Reader Mailbag: The Fight For Fair Maps, The Final Phase of the Pandemic, Republicans Turning Down $1.6 Billion, and 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.

Greetings, readers! And welcome to The Mailbag, where we can recombobulate, together. 

Before we get to your questions — and like always, you terrific readers brought some good ones and I thank you for them — I wanted to share a few thoughts on last week’s landmark news day on the pandemic. 

May 13, 2021 is a day that will go down as a major turning point in the pandemic in America with the CDC announcing that fully vaccinated people would no longer need to wear masks. That news also happened to land on the same day that the city of Milwaukee announced that it would be rolling back restrictions on large gatherings, including for Brewers and Bucks games. It felt like a seismic shift occurred all at once, almost seeming like a bookend to the events of March 11, 2020. 

Once the CDC made the call, changes in states across the country happened quickly. By Friday afternoon in Wisconsin, the head of the Department of Health Services said vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks. It showed just how top-down everything is in the public health world. Last year, with a basically absent federal government, every state was left scrambling to make their own decisions. This year, one decision is made at the top and it all falls like dominoes.

And yes, the pandemic is not yet over, and yes, there is still work to be done to get people vaccinated. But I am greeting this news with optimism, seemingly moreso than many others who I generally agree with on political policy. Quite simply, it’s time. 

The vaccines themselves have blown past expectations. Having two vaccines that are more than 90% effective and prevent transmission is a landing-on-the-moon level miracle. The domestic vaccine rollout has been exceptional. Joe Biden pledged to deliver 100 million shots in 100 days, and his administration doubled that goal. Wisconsin’s vaccine rollout raced to become one of the nation’s best, helping the state avoid a late-pandemic covid surge in the Midwest, and vaccines have been available to every Wisconsinite over 16 since the first week of April. We can’t overlook just how remarkable this all is. 

The success of these vaccines and the speed of the rollout has meant that cases are down across the country. Even states like Texas and Mississippi that ended their mask mandates in early March before vaccines were widely available have seen cases plummet. The data to support the necessity of strong mitigation policies just isn’t there anymore. 

Could the announcement have been handled better? Of course. The CDC sure did surprise people, and a two-week buffer zone that would have given the just-vaccinated and those at higher risk of serious illness time to adjust and prepare would have helped people. What this all means for parents of unvaccinated young children is still fuzzy. Constructing a system based around trust when so many people have proven themselves so untrustworthy over the course of the pandemic has some inherent flaws. But it’s possible that even the smoothest of transitions could have jolted people who have endured the year we have. 

And rule or not, there will be people who choose to wear masks indoors for quite some time going forward, which is more than understandable after 14 months of a deadly pandemic where we didn’t know which air was safe. There is no “back to normal,” only a path forward, one where we’re carrying with us all of our baggage from the past year, forging ahead in our own new ways. 

But the bottom line is this: The vaccines are ending the pandemic. It is happening. And whether mask rules for vaccinated Americans or capacity limits for large events end now or later this summer, they will soon be gone, and that will be the right decision. 

On Monday, Wisconsin reported the lowest single-day total for new covid cases in Wisconsin since April 13, 2020. We’ll soon see a day with fewer than 100 new cases. 

We are in a safer place now. Better days are ahead. It’s about time. 

With that, it’s on to the rest of the mailbag!

Which canceled event from 2020 are you looking forward to doing again in 2021? Bucks playoff game? Outdoor musical act? Neighborhood festival? - Greg Schueller

Is “All of the above” an option? What I’m really looking forward to is the return of The Great Milwaukee Summer. There’s no place better than this city at this time of year, and whatever version of it we’ll end up getting, I am READY! 

But as I’ve said before, the dream continues to be that Milwaukee will be the city to host the first post-pandemic championship parade when Giannis and the Bucks win the NBA Finals. The playoffs start this weekend, and I am a believer that Jrue Holiday can push this team to new heights in the postseason, so the dream is alive and well.

By rejecting the Medicaid expansion, Wisconsin Republicans are turning down $1.6 billion in federal funding for the state. Is this the worst thing they’ve ever done? - Kevin

That would be a tough list to craft, but I do actually think this is a contender. It’s not every day your state government turns down $1,600,000,000 of taxpayer money in order to ensure that 100,000 people living in your state have worse health care. That’s exactly what happened here.

