By Peter Cameron, THE BADGER PROJECT
The Fitzgerald brothers are back in the same congressional district.
It’s a subtle but potentially significant result of the fierce redistricting battle that wrapped in April with a Wisconsin Supreme Court decision giving the GOP significant political victories.
The decision affects the political fortunes of two prominent Wisconsin Republicans who had designs on higher public office: Scott and Jeff Fitzgerald.
The brothers reside in Dodge County about 13 miles apart; Scott in Clyman and Jeff in Horicon. Until 2011, their hometowns sat in the same congressional district.
But after the 2010 Tea Party wave election, Republicans wielded majority political power in Wisconsin. Scott was the state Senate Majority Leader, and his younger brother Jeff was the Speaker of the Assembly. Republicans used that power to run a congressional district boundary line between the two brothers’ homes, moving them into separate districts — a change that laid the groundwork for both to serve in Congress without having to run against each other.
They might have been interested.
In a 2011 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story, both publicly considered running for the U.S. Senate seat vacated in 2012 when Herb Kohl retired. Jeff Fitzgerald took the leap, losing in the Republican primary to former Gov. Tommy Thompson, who then lost to Democrat Tammy Baldwin.
While the brothers said they weren’t sure at the time which would run, they told the newspaper it wouldn’t be both of them.
“We can’t because the Fitzgerald vote would be split,” Scott Fitzgerald was quoted in the story.
Nine years later, Scott Fitzgerald was elected to represent the 5th Congressional District, which includes the Republican-heavy Milwaukee suburbs and the rural areas to the west. Out of politics since his loss in the 2012 U.S. Senate primary election, Jeff is a partner with Paladin Consulting Group, a lobbying firm in Madison.
Now, the prospect may be much more remote for both Fitzgerald brothers to serve in Congress — unless one moves.
Neither Fitzgerald responded to messages seeking comment for this story.
The state Supreme Court decision allowed Republicans to gerrymander the district maps for the state legislature again. But the high court also accepted congressional maps drawn by Democrats, with a restriction: the party had to obey the court’s mandate to make as few changes as possible from the Republican-drawn maps of the past decade.
The new congressional maps, which Democratic Gov. Tony Evers submitted to the court, made Paul Ryan’s old district in southeastern Wisconsin more competitive for Democrats. They also moved Jeff Fitzgerald’s hometown back into his brother Scott’s congressional district.
Drawing districts for personal gain
Gerrymandering is not used solely for political parties to gain an electoral advantage, said Philip Chen, a political science professor at Beloit College. It’s also a tactic for personal gain or loss.
“That’s a pretty common thing that you see in redistricting across many, many states,” Chen said. “Trying to play these little games with people you want to keep in certain districts.”
Noting how the Democrats’ map erases the potential dream of the Fitzgeralds serving together in Congress, Chen asked, “is it a little bit of gamesmanship on the part of the governor? Possibly. I don’t know his logic. But it’s really, really common.”
When drawing the political districts, state law says legislators should make a good faith effort “giving due consideration to the need for contiguity and compactness of area, the maintenance of the integrity of political subdivisions and of communities of interest, and competitive legislative districts.”
Placing the Fitzgeralds’ hometowns back in the same district, more closely aligns with the statute, Ed Miller, a professor emeritus of political science at UW-Stevens Point, said in an email.
Evers’ maps “held together communities of interest better than the Republican-submitted maps,” he added. “This was the argument that they made before the court.”
But Republican-drawn congressional maps submitted to the court last year also put the Fitzgeralds’ hometowns back into the same district, said Ryan Weichelt, a geography professor at UW-Eau Claire who focuses on gerrymandering.
Republican Glenn Grothman has held the 6th Congressional District — which included Horicon last decade before the recent change — since 2014.
The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.