Reader Mailbag: Gerrymandering, Wisconsin's Covid Outbreak, 2022 Election Speculation, Bucks Offseason, More

In these discombobulating times, let’s recombobulate together.

The Recombobulation Area is a weekly opinion column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.

Welcome to the first-ever reader mailbag edition of The Recombobulation Area!

After sending out the call for questions the other night, you all really brought it with some great ones. You asked about gerrymandering, Wisconsin’s covid outbreak, the 2022 elections, media in Wisconsin, 2022 speculation, and yes, the Bucks offseason. 

There’s a lot to get to, so let’s get right to it.

Let’s recombobulate. 

Alessandra Gillen asks...
Why are Covid-19 numbers so high in Wisconsin? I’m glad that Milwaukee isn’t on the “top 10” list, but I’m horrified. What happened to “We’re all in this together”? What happened to my state?

I’ll preface this (and all other comments on covid) by saying that I’m not a public health professional, so please take that into account going forward. 

But I don’t think you can divorce Wisconsin’s covid spike from its unique political circumstances in how it is responding to the outbreak. Wisconsin is the only state where the legislature can control the statewide coronavirus response, and since they’ve offered no plan in the more than 160 days since they sued to seize that unique control, that certainly has to factor into the results we’re seeing. 

You have to also recognize the message that Republican leadership has been sending in Wisconsin. The number of covid truthers in the Republican Party and in conservative media who have been sending anti-mask messages and downplaying the virus is truly alarming. There are a whole lot of people in Wisconsin who have been wrong about the pandemic over and over and over again, and as we’re now seeing dozens of deaths per day in Wisconsin, I hope they take some time to reflect on what they’ve said and done to make things worse for all of us. It didn’t have to be like this. 

The governor’s plan was committed to remaining “in this together” to combat this virus and endure this pandemic. The Republicans in the state took drastic action to torpedo those efforts. What happened on May 13 with that state Supreme Court ruling was a profound moment in our state’s history. The subsequent months of inaction have revealed what we probably already should have known: Politics in Wisconsin aren’t broken because of gridlock or partisanship or polarization. Politics in Wisconsin are broken because the Republican Party are the ones who are doing the breaking. 

Rusty Schackleford asks

It's sure to flip in the coming weeks/months but any idea why Minnesota with their ostensibly better government has ~40% higher deaths per capita than Wisconsin?

Wisconsin has had among the lower death rates in the country and in the region throughout the pandemic. When I talked to Dr. Jeanette Kowalik for a story this summer, I asked her about what Wisconsin was doing right to keep its death rate low. She first mentioned the larger impact of the state’s stay-home order, but also talked about how Milwaukee’s ongoing actions are positively impacting the rest of the state. 

So with that in mind, I took a look at the death rate in Wisconsin’s more populous counties as they compare to the most populous counties in Minnesota (using New York Times data on Thursday morning). 

  • Milwaukee County: 562 deaths (59 deaths per 100,000 residents)

  • Dane County: 47 deaths (9 deaths per 100,000 residents)

  • Hennepin County (Minneapolis): 974 deaths (77 deaths per 100,000 residents)

  • Ramsey County (St. Paul): 352 deaths (64 deaths per 100,000 residents)

Now, I’m certain there are many more factors contributing to Minnesota’s death rate being higher than Wisconsin’s. But Milwaukee and Madison’s success managing the pandemic has impacted Wisconsin’s ability to keep the death rate low, and that shouldn’t go unnoticed. 

Andrew Kuhn asks...

Is there any realistic way to break the current State Assembly/Senate gerrymander? Won't the current Assembly/Senate have to draw the maps next year? Why would they un-gerrymander themselves? It seems a bit hopeless in local Wisconsin politics honestly.

Tim Heesen asks...

Any idea on what kind of support there would be statewide for legislative boundaries to be drawn by a non partisan commission?

So, here’s what’s happening with redistricting in Wisconsin. 

What we know is: Wisconsin will get new congressional and state legislative districts before the 2022 elections, and current law says they’ll need to be approved by both the Legislature and the governor. What we don’t yet know is: How we’ll get there, and what those districts will look like.  

In January, way back in the Before Times, Gov. Tony Evers signed an executive order creating the “People’s Maps Commission.” The goal for that commission is for it to be nonpartisan, similar to what happens in Iowa. In response, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said, “They can create whatever maps they want to, but the Legislature is going to go through the same process that we always have.” You’re probably familiar with this dance at this point. 

