Monday, July 18, 2011

Southeast Wisconsin Redistricting, part II

In discussing the Republicans plan to join the City of Racine and the City of Kenosha into one state senate district, I described Kenosha as a solid union town. I neglected to contrast it with Racine except to say that the 21st Senate District has swung between Republicans and Democrats.

At the risk of sounding like I think Racine is a lousy place to live, and admitting up front that I'm going to be talking in stereotypes and broad generalizations, here is how I see Racine as being quite different from Kenosha.

Where Kenosha is Union Strong, Racine has developed a significant aversion to unions, and progressivism generally. It was not always thus: during the Great Depression, Racine got the nickname of Little Moscow due to its labor unrest. It even elected a Socialist Mayor in 1934, William Swoboda.

But not all major workplaces in Racine were union shops. S.C. Johnson & Son. Johnson Wax held off unionization by being one of the most progressive employers in the nation (recognizing same-sex domestic partner benefits in the 1990's when politicians were still afraid to stand up for LGBT citizens in any way.)

My generation -- the baby boomers -- grew up during a period when the public schools were repeatedly closed by public employee union strikes. The school janitors went on strike in 1970, and the teachers struck in 1972, 1974, and 1977. That last strike lasted 50 days -- from January until March -- and required Racine Unified School District to make up days by extending school through June 30, including six Saturdays (the maximum number of Saturdays allowed by law). Union president Jim Ennis proclaimed that he represented his union's interests, not the public interest, and people remember that. This winter, during the furore over Scott Walker's union-busting "budget repair" bill, I overheard a woman my age in a restaurant telling her fellow diners that the 1977 strike was the major reason she is against unions.

Augmenting Racine's skeptical view of unions is the longstanding attitude among many of its citizens that if something doesn't directly benefit me, I'm against it. If my children have grown up and moved away, I don't see why my taxes should pay for schools. If I don't exercise, I don't see why my taxes should pay for bike trails. If I'm scared to go downtown because of all the dark-skinned people who live there, I don't see why my taxes should pay for making downtown attractive.

In addition to school strikes, my generation was beset with Racine's reluctance to deal with school overcrowding. Year after year, voters rejected referenda to build a new junior high school, so my class and the one before it went through three years of "split shifts": seventh graders went to school from noon to 5:00 p.m., and eighth and ninth graders went to school from 7:00 a.m. to noon. (This coincided with a year of year-round daylight savings time, so everyone got a taste of walking to or from school in the dark.) Classes were only 35 minutes long, which is a pretty short time in which to teach geometry, to accomplish anything in shop, or to practice band. It's even less time to get anything done in gym class, factoring in changing into gym clothes, showering, drying off, and getting dressed for the next class. Finally, Gilmore Junior High (now Middle School) was built; but now, Racine's voters keep rejecting referenda to repair or replace the century-old elementary schools that are crumbling around today's students.

Here's another example of Racine's If It Doesn't Benefit Me, I'm Against It attitude. Saturday, I mentioned the recall of Republican State Senator George Petak. In 1996, the Milwaukee Brewers wanted to replace County Stadium. Since he couldn't sell the idea of a state tax to pay for a new stadium, Governor Tommy Thompson had the bright idea of a .1% sales tax limited to Milwaukee County and the five counties that border it: Ozaukee, Washington, Waukesha, Walworth, and Racine. Petak supported the new stadium, but knew how unpopular the tax was in Racine and promised to vote against it. As legislators wrangled over the bill into the wee hours of the morning, it was clear that the stadium bill would fail unless Petak voted for it.

He changed his vote to Yea, and Democrats rode the wave of popular outrage to take over the 21st District Senate seat. Unlike this summer's recalls, the outrage was bipartisan: Petak had to win a primary against a Republican challenger before falling to Democrat Kim Plache (which also resulted in Democrats seizing a senate majority). It was a mean campaign, however, and the venomous atmosphere was long-lasting. It's still not a good idea when at a Brewers game to let other fans know you're from Racine.

Given their similar size and geographic location, what makes Racine and Kenosha so different? Is it that Kenosha has two colleges and Racine has none?

By and large, Kenosha was settled by Italian immigrants, and Racine was settled by Scandinavians (primarily Danes). Italians have a reputation for adhering less to the state than to more immediate sources of authority: family and clan on the one hand, and the Catholic Church on the other. Scandinavians came here with a greater respect for the institutions of the state, but as Protestants (Lutherans), expecting more control over their religious institutions.

I work at a Lutheran church in Racine which claims the title of the oldest Danish congregation in the United States. I've thorougly researched the history of this congregation, which is marked by decades of squabbling over doctrinal matters and the personal conduct of its pastors. In one episode, the congregation voted whether to denounce their pastor, a Dane living only temporarily in the U.S., for attending a dance held to honor visiting Danish dignitaries. Congregational action of that sort would be unthinkable in a Catholic congregation.

My point here is that Kenoshans have a greater willingness to pull together as a community and Racinians display a greater demand for personal autonomy. When Sarah Palin castigates Barack Obama for having been a "community organizer," Racinians laugh with Palin; Kenoshans laugh at her. Kenoshans also seem more likely to carry through with a majority decision once it has been decided; Racinians are more likely to continue attacking the leader associated with whatever majority decision doesn't go their way.

The effect has been that when Kenosha faced the disaster of the closing of the Chrysler plant and all the companies that supplied it with material, Kenosha pulled together to determine its post-industrial future. Racine spent the age of industrial decline unable to agree what the future should look like and unwilling to spend a penny on anyone else's vision for it. Kenosha facilitated growth by forging agreements with its neighboring townships; Racine and its neighboring townships erected virtual Berlin Walls. Kenosha strengthened its ties to Chicago by becoming the northernmost stop on the Metra line; Racine is dead set against any form of interurban mass transportation.

It will be interesting to see how the difference in style plays out in elections for the 21st Senate District. And -- fair warning, Senator Wangaard -- the 22nd as well.

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