Split government has saved Minnesota from gerrymandering before. It may do so again.

The ink is dry. The bills are signed. The deed is done--a December sun sets on Madison and a new era of charged partisan politics in Wisconsin dawns.

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan (left) shakes hands with Central Lakes College instructor Steve Wenzel. Wenzel is a former 30-year veteran of the Minnesota House of Representatives. Submitted photo
U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan (left) shakes hands with Central Lakes College instructor Steve Wenzel. Wenzel is a former 30-year veteran of the Minnesota House of Representatives. Submitted photo

The ink is dry. The bills are signed. The deed is done-a December sun sets on Madison and a new era of charged partisan politics in Wisconsin dawns.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed a bevy of bills Friday, Dec. 14, that limit the power of the incoming Democratic gov.-elect and state attorney general, as well as restructuring of the statewide electoral process looming in 2020. It's the culmination of efforts by Republican lawmakers in the state House and Wisconsin Senate, who have not been shy about their stated intentions to curb the powers of the incoming liberal regime.

These lame-duck bills hamstring the ability of the statewide-elected governor to enact his agenda and oversee government agencies to which he's responsible, to say little of the state attorney general who will be forced to back lawsuits he explicitly opposed on the campaign trail.

Steve Wenzel, a former Minnesota state representative and political science instructor at Central Lakes College, said there's inherent risk to this ruthless brand of partisanship-namely, it works well when you're on top, but there's always the inevitable backlash from the opposing camp. In a vulnerable position, there's little moral high ground to argue the party in power should treat the opposition better than they did themselves.

"When there's ever been a party too much in control, there's been a revolt by the people," Wenzel cautioned. "It seems to me that the Republicans, led by Scott Walker, they came together and wrote a redistricting plan that was extremely partisan. They did their work for a party exceptionally well to get that kind of result."


Wenzel pointed to the 1978 election, where the DFL-despite enjoying an imposing supermajority, 103-31 in the Minnesota House, in the wake of the Watergate Scandal-ultimately surrendered a landslide of seats back to Republicans because of their aggressive politics. It became known as the "Minnesota Massacre."

"We got arrogant," Wenzel said. "It just goes to show that overnight a state can flip."

Out-of-state spectators may look at Wisconsin-and similar political sagas playing out in Michigan and North Carolina-and wonder how a party can get such a stranglehold in state institutions.

There are a number of factors in play here, and time will tell if some of these initiatives-particularly restrictions on early voting-will hold up in court, but the root of the issue is how districts are redrawn and who holds the pen. Both major parties have actively participated in gerrymandering at many points in their respective histories.

Minnesota, along with Wisconsin, leave districting responsibilities to the state Legislature-or, as is often the case, the ruling majority party-a traditional approach that's been criticized as a systemic, institutionalized conflict of interest.

In nine states of the union, an independent bipartisan commission is appointed to draw the districts and a 10th-Alaska-leaves the ultimate authority in the hands of its governor, a statewide-elected official.

Lines drawn in Cheesehead country

State Rep. Robin Vos, the GOP House speaker in Wisconsin, justified his party's tactics as fulfilling the mandate of the state Legislature, the "most representative branch of government."


That's all well and good on paper, but that's also the crux of the issue, because the Wisconsin state Legislature doesn't look all that representative-judging by the numbers.

Wisconsin's state Legislature districts are unconstitutionally drawn to favor Republicans and pigeonhole Democrats, effectively gerrymandered-per a ruling by a panel of federal judges in 2016-and the results are telling.

In the State House, Republicans maintained their dominance they've enjoyed since 2011-which is to say, they lost one seat to Democrats, bringing the tally to 62 Republicans and 37 Democrats. This, after an election that saw Wisconsinites cast 53 percent of ballots for Democrats against 45 percent for Republicans across the state.

When districts are taken out of the equation and it's a statewide race, Democrats swept the Republican opposition in statewide office races, as well as the U.S. Senate race where incumbent Sen. Tammy Baldwin trounced Republican challenger Leah Vukmir by about 300,000 votes.

A brief history of politics in St. Paul

When Wenzel speaks of Minnesota politics, he does so from a unique perspective-a former 30-year veteran of the state House, a conservative DFLer and politico who rubs shoulders (and sports long friendships) with a number of figures across the political spectrum.

In the 1970s and '80s, redistricting was passed through the state Legislature and then-as was often the case dominated by split government, much as it is now-the issue was then handed to the federal courts for final deliberation, Wenzel told the Dispatch during a phone interview Monday, Dec. 11.

That all changed in the '90s, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state supreme courts had the final say when it came to redistricting-through it all, it's been largely a story of split government, where both sides were forced to compromise, Wenzel said. As such, neither side has been able to effectively implement gerrymandering, especially on a scale on par with Wisconsin.