The last redistricting process was ultra-partisan, and not a process you’d want to replicate if you cared in any way about fairness in the democratic process. Political observers often note just how deeply gerrymandered Wisconsin is, particularly in the Assembly, where a majority of votes in 2018 netted just over a third of seats in the chamber. Documents from the redistricting process a decade ago even revealed now-former state Sen. Leah Vukmir literally picking and choosing which communities would be part of her district. And although Wisconsin is one of the most evenly divided states on the political map, its state legislative chambers are the least competitive in the region

Amid this year of converging crises, the “People’s Maps Commission” has continued to take steps forward. Evers announced the application and selection process in July and announced selections for the commission in September. The first virtual public hearing was held on Oct. 1, and the next will be on Oct. 29 (you can register to testify or submit written comments for the virtual hearing). Hearings will be held once a month until April. 

Evers’ election was enormously consequential for redistricting. If Walker had won re-election in 2018, Democrats would have no seat at the table. Many Democratic state legislators (and Democratic candidates running for Assembly and Senate) have made fair maps a key part of their campaigns, so the governor will have vocal allies on the issue. And it’s important to note that Evers and Democrats don’t want to dictate the terms of the redistricting process, they want to leave it in the hands of the nonpartisan commission. The word “nonpartisan” is going to be debated endlessly in 2021.

When it comes to the Republicans running the Wisconsin State Legislature, I have one rule: Expect the worst.

They do not willingly cede control on anything and are clearly willing to pull any lever and do whatever it takes to consolidate as much power as possible. They know there is an enormous amount of power in redistricting. They are going to fight the “People’s Maps,” tooth and nail. Expect an ugly battle and expect the courts to be heavily involved.

As for support of a more democratic redistricting process, the Fair Maps Coalition has been helping build support for the effort to end gerrymandering in Wisconsin for several years, and has helped pass a Fair Maps Resolution in 55 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties. Non-binding Fair Maps Referenda have also been passed with overwhelming majorities in 17 counties, and are on the ballot in 11 more counties right now.

The Marquette University Law School Poll asked about redistricting most recently in Feb. 2020, and in that poll, 70% of voters said they favored a nonpartisan commission, and just 20% said the Legislature and governor should be responsible for drawing the districts. But as we’ve seen with this group of legislative leaders, especially during this term, they have no problem backing policies opposed by the vast majority of Wisconsinites.

So, stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the support is there, the coalition has been built, the process is underway, and the only thing standing in the way is the Republican-led Wisconsin State Legislature. 

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Rae Johnson asks...

Will Andrea Palm ever not be secretary-designee of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services? What’s taking so long? 

It’s quite strange how the head of one of the most consequential departments in the state amid a pandemic has not yet been confirmed, but that’s where we are with the State Senate and Andrea Palm, now well into her second year on the job leading the Department of Health Services. 

Norms are being broken left and right in Wisconsin. When it comes to what the State Senate might do to Palm and why they’re holding up her confirmation, look no further than the case of Brad Pfaff. Late last year, the State Senate made the unprecedented move of firing Pfaff, Evers’ pick to lead the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, by voting against his confirmation, a move Tony Evers called “absolute bullshit.” By leaving cabinet members unconfirmed -- something Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said he would do -- the Senate then has the power to fire someone like Palm at any time. It wouldn’t surprise me if some legislators wanted to fire Palm now, and I’d expect she’ll remain the secretary-designee for some time, even amid a worsening pandemic. Quite the system we’ve got here in Wisconsin. 

Will the coronavirus pandemic impact ticket sales for Fiserv next season? Will fans have sticker shock?

It’s hard to say where the concert industry stands in the face of covid right now, but as for Bucks games at Fiserv Forum, the start of the next NBA season is very much in flux. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told CNN last month that his “best guess” is that the season won’t begin until 2021. ESPN is reporting that the season could start by Christmas Day, but reported earlier this week that a start date could be as late as March.

March seems way too late to be starting the season, but probably too early to be comfortably filling the stands at the indoor arena, even with a mask requirement. And I don’t think people will be rushing back to attend big events anytime soon, certainly not in Milwaukee where city leaders are aggressively combating the virus. It’s possible that we could see some fans in the stands next spring, but it’ll still be a far cry from the sold-out crowds we were seeing in the Before Times. 