Rejecting the Medicaid expansion has been an indefensible decision from Wisconsin Republicans year after year after year. Now, more than a decade removed from the Affordable Care Act passing into law, Wisconsin is on an island as the only state in the Midwest to decline the expansion, and one of only twelve nationwide to be making this alarmingly costly decision, year after year after year. 

The Wisconsin Republican Party continues to try to claim the mantle of fiscal responsibility, but in reality, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Just think of how far $1.6 billion could go in the state of Wisconsin. That’s a transformative investment in the people of this state, and the GOP-run legislature is just saying no for no real reason. It ranks among their worst actions, and that’s saying something.

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Very important issue: state legislative redistrict map drawing after 2020 census. The timeline is tight. Is there any hope for “fair maps?” If not, how can citizens leverage public opinion to help ensure fair districts are drawn? - Michael Grimm

What are the rules for redistricting in Wisconsin? What happens if the two parties can't agree? What are the next steps? - AJS

What districts are you most interested in seeing how they get redrawn this year? Either at the state or Congressional level? - Jake

I got SO MANY redistricting questions for this mailbag, just as I have for every mailbag. The people want fair maps!

They’re obviously not getting them right now. Wisconsin is the most gerrymandered state in the country. No place needs fair maps as much as we do.

And momentum behind the push for fair maps is building. A rally was held at the Capitol in Madison Monday to get behind the cause of ending gerrymandering, and several legislators are bringing forth a bill that would take the redistricting process out of the hands of elected officials. The logic: “Voters should choose their politicians; politicians should not choose their voters,” they said in the memo introducing the bill.   

Rep. Deb Andraca of Whitefish Bay is one of the legislators introducing the bill, which is modeled after Iowa’s nonpartisan redistricting system. She’s one of only three Assembly representatives to have flipped any of Wisconsin’s 99 districts since the last maps were drawn a decade ago. The current 60-39 Republican majority is actually the tightest margin since new maps were drawn. She says ending gerrymandering is the “most important issue facing our state today.”

“Ten years ago, when one team didn’t like the outcome of an election, instead of returning home and working hard, they manipulated the system,” she said in a speech at the Capitol. “They changed the rules and moved the goal lines so that it became nearly impossible for the other team to win. They drew maps behind closed doors and used new computer programs to design maps that made no sense unless your only goal was to keep the other party from winning. And it worked! Even though Wisconsin is a purple state, one party holds overwhelming majorities in the Senate and the Assembly that cannot be explained by geography alone.”

There’s one example of how egregious the process was under Walker, Fitzgerald and Vos during the last redistricting go-around that needs to be mentioned every time this comes up. Documents from the redistricting process a decade ago revealed now-former state Sen. Leah Vukmir literally picking and choosing which communities would be part of her district

This absolutely cannot happen this same way again. And it’s a good thing Tony Evers is governor and has veto power, otherwise Wisconsin would certainly be doomed to the same fate.

Also different now: The legislation now being introduced has some Republican support, Andraca noted, from Rep. Todd Novak of Dodgeville and Rep. Travis Tranel of Cuba City.

There’s also been some more recent news on the redistricting battle that has improved the prospects for fair maps. 

The Wisconsin Supreme Court rejected an effort by the hard-line conservative group Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty that aimed to change the rules on which court would hear redistricting cases. 

And weeks prior, Dane County Circuit Judge Stephen Ehlke voided contracts that Wisconsin Republicans struck with private law firms (yes, with taxpayer dollars) because there is not yet a lawsuit pending. 

So, things are happening. The wheels are in motion. And it’s going to be important for people to keep making their voices heard on this issue as it unfolds within the tight timeline. 

“This isn’t about party, it’s about restoring fairness to the process,” said Andraca. “It’s about creating a level playing field and working across the aisle on behalf of our state.” 

There is one unavoidable aspect complicating all of this: No one has been more committed to unfair maps than Robin Vos, and no one in the Legislature has more power on this (or any) issue than Robin Vos. Once again, he’s standing in the way of progress in Wisconsin.

And there’s also another factor, one Democrats won’t want to hear, but one that’s certain to complicate even the most fair of maps being presented under this process is the political geography of Wisconsin. Many of the “blue” districts in Wisconsin are overwhelmingly blue. 

As Marquette University’s John Johnson put it earlier this year, “It’s not that Wisconsin is splitting into half very red and half very blue places. It’s that Wisconsin’s Democrats are increasingly concentrated in very blue communities in a way that Republicans simply aren’t.”

