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Splits bubble up at state Capitol

By Matt Pommer

Old divisions among Democratic legislators bubbled up during the recent votes on new labor contracts for more than 35,000 unionized state workers.

The Democratic-controlled Assembly narrowly approved the agreements, but the contract measures failed in the state Senate on tie votes. Democrats had an 18-15 margin in the now lame-duck Senate. The new Legislature, which will have large Republican margins, will be sworn in the first week in January.

Deserting their fellow Democratic senators were Russ Decker of Weston and Jeff Plale of South Milwaukee. Decker, a former bricklayer active in his union before joining the Legislature, was defeated by a Republican in November. Plale lost in a Democratic primary in September.

Democrat environmentalist leaders, especially in the Assembly, helped mount the primary challenge to Plale. The liberals were especially annoyed that he had joined Republican-leaning business groups in opposing ideas promoted by those Democrats.

Plales friends thought current Gov. Jim Doyle should have headed off that intraparty rivalry that led to the senator’s primary defeat.

Decker is no big fan of Doyle, who is completing eight years as chief executive of the state. Early in his legislative career, Decker was the right-hand man of Democratic Senate leader Chuck Chvala, who left the Legislature after he was indicted on 20 felony charges in the state Capitol corruption scandal in 2005.

Chvala was furious at Doyle’s style and some of his approaches to running the state. Chvala’s forced departure from the Senate put Decker into a larger leadership role. But many think Chvala continued to play a key role in determining how Senate Democrats maneuver by providing guidance to Decker.

One of the criticisms of Doyle was that he is a loner who didn’t court legislators of his own party. Doyle didn’t seem to like the idea of consensus building on issues both big and small, his critics whisper.

Gov.-elect Scott Walker, a Republican, had urged that the labor contracts be set aside until he took office. Walker wants to require state workers to contribute more toward their fringe benefits. Walker has hinted he might eliminate collective bargaining for state workers if the unions don’t roll over and accept his terms.

“Like it or not, state employees are going to have to negotiate with a new governor,” Decker said after the Senate vote. That assumes Walker’s threat to end collective bargaining was merely bravado.

“If these contracts had been brought to us before the election, as they should have been, this would have been an entirely different matter,” added Decker.

Democratic senators ousted Decker as their majority leader in order to bring the labor contracts to a vote. Decker, the former head of the Central Wisconsin Building Trade Council, also had a warning for unionized state workers: “One of the worst things you can do is poke a sharp stick in the eye of a new employer.”

On the other hand, a lame-duck poke at a departing governor sends a final message.

Matt Pommer worked as a reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.

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