Downsizing in '71

Back in the days of yore, when the Minnesota Legislature was still non-partisan (officially, anyway) between 1916 to 1975, the 1972 redistricting process played out oddly between the narrow conservative majority in both houses and the DFL governor, Wendell Anderson.

"What they did was very unusual. They passed a redistricting plan that passed muster with both sides-the conservatives in the (state) House and Senate, as well as the DFL governor," Wenzel said. "What happened, in the redistricting bill that they passed, they reduced the size of the Legislature tremendously. The districts just became huge, just huge."

Staring at downsizing across the board-from 134 members to 100 in the House, as well as 67 to 30 in the Minnesota Senate-lawsuits were brought and the Supreme Court weighed in, ultimately overruling the Legislature and drawing up their own map.

Redistricting in '81 (and 2001, and 2011)

In many ways, this was a reversal of '72-featuring a Republican governor, Al Quie, locking horns with a DFL majority in the state Legislature.

"We passed a plan. The governor vetoed it. It went to the federal courts and we were back to square one," said Wenzel, who noted that split government in redistricting years has led to stalemates, whether it's Gov. Jesse Ventura and a Republican Legislature, or Gov. Tim Pawlenty and a DFL majority.

The "Botched Veto" of 1991


With Republican Arnie Carlson and a DFL majority in the state Legislature, it looked like another take on '72 and '82-which is to say, a stalemate between both sides that ended in the hands of higher powers.

"The DFL passed a redistricting plan that favored the DFL House and Senate, and Arnie Carlson vetoed it," Wenzel said. "But he took his time vetoing it-all he needed to say was 'This district map is partisan and I object to it.' Instead, he almost wrote a dissertation on everything wrong with it."

However, it was discovered by a young House staffer that-per the Minnesota Constitution-there was a small loophole. Once a bill is vetoed, Wenzel said, it's supposed to go back to its original governing body and signers. Because Carlson took so long, and because the bill ultimately went back first to the state Senate and then the House-where it originated-second, the veto was deemed void by the Minnesota Supreme Court.

As such, the DFLers' map stood and the '90s were dictated by their vision.

Eyes on 2021

With the GOP loss in the state House, it ends Republican hopes to consolidate congressional districts in the 4th and 5th-centered in the Twin Cities metro-which would weaken Democratic representation and enable Republicans to pick up another seat on Capitol Hill.

Now, if the DFL wants to overhaul districting, it will be a matter of taking the Minnesota Senate in 2020-thereby giving them the majority they require to do so, Wenzel noted. Until then, the one-seat edge by Republicans presents a barrier.

So, could a gerrymandered state on par with Wisconsin and North Carolina be possible in the not-so-distant future?


"I just don't see that happening here in Minnesota," Wenzel said.

The curious case of '32

Minnesota's closest brush with this brand of ruthless partisanship, a la modern day Michigan, Wisconsin, or North Carolina-at least in the last century-came in the elections of 1932. It should be noted this was a case of congressional districts, not the state Legislature.

Up until that time, Minnesota was something of a mirror image of itself today-staunchly Republican, electing 18 GOP governors to just three Democrats, and backing the red presidential ticket 18 consecutive times between statehood in 1858 and 1932.

While Democrats largely dominate state politics today, back in the '30s they played second fiddle to the leftist Farmer-Labor party (with which they would ultimately merge). Farmer-Labor was surging-capturing the governorship with Floyd B. Olson in 1930, with signs pointing to a wave overtaking the strong Republican majority in Minnesota's 10 congressional seats.

Make that nine congressional seats with the 1930 census, and there's the crux of the issue-staring at a colossal defeat in '32, the Republican caucus went to the literal drawing board and manufactured districts so gerrymandered that even Republican-leaning newspapers dubbed it a travesty of the electoral process.

It's difficult to say how many gerrymandered seats would have kept Republicans in Congress, but-with enough savvy mapping and a little luck-the GOP had the opportunity to retain eight of the nine seats despite a Farmer-Labor surge.

Needless to say, the gerrymandered map backfired. Unsurprisingly, Olson vetoed the map. Republicans didn't have enough of a majority in the state Legislature to override Olson's veto, so the issue went to the Supreme Court-where most of the justices were Republicans, including Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes.


But, Hughes shot it down. The map was scrapped-too late for Election Day, only weeks away-so the state was forced to cobble together a ballot with no districts, all nine seats subject to a statewide at-large vote. Voters had their pick from a daunting list of 30 candidates for these seats, to say nothing of the other statewide offices up for vote.

And-perhaps in keeping with a state known for bucking political orthodoxy-Minnesota's voters went split-ticket and sent a diverse mix of congressmen to Capitol Hill to the tune of five FLers, one Democrat, and three Republicans.

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