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'Bad day for democracy': Democrats in uproar after Wisconsin GOP rams through power grab

The measures would diminish the powers of the incoming governor and attorney general.
State Sen. Tim Carpenter Carpenter, a Democrat from Milwaukee, speaks during a special session on Dec. 4, 2018, at the Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin.Steve Apps / Wisconsin State Journal via AP

Hours after Republicans pushed through bills curbing the powers of the incoming Democratic governor and attorney general, Wisconsin Democrats charged Wednesday that it was nothing but a naked partisan power grab denying the will of the voters and would lead to gridlock and lawsuits.

"Certainly, physically I'm tired, but I'm sort of demoralized by what took place," state Rep. Gordon Hintz, the Assembly Democratic leader, told NBC News. "It was a bad day for democracy."

The legislation weakens the governor's authority, limits early voting and dilutes the attorney general's power by requiring a legislative committee to sign off on withdrawing from federal lawsuits. Gov.-elect Tony Evers and Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul campaigned on withdrawing Wisconsin from a multi-state lawsuit that seeks to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Evers called the bills a "hot mess" on Wednesday, and said he'd personally call on Walker to veto the legislation. He also encouraged Wisconsin voters to pressure Walker not to sign the bills into law.

Republicans say it's a better balance of power, while Democrats and advocates say the laws are a power grab by a GOP hellbent on limiting the power of their political rivals.

"Power-hungry politicians rushed through sweeping changes to our laws to expand their own power and override the will of the people of Wisconsin who asked for change on Nov. 6th," Evers said in a statement earlier Wednesday.

Former Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat who served as the state's attorney general as well, said the legislature's move "lacked class."

Doyle remarked that while former President George H.W. Bush was being praised for gracefully losing an election — famously wishing successor and rival President Bill Clinton well in a letter — the state's Republicans were engaging partisan ploys.

"In Wisconsin, you've seen the Republicans go the opposite way: We're mad, we lost, and we're going to try and change the rules," he told NBC News.

He said the legislation's restrictions on the governor's ability to staff the state jobs agency until September will make the governor's work more challenging.

Hintz said he fears the bills will lead to gridlock because of court challenges and unintended consequences.

"Rushing through legislation on three days notice, in an all night session, always leads to unintended consequences and outcomes that you ultimately have to go back and fix. It's a very bad way to do business,” Hintz said.

Gov. Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island, chair of the Democratic Governors Association, said that Republican legislative efforts in Wisconsin as well as in Michigan are "a dangerous assault on our democracy."

"Changing the rules when you don't like the outcome is a move befitting a playground bully, not elected leaders in the world's greatest democracy. Yet unfortunately, that's exactly what we're seeing lame-duck Republicans attempt in Wisconsin and Michigan," she said.

Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, a Republican who lost his re-election effort last month to Evers, was booed and heckled at a Christmas tree lighting ceremony on Tuesday for his support of the bills; the legislation will go into effect upon his signature.

Democrats won every statewide election including governor and attorney general and 205,000 more votes than Republicans according to Washington Post election data, but Republicans maintained a 27-seat majority in the legislature.

Hintz said the legislation — and GOP control — is thanks to partisan redistricting done by Republicans, insulating them from facing blowback at the ballot box.

"This is the government you get when you get to pick your voters," he told NBC News.

Doyle, who retired from politics in 2011, said the week's events in Wisconsin were a good example of the nation's political dysfunction.

"These districts are so divided, so safe Democrat or safe Republican," he told NBC News. "That means that you have this phenomenon where the legislatures are playing to their bases and not to the middle. And I think everybody who looks at what’s happening with our current situation in legislatures — and in Congress — would say that’s the cause of the problem."