Freshmen lawmakers prepare for session
Incoming state lawmakers arrived at the Wisconsin State Capitol on a foggy Tuesday, just three weeks after winning their elections, for a two-day orientation including sessions about legislative rules and responsibilities.
Following an election season marked by the departure of many incumbents, this year’s class of newly elected legislators includes seven senators and 24 Assembly representatives. The bipartisan gathering was the first time that members of both parties were able to get to know one another.
Rep.-elect Angie Sapik (R- Lake Nebagamon), who arrived in Madison the night before orientation to avoid driving through a snowstorm, said orientation is the first time she’s been able to meet Democratic lawmakers. Her prior meetings were just with the Republican caucus.
“I really, in particular for this orientation, enjoy that we’re blended and it’s not just the Republicans or just the Democrats,” Sapik said. “Obviously, if you’re going to be working together, you need to meet each other and being able to do these orientations and learn together at the same time is really helpful.”
Republican Rep.-elect Jerry O’Connor of Fond du Lac said the few meetings before orientation helped him get better at knowing other Republicans, and that orientation is another opportunity for him to keep putting names to faces, especially when it comes to connecting with Democratic representatives.
“Now, I have 35 new Democratic Assembly [representatives] to learn,” O’Connor said. “I’m seated next to one and [you look for] wherever you can find conversation.”
Those conversations represented an opportunity for lawmakers to get to know one another. Rep.-elect Ryan Clancy (D-Milwaukee) said he spoke with Rep.-elect Peter Schmidt (R-Bonduel), a dairy farmer, about the high cost of feeding cows and how feeding them hemp can have some unintended consequences.
“I had an amazing conversation with a farmer, who is going to be one of my colleagues, about feeding hemp to cows and how the problem is that the resulting milk has THC in it,” Clancy said. “I’m like ‘a problem?’ This is a great new product for Wisconsin, like weed milk is gonna be the wave of the future.”
Clancy said he hopes that relationships built across the aisle will carry over into the session and that there will be more unstructured opportunities to build relationships with his Republican colleagues.
“I don’t know to what extent that’s kind of a honeymoon,” Clancy said. “But I’m hopeful about being able to strengthen some of those relationships, and I hope that folks can push back if there’s pressure to not have those relationships with those of us who are the minority.”
The freshmen orientation, organized by the Legislative Council, included sessions on floor procedure, ethics, public records law, the budget process and other lawmaker responsibilities. Rep.-elect Nate Gustafson (R-Winnebago) said everything has happened very quickly since the elections, and that the sessions were helping everyone learn the things incoming lawmakers need to know.
One session, titled “The Media: Friend or Foe?” provided tips to lawmakers about interacting with reporters, giving interviews and developing a personal brand on social media.
“Everything’s about relationship-building and knowing who your media contacts are,” Gustafson said. “A lot of people who are newer are going to be skittish,” he added, “but obviously this is something that I think can get normalized a little bit.”
Rep.-elect Chanz Green, a Republican from Grand View, said his biggest takeaway from the media session was to be open and honest with the media because it’s one of the best ways to communicate with constituents.
Green also said the session also told him it’s best to stick to one’s strong suits when it comes to social media.
“A lot of people don’t know how to use Twitter and Instagram, things like that, so don’t use things you’re not comfortable with,” Green said. “Personally, I’m not a big social media guy…I like my simple life but I feel Facebook is a good opportunity for me to connect with people and that’s it.”
He said he would not be branching out by creating a TikTok account.
Aside from learning about how to be legislators, new members were also learning their way around the Capitol building, and some were more confident than others.
“Learning your way around here is pretty easy actually,” Sapik said. “I mean because it’s all just separated by North, South, East, West and floors. That’s pretty rudimentary.”
Others, like O’Connor, had to ask for some direction.
“Figuring out the building?” O’Connor said. “Yeah, that’s a full-time job.”
“Figuring out the building? Yeah, that's a full-time job.”
Freshmen lawmakers were taken on tours of open offices and pulled numbers to decide the order in which they get to choose their offices.
One guide, showing around a group of Republican lawmakers, said there were pros and cons to the offices available on different floors. Freshman typically take vacant offices on the fourth floor. The five offices available on the ground floor tended to be bigger, but are noisier because of traffic.
“You’ll be surrounded by Democrats, but it’s a very nice office if you want a window,” the guide said of one available office space.
Sapik said choosing her office felt like getting a locker in school, except unlike school there weren’t arguments over who got which office. “If a couple of people picked the same office then one person would just, you know, concede, no big deal. You can have this one,” she said.
Sapik said she’s most looking forward to getting organized before the start of the session by hiring staff and setting up her office.
Clancy said there weren’t enough offices to go around for Democratic representatives, so he’ll be sharing an office with Rep.-elect Darrin Madison Jr. (D-Milwaukee).
“There’s the potential there to have our staff learn from each other and collaborate,” Clancy said.
Lawmakers will be sworn in in January, and until then, they’ll be preparing for the coming session, where finding common ground to pass legislation has become a frequent theme.
O’Connor said he heard a lot of different ideas on the campaign trail and he’s reaching the point where he understands that they’ll need to figure out what to do with those ideas.
“Between the Senate and the Assembly, there’s a lot of people that have a lot of things they want to get done, so we’ve got to find that common ground,” O’Connor said.
Republican leaders are hoping to implement “transformational” tax changes in the coming session, while Democratic leaders are looking to repeal Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban and provide additional funding to public schools. Leaders have emphasized they’re hoping to work together in the coming session.
Clancy left the orientation with the hope that the coming session will be productive.
“I feel like not only part of a team of Democrats, but also part of the Assembly as a whole,” Clancy said. “I don’t have any real expectations about what we can get done, but my hope is that we can collaborate and find some common ground and get some good legislation passed.”