Back To Clips

Wisconsin’s Best (And Worst) Legislators
Our survey of more than 400 lawmakers and lobbyists reveals who calls the shots, who works the hardest – and, among other things, who might be mistaken for State Capitol furniture.


By Chuck Nowlen
Published February, 1996
Copyright 1996, Madison Magazine


Legislation, the old saw goes, is a little like sausage. You might like the finished product, but you’re sure to lose your appetite if you see how the stuff is made.


That might be an overly harsh assessment of what goes on in our own State Capitol, where the politics might not exactly be as clean as a North Woods breeze, but, hey, at least you don’t need a haz-mat team – uh, most of the time, anyway.


And what determines the character of a state legislature? The lawmakers themselves, of course – the people who decide how much we pay in taxes, whether big league sports teams fly the coop and what we’re going to do about all those criminal hoards roaming our streets. Now that the 1995 legislative session is behind us, we wanted to find out exactly who’s who among Wisconsin lawmakers, from the ridiculous to the sublime.


So we mailed a simple survey to each and every sitting state legislator, along with more than 300 Madison-based lobbyists, asking them to nominate state senators and State Assembly representatives in each of 25 categories ranging from “Most Effective” to “Lawmaker Who Just Takes Up Space.” We got more than 130 surveys back – about a 30 percent response rate, which, we might note, is far better than the average primary voter turnout.


Wary of things like vote-stacking (Politicians vote more than once? No way!), we also checked a list of top finishers in each category with a team of prominent Wisconsin insiders, including one highly partisan Democrat, one highly partisan Republican and one unquestionably nonpartisan, longtime State Capitol employee. (They shared their impressions only on condition of anonymity.) Without exception, they endorsed our results as being extremely credible – even in categories where top finishers garnered relatively few votes. Still, to be fair, in our results summary below, we duly note with an asterisk (*) low-vote categories; that is, those where the winner got fewer than 10 votes.


Several of our experts did, however, ask us to point out that the survey would probably have turned out differently it if had been conducted before the Republican Party assumed control of both houses of the State Legislature. For this reason, we provide both the top Democrat and the top Republican in each category, and we chose not to delineate between legislative houses. The experts also noted that many categories – “Most Effective” and “Least Effective,” for example – are logically slanted toward (or against) Senate and Assembly leaders.


So, with these things in mind and without further ado, we hope you enjoy our take on the best and worst of the Wisconsin Legislature, circa 1996.




Overall Most Effective:


Sen. Michael Ellis (R-Neenah)

No surprise here, except maybe for the independent-thinking Ellis’s margin of victory – the 54-year-old Senate Majority Leader was the top choice on almost half the ballots returned. As the top dog in the upper house, the 25-year Capitol veteran deserves much of the credit for the many Republican triumphs beneath the dome last year. Other top Republican finishers (all in this story are listed in descending vote-count order): Rep. Ben Brancel (Endeavor), Rep David Prosser (Appleton), Sen. Mary Panzer (West Bend) and Rep. Scott Jensen (Waukesha)


*Rep. Spencer Black (D-Madison)

This choice had a few insiders scratching their heads – Black, first elected in 1984, is widely seen as a narrow-issue advocate, focusing largely on environmental matters, rather than as a broad-spectrum mover and shaker. Then again, said our experts, the 1995 session wasn’t exactly a paragon of effectiveness for anybody in the Wisconsin Democratic Party. Black, at least, is known as a force to be reckoned with on the legislation he champions. Other top Democratic vote-getters: Rep. Walter Kunicki (Milwaukee), Rep. David Travis (Madison) and Rep. Rebecca Young (Madison).


Old Pro, With Good Reason


Sen. Michael Ellis (R-Neenah)

Again, no surprises, and we’ve already mentioned Ellis’s two-decades-plus of experience, which has touched almost every conceivable sphere of influence over the years. Other top vote-getters: Appleton’s Prosser and Endeavor’s Brancel.


