There might be more at stake than just 13,000 potential jobs with the Foxconn deal. Such as, who leads the Assembly Democratic Caucus in the near future.
Currently, Wisconsin Assembly Democrats are led by state Rep. Peter Barca (D-Kenosha). Barca has been the leader since the Democrats lost the Assembly majority in the 2010 midterms. In the elections that followed, Democrats have lost an addition three seats and currently have 35 members in their caucus.
Despite all these losses, Barca has remained caucus leader. This has been attributed to his seniority within the group as well as the unwillingness of anyone else to assume leadership. When current leadership elections were held after the November 2016 midterms, Barca was unopposed with only slight “reservations” raised from Milwaukee Democrat Jonathan Brostoff.
All that appears to be changing as the legislature debated the Foxconn deal. With the likelihood of the proposed plant being near Barca’s district, this has put a noted strain between his constituents who want the plant and the caucus he leads which wants to do all it can to hand a loss to Governor Scott Walker; either by the humiliation of seeing the Foxconn deal implode or at the ballot box in November 2018.
As such, Barca offered what many in his caucus saw as passive opposition to the Foxconn deal. Eventually being one of the three Democrats to vote for the deal, Barca is now seen by his fellow Assembly Democrats as being on the wrong side of issue. So much so that Barca had to issue a public statement to the Wisconsin Gazette, an in-state liberal newspaper known to cater the LGBT community, to explain his vote.
“When my father immigrated to the United States and settled our family in Kenosha, it was a factory job that gave him the chance to eventually buy his own business and achieve the American dream. But as time passed, manufacturing left my hometown and communities all across Wisconsin. If we can create new good-paying, family-supporting jobs in a high-tech industry, it could give future generations the same opportunities my family had.
“At the end of the day, all politics is local. As I traveled my district over the last few weeks, I spoke with countless constituents and heard from nearly every major local leader in Kenosha and Racine that they supported this plan. That’s why I voted yes today.
Whether Barca’s statement placates members of his caucus remains to be seen. What was clear was that by Friday , the day after the vote, many in caucus were not pleased with his performance as leader. None more so than Lisa Subeck (D-Madison), who according to emails obtained by the Associated Press, expressed that she was ‘increasingly frustrated’ with her leader.
Emails obtained by The Associated Press show that Democratic state Rep. Lisa Subeck of Madison spelled out her grievances to Barca on Friday, the day after the Assembly passed the incentive package backed by Republicans designed to attract Foxconn to build a massive display panel factory in the state.
Barca was one of three Democrats to vote for the measure Thursday, with 28 Democrats against. Barca, of Kenosha, and the other Democrats who voted for it represent southeast Wisconsin, near where Foxconn plans to build a factory that could employ thousands. Reps. Cory Mason of Racine and Tod Ohnstad of Kenosha joined Barca and 56 Republicans in voting for the bill; two Republicans joined all other Democrats in opposition.
Most Democrats were outspoken in their opposition to the measure, branding it as a corporate welfare giveaway that also puts Wisconsin’s environment in jeopardy because of requirements that would be waived to speed construction of the plant that could open as soon as 2020.
Barca tried to walk a line, criticizing the process of quickly acting on the bill and saying that more improvements could be made to protect taxpayers, Wisconsin businesses and the environment. But ultimately he said he supported the incentive package because of the backing it has from people in his district.
Subeck, in an email sent to all Assembly Democrats obtained by the AP, accused Barca of failing “on all accounts” to differentiate his views on Foxconn with that of the rest of Democrats who voted against the measure. She was particularly upset with Barca for holding an impromptu news conference in the Assembly parlor, right around the corner from his office, shortly after the evening vote Thursday.
“I am also concerned that the message you conveyed,” Subeck wrote. “It seems you were trying to justify your own vote rather than share the caucus perspective consistent with our agreed upon message.”
She said that Barca’s public comments “have not been consistent with the majority position of the caucus and have served counter to our interest.”
What was ‘the majority position of the caucus?” That could be summed up by a series of joint statements issued by Assembly Democrats. Here’s what state representatives Subeck, Brostoff, Melissa Sargent (D-Madison), Chris Taylor (D-Madison), Sondy Pope (D-Mount Horeb), Terese Berceau (D-Madison), and Amanda Stuck (D-Appleton) issued last Thursday, shortly after all of the voted “No” on the Foxconn deal.
“Today, we proudly stood united for Wisconsin communities, Wisconsin small businesses, Wisconsin public schools and Wisconsin families in voting against a $3 billion massive corporate tax giveaway to a foreign corporation. Under the Foxconn scheme, millions of dollars in each budget for the next fifteen years will be drained from our schools, from our roads and bridges, and from our local small businesses to pad the pockets of a Taiwanese billionaire with a history of polluting rivers and abusing workers.
“There is no guarantee Wisconsinites will ever receive one dime in return. About the only guarantee Wisconsinites have received is that this corporation will be allowed to pollute our wetlands and streams with little environmental oversight.
“We all want to create good paying, long-lasting, family-supporting jobs. Unfortunately, this ‘deal’ feeds the profits of a foreign corporation from the kitchen tables of every Wisconsinite. We will continue to advance policies which actually invest in the people of our state, rather than a foreign corporation.”
Whether all of this leads to his caucus removing Barca as leader remains to be seen. For starters, only speculation could say who would be named Democratic leader after Barca. Would it be Subeck, who raised the caucus’ frustrations with Barca, or would it be someone else? Or Brostoff?
One potential candidate could be Oshkosh Democrat Gordon Hintz. Not only does he have the seniority inside the caucus (first elected in 2006), he’s been one of the most vocal critics of the Foxconn deal. In addition to that, he’s seen increased public exposure by serving on the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee (JFC) this session.
Of course, “increased exposure” for Hintz could be a double-edged sword. While he’s clearly made a name for himself this session, Hintz’s past is one of controversy; especially when that controversy includes being ensnared in a prostitution bust at an Appleton massage parlor as well as telling a female Republican colleague she’s “f—ing dead” during the Act 10 debate.
With all that in mind, it fair to point out that last week’s vote was probably not the last time the Assembly will have to approve the Foxconn deal. With the state Senate delegating its committee work to the Joint Finance Committee and the likelihood of changes occurring to the Assembly version, both chambers will likely have to take final approval votes on the measure before the end of September deadline set by the memo of understanding signed by Governor Walker and Foxconn CEO Terry Gao.
Meaning, Barca will likely have to face this political “Sophie’s Choice” all over again. Will his caucus demand he set the tone of opposition, or will he vote the needs of his district once more.
Who honestly knows; and that’s speculation enough.