By: Brian Sikma – Community leaders respond to this issue here.
With Wisconsin’s new legislative district maps nearly finalized, up to four incumbent Democrat lawmakers are preparing to move into newly redrawn majority-minority districts to insure they can retain their power in the state capitol. Mapmakers have updated or created several districts in the cities of Milwaukee and Racine that contain majority populations of minority ethnic and racial groups. The Federal Voting Rights Act requires states to insure that minorities have proportional representation in state legislative bodies. Compliance with this mandate means states must create legislative districts where the majority demographic is comprised of racial minorities.
Democrat lawmakers Rep. Cory Mason (Racine), Rep. Sandy Pasch (Whitefish Bay), and Rep. Josh Zepnick (Milwaukee) are Caucasian lawmakers representing predominately Caucasian districts. Under the new maps their districts have changed – in some instances they have trended more conservative and in others the incumbents found themselves in a district already occupied by an incumbent. Some Republican lawmakers have also faced the corresponding dilemma of seeing their districts trend more liberal or found themselves drawn into districts with another incumbent.
But it is only Democrat lawmakers who are moving from their Caucasian dominated districts into districts currently drawn to empower legislative representation of racial minority groups.
Rep. Sandy Pasch (D) currently represents the 22nd Assembly District, but she announced earlier this week that she is leaving that district and moving into the newly redrawn 10th Assembly District. The 10th Assembly District is represented by Elizabeth Coggs, an African-American legislator who is now running for state Senate. Minorities (defined as non-whites) comprise 73.23% of the district. For the twenty years prior to Rep. Coggs’ tenure the district was represented by Annette Polly Williams, a respected African-American leader who championed the creation what became Milwaukee’s third African-American legislative seat.
A federal court challenge to the new maps centered on whether or not Republicans created enough districts to insure that minorities have increased representation in Madison. At the heart of that dispute were the 8th and 9th Assembly Districts. While the court did order a redraw of the boundary line between the two districts to protect the Hispanic leanings of Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa’s (D) 8th District, the neighboring 9th District still maintains a minority population of 66.4%. That figure is enough to meet a federally declared threshold for minority districts, and some Hispanic groups argued that the seat as originally drawn by Republicans would have guaranteed Latinos not one, but two representatives in Madison.
Rep. Josh Zepnick (D) has announced that he will move out of his current new district and into the majority-minority 9th district in the hopes of winning a race there and continuing to serve as a state lawmaker. One source told Media Trackers that there is an effort underway to recruit a Hispanic candidate to run for the seat.
In Racine the city’s lone African-American lawmaker has announced his retirement at the end of this term. That makes the revised 66th District with a minority population of 53.01% an open seat with a history of being represented by an African-American lawmaker for close to 22 years. Rep. Corey Mason (D) is choosing to move out of his current district and into the minority-majority 66th where he will attempt to secure the seat for himself.
Mason has come under fire from conservatives and Republicans for spending a significant amount of time at his second home in Dane County. Critics say his Racine home serves only to insure that he can represent a district (any district) in Madison where he sits on the powerful Joint Finance Committee.
Finally, there is speculation that Rep. Fred Kessler (D) an outspoken critic of the redistricting plan, will move out of his current residence and into the redrawn 12th District. Kessler told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last July that the redistricting maps and process were a “vicious abuse of partisan power.” The redrawn 12th District is 69.26% minority with the vast number of those being African Americans. Unquestionably the seat offers Milwaukee’s African-American community a solid shot at securing another legislative seat, but a move by Kessler could deny them that opportunity.
Rep. Kessler refused to be interviewed for this report.
Prior to 1992 there were only four African-American Assembly seats in Wisconsin. Today there are seven. If all four Democrat lawmakers succeed in their declared or speculated moves, it means that three of those African-American districts will be represented by non-African-American Democrats who moved into those districts for the purpose of holding on to their state legislative positions.