Sen. Joseph Andrea (D-Kenosha)

A runaway choice here, with Andrea garnering almost a third of all Democratic votes cast in the category. His 19-year career has earned him widespread respect (nothing’s unanimous in politics, of course) among both allies and foes. Other top vote-getters: Sen. Fred Risser (Madison), Rep. Marlin Schneider (Wisconsin Rapids), Rep. Wayne Wood (Janesville) and Madison’s Travis.


Rising Star


Rep. Mark Green (R-Green Bay)

Green captured a traditionally Democratic seat in Green Bay in 1992, then quickly impressed his colleagues with his smarts, thoughtful nature and ability to work well within political coalitions. Not a bad recipe for future success. Other top finishers: Sen. Scott Fitzgerald (Juneau), Sen. Robert Welch (Red Granite), Sen. Timothy Weeden (Beloit) and Waukesha’s Jensen.


Rep. Antonio Riley (D-Milwaukee)

Riley, first elected in 1992, has already become a high-profile voice in the statehouse, particularly on welfare issues, establishing himself as a Democrat to watch as prevailing winds inevitably change. Other top vote-getters: Sen. Russell Decker (Schofield), Sen. Kevin Shibilski (Amherst), Rep. Tammy Baldwin (Madison) and Rep. William Murat (Stevens Point).


Most Underrated


Rep. Steven Foti (R-Oconomowoc)

“Foti’s been there forever, but he’s never made that leap into leadership overdrive,” one expert said of this choice, who was first elected to state office 13 years ago. Still, said others, that might be because he actually prefers behind-the-scenes influence to the glare of statewide spotlight. Other top finishers: Rep. Greg Underhelm (Oshkosh), West Bends’ Panzer, Sen. Joanne Huelsman (Waukesha) and Sen. Brian Rude (Coon Valley).


Sen. Calvin Potter (D-Kohler)

Potter easily outdistanced his nearest competitor in this category based, our experts said, on a 24-year reputation for political acumen and an almost universal respect among his peers. Other top vote-getters: Schofield’s Becker, Rep. Peter Brock (Milwaukee) and Madison’s Travis.


Hardest Worker


 Rep David Prosser (R-Appleton)

You don’t climb to the top of the heap after 17 years in the legislature without expending a lot of blood, sweat and tears. And Prosser, the Speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly, was the hands-down winner here. Other top vote-getters: West Bend’s Panzer, Waukesha’s Jensen, Rep. Peter Bock (Milwaukee) and Sen. Margaret Farrow (Waukesha).


*Sen. Spencer Black (D-Madison)

Sure, all Democrats spent most of 1995 swimming against the Republican tide, but Black picked his issues well, then paddled like a mad man to make sure they got their moment in the sun. Other top finishers: Sen. Lynn Adelman (Mukwonago) and Madison’s Young.


Master Compromiser/Finder Of Common Ground


Sen. Mary Panzer (R-West Bend)

This was an especially competitive category, with Panzer emerging as a bit of a surprise, squeaker winner over Assembly Speaker Prosser, who, our experts said, can sometimes spend too much time compromising and not enough time cracking the whip. Other top finishers: Neenah’s Ellis, Coon Valley’s Rude and Endeavor’s Brancel.


*Sen. Rodney Moen (D-Whitehall)

We have to point out that when we checked this choice with our experts, they were a little taken aback – not necessarily because it doesn’t suit Moen, but because they thought surely somebody else would come to the fore. Then again, nobody could think of a better name. Other top vote-getters: Janesville’s Wood, Rep. Doris Hanson (McFarland) and Rep. Mary Hubler (Rice Lake)


Most Constituent-Sensitive


(TIE) Sen. Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center) and Rep. Cloyd Porter (R-Burlington)

Flesh-pressing in the district, interest-group meetings, public functions and prompt responses to calls and letters: These are the tools of the trade in this category, and, according to our experts, anyway, Schultz and Porter are the GOP kings. Other top finishers: Sen. David Zien (Eau Claire), Sen. Alberta Darling (River Falls) and Rep. Sheryl Albers (Loganville).


Sen. Joseph Andrea (D-Kenosha)

Andrea was the overwhelming choice here, scoring more than twice the votes of even the top Republican in this category – a rarity in our survey. Other top vote-getters: Sen. Gwendolynne Moore (Milwaukee), Mukwonago’s Adelman, Whitehall’s Moen and another Whitehall native, Rep. Barbara Gronemus.




