Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley says it’s time for the Capitol to move beyond picking fights and trying to score political points.
And it’s a message the Mason Dem says applies to her side as well as Republicans.
“People are bored of that,” Bewley told WisPolitics.com. “They’ve learned, they’ve seen through it that we’re wasting time and everybody is trying to get on camera. Nah, if you want that kind of publicity, go to Hollywood or something. We have more important work to do now.”
Bewley’s caucus goes into the 2021 session with smaller numbers after losing two seats in the November election. Republicans will have a 20-12 majority come Inauguration Day with one vacancy — the heavily Republican seat of GOP Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, who’s resigning Jan. 1 to join Congress.
The northern Wisconsin Dem said she has to be a moderate because she’s from a purple district and believes members need to be willing to compromise to get things done. She’d also like to limit “the people who want to be prima donnas” and take potshots at the other side.
But Bewley said she’s not giving anybody instructions on how to approach this session. Instead, she’s laying down her hopes. She also said she expects members to be passionate about issues because of their personal values or the views of their constituents.
And she said Dems need to keep pushing forward on several issues..
“We can never stop being advocates for the environment, for women and social justice,” Bewley said. “We just cannot let that one go.”
She also aims for her caucus to leverage “everything we’ve got” to uphold Democratic values as the minority party. Doing that, she argued, will help Dems climb back toward the majority.
“We are always relevant as long as we are smart and as long as we are truly saying what the people are saying,” Bewley said.
Bewley said she hopes the Legislature will quickly move on a COVID-19 bill early in the session. She also expressed an openness to working on liability legislation to provide some entities with protection from COVID-related suits. But she doesn’t believe that issue will be hammered out in time to be included in a COVID package and should be addressed separately.
“We’ve got middle ground. We really do,” she said.
Some Dem lawmakers have complained about poor communication and coordination between the East Wing and the minority caucuses during the first two years of Gov. Tony Evers’ term. Bewley, who took over as minority leader in the spring after Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, stepped down from the post and then resigned from the Legislature, said she’s been pleased with her access to the guv so far.
“If we get really good at understanding what it is we can do for each other, we’ll do a better job,” Bewley said.
A WisPolitics.com review of results in the Nov. 3 presidential race by legislative district shows Joe Biden won just 37 Assembly districts and only 11 in the Senate even as he narrowly won the statewide race. Donald Trump won in two districts now held by Dem incumbents — Bewley’s seat and the Eau Claire district represented by Sen. Jeff Smith.
The results underscore the challenges that Dems continue to face with rural voters. Eight of the Senate districts Biden won include significant parts of Dane or Milwaukee counties. The other four include Sen. Bob Wirch’s seat, which includes the cities of Kenosha and Racine.
Bewley said Dems were hampered in rural areas by their decision not to do doors this fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic. She also attributed some of the GOP’s success to the way Trump captures the attention of some voters on an emotional level — even if he doesn’t deliver on his promises. That loyalty to Trump trickled down the ballot, she said.
She said Dems won’t shift to an “ego-driven campaign protocol.” Still, they need to recognize that voters want to be reached in a meaningful way on a personal level.
“Democrats are much less willing to make it ‘I’m your hero and I’m going to save you,’” Bewley said. “Democrats focus on what their values are and what they’re going to do.”
Bewley, who was elected to the Assembly in 2010 and the Senate four years later, said she’s still weighing whether to run for reelection in 2022. She called her time in the Legislature “the most significant work I’ve done in my life.”
“I can’t predict not doing this. At the same time, I’m 69. My husband is retired. But there’s a lot of people who serve in the Legislature in their 70s. Look at Fred Risser,” Bewley said, referring to the Madison Dem, who is retiring at the end of this session at the age of 93 after more than 50 years in the Legislature.