Michael Beardsley asks…

I have a lot of questions! Start with a hypothetical dart throw, what's the first major non-COVID legislative effort that passes into law with the new Congress (scenario for either Biden or Trump). 

I’m not going to even pretend to know what a legislative effort for a Trump second term would look like, so I’ll take that scenario for a potential Biden presidency. He said during the debate that he’d put a bill on a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented Americans in the first 100 days, which would be terrific to see. One thing I would also be looking for from Biden, though, is something at the nexus of climate and infrastructure. The former vice president talks a lot about climate change, and his plan has a great deal of support. He talks often about building renewable energy infrastructure, and in the Obama administration, he oversaw the Recovery Act, an underrated success story (which I wrote about in my Biden endorsement), and there were a whole lot of projects that would fit that description. He’s also long been an advocate for infrastructure improvements, particularly with transportation, and his plans for things from passenger rail expansion to lead pipe replacement could be the types of projects that power another smart recovery and make some of the under-the-radar changes that this country desperately needs.

How many days until the WI legislature actually goes to work? 

By Election Day, it will be more than 200 days since the Legislature last delivered a bill to Gov. Evers’ desk. I’d expect them to pass that 200-day mark and then some, but holding a session of some sort during the lame-duck period wouldn’t surprise me. Although, there’s no guarantee that would have anything to do with the pandemic.

Jeff Ash asks...

Grade or rank top 5 media outlets for serious, thoughtful, consistent, in-depth reporting on Wisconsin issues.

You’re going to get me in trouble here if I forget someone, but that’s because there are a whole lot of terrific journalists in Wisconsin and a lot of places doing some outstanding work. I’ll mention five of my favorites, of varying styles, in no particular order. 

Wisconsin Public Radio: WPR has become the statewide news outlet I visit most, and I’m not even much of a radio listener. They do a terrific job covering all corners of the state, have a knack for identifying which stories and issues are most important and framing them properly, and provide concise, clear-eyed reporting on our often gnarly politics. Longtime readers will also remember how much I loved their “Derailed” series. I feel like they’ve really risen to the occasion in their reporting on the pandemic, too. Strong stuff all around.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wherever you are in Wisconsin, you should subscribe to your local newspaper. Local newspapers are essential to a functioning democracy. And while they’ve endured cut after cut over the years, the JS still produces more high-quality journalism than anyone in the state. Reporters like Mary Spicuzza, Molly Beck and Ashley Luthern are always must-reads. And whenever the paper does something more in-depth, like their “Dairyland in Distress” series or Gina Barton’s in-depth account at the night of the Kyle Rittenhouse shooting in Kenosha, it’s absolutely essential.  

Wisconsin Watch (Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism): Extremely important in-depth investigative nonprofit accountability journalism. What’s not to like? Every state should have a Wisconsin Watch. We’re lucky they’re here. 

Urban Milwaukee: No one has covered the pandemic and the protests in Milwaukee the way Jeramey Jannene of Urban Milwaukee has. If you’re in Milwaukee, you should be subscribing.

UpNorth News: There have been a few new digital media outlets to emerge in Wisconsin this year, and UpNorth News is easily the best. They consistently demonstrate an understanding of the bigger picture that others often miss, and their reporters often come up with some really smart angles on statewide stories.

One more mention: This year has given me a greater appreciation for television news journalists because there really are a lot of good ones, especially here in Milwaukee. Steve Chamraz at TMJ4 has done tremendous work covering the covid outbreak, Victor Jacobo at CBS 58 is among the best at covering state politics, Derrick Rose at WISN 12 has been a tenacious reporter covering police accountability and protest politics, and Amanda St. Hilaire at Fox 6 is an open records master. 

Eric Granum asks

Who do you have as top candidates to run against Ron Johnson in 2022? 

Ron Henske asks...

Most likely to least likely to re-enter a Wisconsin race as a declared candidate: Paul Ryan, Scott Kevin Walker, Sean Duffy, David Clarke. Is the gubernatorial field cleared for (Rebecca Kleefisch)? 

I’ll group these 2022 questions together to first say: It’s very silly to be speculating about what’s going to be happening in 2022 ten days before the 2020 election. I have done no reporting on this, and have no inside knowledge. 