Rep. David Prosser (R-Appleton)

The second outright-winner category for Prosser, who obviously learned a thing or two over the years. Other top vote-getters: Neenah’s Ellis, Waukesha’s Jensen and Huelsman, and West Bend’s Panzer.


Sen. Gary George (D-Milwaukee)

George, whose brainpower is unquestioned but who many note might have an (ahem) slight blind spot in ethics, narrowly outdistanced Mukwonago’s Lynn Adelman here. Others top vote-getters: Rep. Sheldon Wasserman (Milwaukee) and Sen. Brian Burke (Milwaukee).


Best “Fixer” (The Influential “Man Or Woman To See”)


Sen. Michael Ellis (R-Neenah)

This category, of course, was tailor-made for the Assembly and Senate leadership, but we were surprised again at Majority Leader Ellis’s vote count, which was overwhelming. (“If you want something done, you go see Mike,” one expert said succinctly.) Other top finishers: Appleton’s Prosser, Waukesha’s Jensen, Endeavor’s Brancel and West Bend’s Panzer.


*Rep. Walter Kunicki (D-Milwaukee)

The small vote totals here show a scarcity of influence on the Democratic side, but the nod goes to Assembly Minority Leader Kunicki, who must surely remember being king of the hill before the Republican juggernaut made life a living, breathing hell. Other top finishers: Milwaukee’s George and Kenosha’s Andrea.


Human Dynamo


Sen. David Zien (R-Eau Claire)

“When he’s campaigning, he’s our meeting farmers in dairy barns at 4:30 a.m.,” one insider said of the off-beat Zien. “When the local coffee shop opens at 6 a.m., he’s there; and by 8:30 a.m., he’s going from door to door, shaking hands and talking to constituents.” Other top vote-getters: Waukesha’s Jensen and West Bend’s Panzer.


Sen. Joseph Wineke (D-Verona)

Wineke, too, was acknowledged as a consummate hustler by our experts – although some, not so kindly, put him in the card-shark class. (Is it just coincidence, by the way, that Wineke and Zien clashed big-time in the press late last year over Zien’s State Capitol gun collection?) Other top vote-getters: Rep. Frank Boyle (Superior) and Sen. Chuck Chvala (Madison).


Man/Woman Of Principle


Rep. David Prosser (R-Appleton)

“Without a doubt, he’s the most principled up there, and it’s not because he has to appear that way as part of his job,” commented one expert. Other top vote-getters: Coon Valley’s Rude, Waukesha’s Huelsman and Rep. Frank Lassee (DePere).


Sen. Calvin Potter (D-Kohler)

Potter, too, got a ringing experts’ endorsement in the category many consider anathema to politics today. Other top vote-getters: Madison’s Baldwin, Janesville’s Wood and Madison’s Risser and Black.


Best Orator


(TIE) Sen. Michael Ellis (R-Neenah) and Rep. David Prosser (R-Appleton)

Landslide choices – and why not? These legislative leaders are the guys who take center stage when the battle’s on and the bodies are starting to fall. Other top finishers: Red Granite’s Welch and Oshkosh’s Underheim.


Rep. Marlin Schneider (D-Wisconsin Rapids)

You don’t get the nickname “Snarlin’ Marlin” for nothing, and, perhaps because his style is grating to some, Schneider was a narrow winner here over the runner-up, Milwaukee’s George. Other top vote-getters: Rice Lake’s Hubler, Madison’s Chvala, Verona’s Wineke and Sen. Robert Jauch (Poplar).


Hardball Player


Sen. Michael Ellis (R-Neenah)

Fail to follow through on a key vote with this guy, our experts said, and he’ll yank your committee assignment quicker than you can say, “Sergeant Rock.” This category, by the way, garnered the winner by far the most votes in our survey. Other top finishers: Waukesha’s Jensen, Appleton’s Prosser and Red Granite’s Welch.


