s departure gives caucus members time to consider their next leader, it also means the Kenosha Dem will be a lame duck next week during the chamber’s debate over final passage of the state budget as well as a vote to concur with changes to the Foxconn bill that have been made since it cleared the Assembly.
Speculation on a possible successor immediately swung to Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, who considered challenging Barca following the November elections. But he opted against a bid, citing the pending birth of his first child.
The 43-year-old sits on the Joint Finance Committee and has been a key Assembly Dem voice on the budget and other issues. But he also faced a difficult re-election in 2014 as Republicans targeted him over a 2011 citation at a massage parlor that was later shut down for prostitution.
He did not immediately respond to calls and texts seeking comment.
Barca, 62, took over the Dem caucus after it was swept out of power in the 2010 GOP wave and guided it through the debate over Act 10, Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal that ended collective bargaining powers for most public employees. But the caucus made no progress in climbing back from the minority under his leadership. Assembly Dems had 38 members to start the 2011-12 session, but saw their ranks drop to 35 after the November election.
Rep. Christine Sinicki, D-Milwaukee, said a faction of “young legislators who have never legislated” led the charge to oust Barca and discontent with him had been brewing in the caucus for some time.
“They don’t know how difficult it is to be a leader and were looking for a reason to remove him,” said Sinicki, who supported Barca.
Meanwhile, multiple Assembly Dems declined comment as they emerged from a closed-door caucus outside the Capitol.
Freshman Rep. Don Vruwink, of Milton, would only say, “Peter is a great friend to me.”
Barca originally served in the Assembly from 1985 to 1993, when he resigned following his election to Congress. He lost the seat in the 1994 GOP wave and worked in the U.S. Small Business Administration before returning to the Assembly following the 2008 elections.
Barca said he will continue to work for family-supporting jobs and “an economy that works for everyone.”
“I will continue this effort but will be able to put much more focus on my district, which will have more challenges than ever in the months ahead,” Barca said.
Emails surfaced earlier this year detailing some caucus complaints over Barca’s support of the Foxconn package, and Barca worked with Republicans on the bill as it was refined.
Republicans pointed to his vote in defending themselves against Dem criticism of the legislation. While the Joint Finance Committee debated amendments to the bill this week, Republicans regularly noted “your leader” was one of those who backed the bill. Some Assembly Dems believed Barca’s vote undercut his ability to lead the caucus in future discussions over the legislation. His backers, though, said he was just prioritizing his district’s interests.
State GOP Executive Director Mark Morgan called it a “shocking ouster.”
“Peter Barca took a reasonable vote in favor of good-paying Wisconsin jobs, and his extreme Democrat caucus ousted him for it,” he said in a statement. “Until Wisconsin Democrats offer real ideas and a message that will connect with the lives of hard-working Wisconsin families, they’ll remain in a dangerous race to the left — Wisconsin Democrats are in complete state of disarray and it’s only getting worse.”
This is not the first time Dems have parted ways with a leader mid-session. In 2007, then-Sen. Russ Decker led a successful coup of then-Majority Leader Judy Robson, D-Beloit. At the time, some Dems were unhappy with the state budget, which was delayed until October with their caucus in charge of the Senate and Republicans leading the Assembly.