That said, you did ask, and this is a mailbag column, so here goes.

I suppose any discussion of 2022 statewide races has to start with what Ron Johnson decides to do. He’s been all over the place. He said he wouldn’t seek a third term, he said he might either run for governor or seek-re-election, who knows. But even though about 30% of state voters don’t have an opinion of him after a decade in office, he’s still probably the biggest name of those who might be running. 

If he does decide to run for a third term, I’d expect Democrats would relish the opportunity to run against someone with such a record of corruption, cruelty, incompetence and complete disregard for the well-being of his constituents at a time of crisis.  

The list of potential candidates has to start with members of Congress and those who have already won a statewide race -- representatives Mark Pocan, Gwen Moore, and Ron Kind; Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes; Attorney General Josh Kaul; State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski. 

Another to add to the list would be Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson (who ran for Congress in 2016), and who just (right after I finished writing this column!) filed a statement of candidacy for the race. 

Considering how much has been in flux at the State Legislature, there’s not a candidate who immediately jumps out as someone who could go straight to the Senate, but Joint Finance Committee members Rep. Evan Goyke and Sen. LaTonya Johnson (both of Milwaukee) are both quite good at their jobs, so that should mean something, but perhaps for something further down the line.   

People have wanted Rep. Ron Kind to jump into a statewide race for a long time, but until it actually happens, I’m not going to expect that it will. Barnes seems too important to Evers’ re-election chances in helping round out the ticket by speaking to younger and more diverse voters to leave that re-election fight. And at just 33-years-old, he’ll have his turn to run for higher office. 

Of all the potential Senate candidates, my guess for who is the most likely Democratic candidate is Mark Pocan. He would again follow his predecessor, Tammy Baldwin in making the jump from Wisconsin’s 2nd Congressional District to the Senate. He has progressive credentials as the Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, but he’s stepping down from that post at the end of this term. As a fixture of Wisconsin politics for more than 20 years, he has the name recognition that few could compete with. 

As for the Republican side of the 2022 statewide debate, I’d expect former Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch to be the heavy favorite to win the gubernatorial nomination. Others like Waukesha County Executive Paul Farrow and former congressman Sean Duffy could be in the mix, but Kleefisch would be their strongest candidate. Readers of this column may, as I do, strongly disagree with her on policy, but she’s an experienced and talented politician, and I would not discount her in a race to unseat Tony Evers. She’d be a formidable candidate. 

To get back to the question and rank those you mentioned from most likely to run for office in Wisconsin to least likely, it goes like this: Sean Duffy, Scott Walker, Paul Ryan, David Clarke. 

Now, it’s time for the Bucks offseason questions! Here we go, folks. This is where it gets fun. 

Bucks 20/21 starting 5? - Michael Beardsley

Most surprising Buck to be moved prior to the new season? - Rob Henske

Who are you looking to add IF you keep Bledsoe and Brook? Is Oladipo out of reach? - Eric Granum

This is obviously an important offseason for my beloved Milwaukee Bucks, and it’s clear that they need to make some changes to the roster after falling short in the bubble playoffs, and with the clock ticking on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 2021 free agency. 

The Bucks cannot cannot under any circumstances trade Giannis. Even if he signals he might leave after this season, you have to see this through to the end because there will never be another player like him here again. Along with the MVP, Khris Middleton is the only player I’d be genuinely surprised to see on the move. 

On the other side of that question, I would be very surprised if Eric Bledsoe was on the roster next season following yet another playoff disappointment. I think his time in Milwaukee should be over. He seems like a good guy, and anyone who commits on defense the way he does can be an impact player in this league, but it’s just not going to happen for him in Milwaukee. We’ve seen enough. Brook Lopez might be the single most underrated player in the NBA, but he might be the asset the Bucks have to move to make the upgrade they need to make in the backcourt, where they desperately need playmaking and shooting. 

The trade I am hoping for (and have been hoping for) is for Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday. Eric Nehm of The Athletic proposed the idea of a three-team deal with Detroit to make it happen. The framework of that deal would bring Holiday to the Bucks, send Bledsoe and Donte DiVincenzo (and some minor draft assets) to the rebuilding Pistons, and send a package that could include Pistons guard Luke Kennard, the Pacers’ first round pick (acquired by Milwaukee in the Malcolm Brogdon deal), and other picks and expiring contracts to New Orleans as they build around last year’s first overall pick Zion Williamson. 