Rep. Walter Kunicki (D-Milwaukee)

Kunicki, they say, has a lighter touch with his Assembly troops. (Where have all the nail-eating Democrats gone, anyway?) Still, according to our experts, a minority leader has to play tough sometimes, and Kunicki can definitely rise to the occasion. Other top vote-getters: Madison’s Chvala, Wisconsin Rapids’ Schneider and Milwaukee’s George.


Finesse Player


Sen. Brian Rude (R-Coon Valley)

Some prefer the stick; others prefer the carrot; and Rude was a solid winner in this, the smooth-operator category. Other top vote-getters: Endeavor’s Brancel, Neenah’s Ellis, Appleton’s Prosser and West Bend’s Panzer.


*Sen. Gary George (D-Milwaukee)

Called the ultimate smooth player by several insiders, George was a clear victor here, although perhaps not so much because of his legislative style, but rather his tendency to come soooooo close to the public-relations fire without getting third-degree burns – so far. Other top vote-getters: Milwaukee’s Kunicki, Kohler’s Potter, Kenosha’s Andrea and Madison’s Baldwin and Travis.





Overall Least Effective


Rep. William Lorge (R-Bear Creek)

We were shocked by two things in this category – Lorge’s margin of victory, which was substantial, and the level to which even our Republican experts failed to back him up. “He’s narrowed the search for Elvis to the Northern Hemisphere,” one of our staunchest GOP sources scoffed, referring to Lorge’s apparent all-time hero. “Lorge causes more heads to shake than anybody in the building.” Other top finishers: Rep. Rick Skindrud (Mount Horeb), Sen. Alan Lassee (DePere), Eau Claire’s Zien and Rep. Rudy Silbaugh (Stoughton).


Sen. Alice Clausing (D-Menomonie)

Here, too, even party insiders didn’t have much good to say, with one quipping about the first-term senator, “She doesn’t have a clue. She’s clearly ink that doesn’t run.” Other top vote-getters: Sen. Roger Breske (Eland), Madison’s Chvala, Rep. Leon Young (Milwaukee), Rep. William Vander Loop (Kaukauna) and Madison’s Risser.





Rep. Scott Jensen (R-Waukesha)

He’s a pal of the governor with a Harvard degree, but “when it really comes down to it, he hasn’t actually done anything,” one Democratic player huffed. Yet a veteran Republican operative countered that the vote might reflect jealousy over Jensen’s fast entry into the Legislature’s inner circle. Other top finishers: Waukesha’s Farrow, Eau Claire’s Zien, Sen. Judith Klusman (Town of Clayton) and Red Granite’s Welch.


Rep. Walter Kunicki (D-Milwaukee)

One of our Republican players described the former Assembly Speaker this way: “A case study in how to blow it; his political clout now is almost nil,” And although the Democrats’ decline might not entirely be Kunicki’s fault, you still have to expect him to take the rap. Other top vote-getters: Madison’s Chvala and Verona’s Wineke, along with Madison’s Black and Travis.


Flash In The Pan/One-Hit Wonder


Sen. David Zien (R-Eau Claire)

This category might reflect an expected quick disappearance in the future, rather than an already brief-but-bright tenure – Zien, after all, has been in the Capitol for the past seven years. For whatever reason, though, his vote margin here was convincing, to say the least. Other top finishers: Juneau’s Fitzgerald, DePere’s Frank Lassee and Sen. Peggy Rosenzweig (Wauwautosa).


*Rep. Antonio Riley (D-Milwaukee)

He was a winner in the “Rising Star” category, so we guessed people on his wrong side might try to get even here – which, of course, they did, even though the low votes make this result a little suspect. Other top finishers: Verona’s Wineke, Menomonie’s Clausing, Rep. Polly Williams (Milwaukee) and Rep. David Plombon (Chippewa Falls).


Party Lapdog


Rep. Scott Jensen (R-Waukesha)

The party line says, “Speak!” The winners here say, “Woof!” – no matter what conscience might otherwise dictate. Our survey rather convincingly portrayed Jensen as the eager-to-please canine of choice. Other top vote-getters: the Town of Clayton’s Klusman, Wauwautosa’s Farrow and Red Granite’s Welch.


