With new legislators taking the oath of office Monday during the biannual changing of the guard in Madison, that means three familiar faces no longer will represent parts of the Chippewa Valley.
Saying goodbye to their constituents will be Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, and Sens. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, and Terry Moulton, R-town of Seymour. The trio have served in the Wisconsin Legislature for a cumulative 30 years.
Despite party differences, all three legislators expressed gratitude for the opportunity to serve in elected office and represent the people of west-central Wisconsin.
The Democrats, who both chose not to seek re-election so they could run for governor, warned of tough times ahead for divided government, especially in light of controversial laws passed in a lame-duck session last month by Republicans controlling the Legislature to limit the power of Gov.-elect Tony Evers and Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul, both Democrats, before they took office.
Vinehout, 60, who has represented the 31st Senate District since 2007, said she takes pride in knowing that seemingly small steps she took involving policy or constituent service had the potential to make a big difference in the lives of Wisconsin residents or the success of state businesses.
She cited examples such as passing a bill to allow adult children to stay on their parents’ health plan until they turn 26 years before the Affordable Care Act made that national policy and helping an Eau Claire woman navigate the red tape to bring an HIV-positive boy she had adopted from Africa to the United States.
While Vinehout said she introduced 364 bills and had 43 become law, she noted that she had to work with Republican colleagues and take second billing to get bills passed as part of the minority for the past eight years. It was a sacrifice she said she made readily to get things done.
Vinehout mentioned that she and area legislators from both sides of the aisle left a legacy by working together to get state funding approved for the Confluence Project in downtown Eau Claire.
“It will enhance Eau Claire and the Chippewa Valley, hopefully, for 100 years,” she said.
By contrast, Vinehout’s biggest frustrations involved examples of partisanship and late-night arm-twisting from leaders in both parties, including times when lawmakers were asked to read lengthy bills and vote on them in a matter of minutes with little or no discussion. Not the right approach for a known policy wonk like Vinehout.
Regarding the measures Republicans pushed through in the recent extraordinary session, Vinehout predicted a serious negative impact next summer, when she said deadlines kick in for new rules requiring state agencies to footnote in great detail thousands of pages of documents that state agencies use to guide their interpretation and application of state laws.
She envisions the onerous requirements potentially leading to numerous lawsuits and a potential state government shutdown.
Her best advice to new legislators is to treat everyone in the Capitol with respect, regardless of party affiliation.
“When it’s necessary to be confrontational, try to stick with the facts and avoid making it personal, name-calling or impugning anybody’s motives,” she said.
Looking ahead, Vinehout said she plans to take some time for herself and spend some time on her farm before making any decisions about her next career move.
“I’m keeping my options open,” she said.
Vinehout will be succeeded in the 31st District by Democrat Jeff Smith of the town of Brunswick.
Wachs, 61, who has represented the 91st Assembly District since 2013, said he enjoyed his time in the Legislature and undoubtedly will miss it but is looking forward to returning full time to being a trial lawyer, a profession he loves.
After six years in the hyperpartisan, often combative atmosphere of the Legislature, Wachs said the relative civility of the court system will be a welcome change.
“The judicial system is different in that it has protocol and procedures that are really honored and long-lived,” he said. “Frankly, our Legislature could use some of that decorum.”
State politics is unlikely to return to the civil and bipartisan climate that prevailed in the 1970s and ’80s until Wisconsin changes the way it draws legislative district boundaries, Wachs said. He is hopeful the U.S. Supreme Court will rule in favor of plaintiffs challenging gerrymandering that gives Republicans a nearly insurmountable advantage in legislative races even though Democrats have earned more votes statewide.
The current system plays to the extremes, Wachs said, although he believes most residents are in the political middle.
“That’s why things are as partisan as they are, and it causes people to lose confidence in our democracy,” he said.
Wachs also expressed confidence that court challenges ultimately will be successful in overruling some of the legislation Republicans passed as part of the extraordinary session after the November elections.
“I find it alarming that they tried to functionally disrupt the consequences of an election after the fact,” he said. “To try to usurp the will of the people the way they did is very disappointing.”
While Wachs acknowledged that it was often frustrating to be in the minority with little chance of passing any bills he authored, he said he remains proud of accomplishments such as mitigating the negative impact of several GOP bills, responding to constituent concerns and helping to get several building projects approved on UW System campuses through his work on the state Building Commission.
“It’s been a mixed bag, but overall I enjoyed it and it has been an honor to represent this community,” he said.
Rep.-elect Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, will take over for Wachs in the 91st District.
Moulton, 72, who served in the Assembly from 2005-2009 and then in the Senate from 2011-2019, chose not to seek re-election last fall.
“I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the Legislature, but I didn’t go into it for a career,” Moulton said. “I did it for my kids and my grandkids. It was a challenging experience.”
Moulton said the state’s unemployment and deficit were high when he returned to the Legislature in 2011. Moulton pointed to the strong business climate, balanced budgets, lower taxes and the lowest unemployment rate in state history as evidence that he and his fellow Republicans have done a good job of leading Wisconsin.
“I’m proud to say I’m part of a team that financially, turned this state around,” Moulton said.
However, the discussion over Act 10, which ended collective bargaining for most state employees, was a difficult time.
“I had death threats, and threats against my family,” he said. “That wasn’t fun, but tough decisions had to be made.”
Moulton said he’s proud of the bills he authored that got passed, ranging from hunting measures to those that supported children in foster care. His largest regret is that a bill to ban the use of fetal body parts in research never gained approval.
Some of his highlights were meeting people in his district, particularly youths.
“I had the opportunity to go into different government classes at schools, and it was something I really enjoyed,” Moulton said.
He called it a privilege to represent the 23rd Senate District and said he was humbled by the trust residents placed in him.
“It was a tough decision to leave,” Moulton said.
Moulton noted that many laws he authored started as ideas that people across the 23rd District shared with him at listening sessions, community events or chance run-ins.
Rep. Kathy Bernier, R-Lake Hallie, will succeed Moulton in the 23rd District.
Staff reporter Chris Vetter contributed to this story.