DELAFIELD, WI – Genesee Street was parked in around the combination city hall and public library building. By the standards of this city in the heart of Waukesha County, this was a hoppin’ red-hot Saturday morning. Waukesha County, of course, is rather the heart of the Republican Party’s strength in the state, the core of the support that elected Scott Walker to be governor, and that produced an overwhelmingly Republican state legislature, and that fundamentally transformed a Wisconsin political culture that had its roots in the vastly different Republican Party of the late 19th and early 20th Century, the party of Fightin’ Bob LaFollette and the “Wisconsin Idea,” both creatures of a new concept of the state university.
In his memoir, published in 1911, LaFollette explained what the Wisconsin Idea was all about:
We believe there that the purpose of the university is to serve the people… During my terms as governor… I made it further policy, in order to bring all the reserves of knowledge and inspiration of the university more fully to the service of the people, to appoint experts from the university of the state—the civil service commission, the railroad commission and so on—a relationship which the university has always encouraged and by which the state has greatly profited.
Since taking office, of course, Scott Walker has made war upon the independence of the state’s university system, seeking to make it a creature of his own office. (He even made a try at gutting the very concept of the Wisconsin Idea and lied about having done so.) There is nothing that more clearly delineates the transformation of Wisconsin politics than tracing the passage of its state’s Republican Party from Bob LaFollette to Scott Walker, and one of the people who’s been there for most of the ride is James Sensenbrenner, the crochety old Republican from the Fifth Congressional District now in his 38th year in the House of Representatives.
Sensenbrenner came to Delafield on Saturday for a town hall meeting and that was the reason that parking was at a premium downtown, and also the reason that the combination city hall and public library building was bristling with alarmingly well-armed – but exceedingly polite – police officers, more than a few of them from out of town.
For his entire career, Sensenbrenner has been a relatively loyal Republican from a very safe district. (The Fifth is the most Republican district in Wisconsin.) At the same time, he has spent an awful lot of time spoiling for a fight and usually finding one, even if he has to start it himself. He was the congressional author of the USA Patriot Act in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001. In 2005, during the debate over the renewal of that measure, Sensenbrenner ended a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee by simply walking out after telling C-SPAN to shut down its cameras and telling the official stenographer to stop taking down the minutes.
By June of 2013, however, Sensenbrenner became outspoken against the uses to which that law had been put by the intelligence community, particularly the mass hoovering of metadata by the National Security Agency.
He was one of the House “managers” during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton and yet he was outspoken in his anger when the FBI raided the office of Louisiana Democratic Representative William Jefferson. In 2011, he made an uncomplimentary remark about Michelle Obama’s physique and did it at a church’s Christmas fair. Sensenbrenner’s political future is as secure as that of the House of Windsor, and that’s made him as imperious as a congresscritter possibly can be. But give him this much. He’s not hiding from his constituents, the way so many of his timorous colleagues are these days.
“I’d rather have a town hall meeting in a crowded room than one with 12 people,” Sensenbrenner cracked. He loaded up his weekend schedule with town halls all over his district, including the one in Delafield, over which he presided with a genuine gavel.
“We pay this guy $170,000 a year and he gets to swing a gavel?” asked Khary Penebaker, Sensenbrenner’s opponent in 2016 whom the incumbent largely ignored during the campaign. A police officer stepped in and told him to sit down.