Wisconsin may be more evenly divided between the two parties than any state in the country, squarely at the center of the national political debate, but it is extremely unlikely for that 50-50 split to be the case in the State Senate or Assembly even in the “nonpartisan” process being put forth in the legislature. 

Even so, any change would be an improvement upon the situation we currently find ourselves in. But what would some of those changes look like?

Aaron Moriak, Wisconsin twitter’s resident maps wizard and an advocate for redistricting reform, walked through several of the options in a recent Twitter thread. Some of the areas of focus include cities like Sheboygan and Waukesha that were split into two districts, the Green Bay area (longtime State Senator Dave Hansen said his district was drawn specifically to defeat him — he won, but the district flipped when he retired), a handful of Fox Valley seats, and several districts that cross the border of Milwaukee and Waukesha counties. The city of West Allis is somehow carved into three different Assembly districts; that’s an obvious one that needs fixing.

Wisconsin also has a unique approach to its staggered State Senate elections. Just half of them are up each election cycle, and each State Senate district contains three Assembly districts.

Moriak says there is precedent to limit changes to those Senate district boundaries after a redistricting cycle to minimize the number of voters who are disenfranchised by having to wait six years, rather than the usual four, to vote in Senate elections. However, he added, this precedent is quite flexible, noting that court panels have offered conflicting rulings.

Another big factor to watch in redistricting is Madison and Dane County’s population growth, which accounted for nearly half of the Wisconsin’s total population growth in the 2010s. There are some pretty screwy district maps in Dane County right now, and hopefully those can get cleaned up a bit. 

On the congressional level, Moriak notes, Madison’s growth could mean a smaller 2nd District, which is represented by Democrat Mark Pocan. That will most directly impact the 1st and 3rd districts, which could be the two most competitive going forward. Democrat Ron Kind will undoubtedly be vulnerable in his western Wisconsin district that’s been shifting toward Republicans (Trump won his district in 2020), and Republican Bryan Steil’s district is a bit of a wild card depending on how districts are drawn around the increasingly Democratic Milwaukee area suburbs. Steil, 5th District Rep. Scott Fitzgerald and 6th District Rep. Glenn Grothman each received between 59.2 and 60.2 percent of the vote in their respective districts in 2020, and at least one of those three should expect to face a closer margin going forward. 

So, all that said, maps are going to be a big deal for the rest of 2021. And it is important that no matter the result we end up with, it has to be done more fairly. Things are headed in a better direction, but things can fall apart fast in Wisconsin. 

Final note on this: It will be worth watching what happens at the federal level with HR1 and how that might impact gerrymandering, were it to pass. But that’s a whole ‘nother story.

Most days it's extremely discouraging to be politically "in tune" living in this state. What gives you the most optimism? - Andrew Gebel

It is not easy to be optimistic in this state right now. You are right about that. But there are so many people all across Wisconsin who are committed to making meaningful change. It’s that daily commitment of passionate, driven people doing the work day in and day out that gives me optimism. Done right, that is what will eventually win out. 

There is no magic bullet to turn this state around (we just got a harsh dose of that reality). Change has to happen from the ground up, and I do think that, to a certain extent, we’re seeing it, if you look in the right places. It’s just buried beneath one of the most extreme state legislatures in the nation, a woefully out-of-touch business community, and a general unwillingness to take bold steps forward.

Where I continue to find optimism is in the city of Milwaukee. This may defy logic at times, as this city so often takes two steps back as soon as it takes a step forward, but there is so much promise in this big small town and I do believe it will one day be realized.

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What would you do if Robin Vos was your state representative? - Chris Lorenz

I would spend a whole lot of time working at the grassroots level to try to unseat him. 

Is there a statistical or scientific explanation for Waukesha’s seeming inability to get it together? - Monida Reida

No. Waukesha defies science and reason. Its ongoing quest to get it together is a Sisyphean struggle.

What would you say is the meal you make the best? - Erik Granum

It’s becoming tradition now for The Mailbag to come to an end with a food question. I have enjoyed doing a whole lot of cooking during the past year and have learned to make a whole lot of new things. I’d say the meal I make best is one I learned to cook when I lived in Seattle -- linguine with clams. 

That’s more of a special occasion dish, though. I don’t break that one out too often. So, the two meals I most reliably cook well are chicken fajitas, and grilled pork chops with roasted vegetables. Those are ones that I’ve started coming up with my own seasonings and will try out different versions to keep finding ways to make them better each time. 

You always have to find your own ways to keep getting better. 

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.

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