Holiday is one of the most underrated players in the NBA, and the type of two-way guard that would fit perfectly in Milwaukee. He’s an all-world defender at the guard spot, and with his versatility, might even be an upgrade over Bledsoe on that end. He’s definitely an upgrade over him on the offensive end. He’s not quite the knockdown shooter you might hope to add to this offense, but he can create off the dribble, and has experience playing with a talented big-man in his years alongside Anthony Davis, and could get lobs and dunks to Giannis in ways no guard in Milwaukee has been able to. He’d be the best playmaker the Bucks have had in the backcourt in quite some time. 

So in that scenario, my closing five would be: PG: George Hill, SG: Jrue Holiday, SF: Khris Middleton, PF: Giannis Antetokounmpo, C: Brook Lopez.

A starting five in this scenario might include someone like Wesley Matthews or another spot-shooting wing and bring George Hill off the bench to run second units, but those five on the court in crunch time could go to battle against anyone in the NBA. 

I’ve liked the ideas of trading with Sacramento for Buddy Hield or Bogdan Bogdanovic, but if you’re going to make a deal that’s going to cost some of your few trade assets, why not swing bigger for Holiday? 

As for Victor Oladipo, I like that idea, too, but have no idea how it gets done. It makes little sense for Indiana to reunite Bledsoe and Brogdon in the backcourt, and Brook Lopez is beyond redundant on a team that already has too many centers, so where does that leave you for trade assets? You’d have to REALLY like DiVincenzo, I guess. There is real upside for the oft-injured Oladipo in Milwaukee, though, as the Bucks’ incredible training staff has been their secret weapon, and that could really be a mutually beneficial scenario, even if just for one season.

One other thing I’m looking for from the Bucks this offseason is to add someone with some edge. This is a team of high-character, community-minded family guys who I’m proud to see represent Milwaukee. But they are lacking some snarl, and could use a veteran enforcer type who isn’t afraid to mix it up a bit (and stand up for Giannis when he’s getting fouled on his way to the basket for the thousandth time). Free agent forward Jae Crowder could be a good signing, and if the Houston Rockets decide to make some changes, PJ Tucker is someone the Bucks should definitely target. 

Joey Mullaney asks...

What happens first - Ersan Ilyasova's contract with the Bucks expires or WI State Republicans pass something for COVID relief?

This is my least favorite prop bet ever. The inevitably of Ersan Ilyasova, Milwaukee Buck, vs. the least active legislative body in the nation. 

I’ll say Ersan gets bought out first. 

Greg Schueller asks

What do you wish you had time to cover, but haven't been able to because of everything else going on in 2020?

“Reader” asks…

Can you dedicate more posts to Milwaukee-area politics issues? There is an avalanche of political news and analysis about national issues and local views on these issues are, frankly, not terribly pertinent. This is true, albeit to a lesser degree, about state issues as well. We get it, the state Republicans are terrible. How about local coverage? There is virtually none. What's going on with Barrett with his most critical cabinets posts open? How is Crowley doing? etc. That's where there is a shortage of coverage and a need for good journalism. Thanks.

I’ll answer this question along with the anonymous reader question/comment/criticism together, because my response is much the same.

When I first envisioned The Recombobulation Area, I thought it would have much more of a Midwest-as-a-region focus. As it has evolved, state and local issues have become much more of a priority in what I’m covering and that’s going to continue to be the case going forward. While I disagree with the reader’s comment on pertinence of state and national politics on the local level -- the state legislature is enormously important to local communities in Wisconsin and that’s part of the reason I keep writing so much about it — I do want to be providing more coverage of the city and county I live in. 

There’s so much happening here and I want to be writing about more of it. I have a few more Milwaukee-focused ideas I’ll be hoping to explore after the election, so stay tuned.

But for now: Vote. Go get five more people to vote. Make sure your friends and family members have a plan. Make sure they’re voting now, voting early, and voting safely. The coronavirus is out of control in Wisconsin, and you don’t want to put yourself in a situation where you have to choose between your health and your right to vote on Nov. 3 as many had to on April 7. 

Don’t wait. Vote now. 

Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The Daily Beast, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.

Thank you for reading The Recombobulation Area and supporting independent journalism in Wisconsin.