Sen. Chuck Chvala (D-Madison)

A somewhat narrow victory margin in this case, but, nonetheless, Chvala was cast as a bit of a sucker for traditional Democratic dogma biscuits, looking for career scraps wherever he can. Other top vote-getters: Verona’s Wineke, (TIE) Milwaukee’s Kunicki and Madison’s Travis, and Schofield’s Decker.


Bought And Paid-For


Rep. Scott Jensen (R-Waukesha)

Is it apparent yet that quite a few Democrats in the Capitol won’t exactly heap Valentines this month on Jensen, who’s viewed, at least, by many as a big-business sycophant? Other top vote-getters: Bear Creek’s Lorge, the Town of Clayton’s Klusman and Sen. George Petak (Racine), who we’re sure will get at least one Valentine – from Bud Selig.


(TIE) Sen. Gary George (D-Milwaukee) and Rep. Walter Kunicki (D-Milwaukee)

“He’s always had at least an image problem when it comes to money,” one insider said of George, while the rap on Kunicki was that the state teachers union and Wisconsin trial lawyers, among others, will always find his pocket maybe a bit too far within reach. Other top vote-getters: Madison’s Chvala, Eland’s Breske and Verona’s Wineke.


AWOL (Especially Committee And Floor Sessions)


*Rep. William Lorge (R-Bear Creek)

“He’s hardly ever in the building,” said one expert; and another chided ruefully: “Even if he’s there, he’s AWOL.” Hey, what else can we say – except that relatively low vote totals might conceivably have skewed the results? Other top finishers (THREE-WAY TIE): Rep. Joseph Handrick (Minocqua), West Bend’s Panzer and Mount Horeb’s Skindrud.


(TIE) Rep. Polly Williams (D-Milwaukee) and Rep. Leon Young (D-Milwaukee)

We’d love to take a shot at both sides of the aisle in this category, but we have to point out that a majority of our experts (Republicans included) saw these names and concluded that they might not necessarily be committee-session goldbricks, anyway, but rather more concerned with district work that might conflict. (And, if so, maybe that applies to Lorge as well above.) Other top vote-getters: Milwaukee’s George and Rep. Johnnie Morris-Tatum, along with Verona’s Joe (“Hey, it’s 4:30 in the morning, guys!”) Wineke.


Least Trustworthy


Rep. William Lorge (R-Bear Creek)

Uh … guess we can’t expect a bouquet of roses from Mr. Lorge this month, can we? (Just remember: This is all based on a survey.) Anyway, the consensus among both insiders and survey respondents here was that he’s in a league all his own. Other top vote-getters: Waukesha’s Jensen and (THREE-WAY TIE) Neenah’s Ellis, Richland Center’s Schultz and Red Granite’s Welch.


Sen. Gary George (D-Milwaukee)

One salient expert comment: “When he was on Joint Finance, you never knew what deals he’d made.” Another: “He’s getting the reputation that the one who sees him last is the one who can really trust him – maybe.” George was a narrow winner over Madison’s Chvala and Milwaukee’s Kunicki. Other top finishers: Verona’s Wineke and Madison’s Black.




*Rep. Lorraine Serrati (R-Florence)

“A huge whiner!” laughed one of our experts, adding, “She’s been so afraid of losing her seat in the past that she’s used up an enormous amount of Prosser’s time … well, just whining.” Other top vote-getters: Wauwautosa’s Rosenzweig, Richland Center’s Schultz, Waukesha’s Jensen, Rep. Marc Duff (New Berlin), Oshkosh’s Underheim and Eau Claire’s Zien.


Sen. Joseph Wineke (D-Verona)

“Honest,” we had to assure several of our deep-background players, “this category was not a set-up.” Still, Wineke’s vote total was a landslide – close to Ellis’s victory in the “Hardball Player” class. Other top vote-getters: Wisconsin Rapids’ Schneider, Madison’s Black and Chvala, and Milwaukee’s Kunicki.


In It For The Perks


Rep. William Lorge (R-Bear Creek)

If it’s any consolation to the representative, this article is almost over. And, like we said in our introduction, Wisconsin politics is relatively clean, so the perks are generally limited to per diem expenses. Whatever the case, Lorge was a runaway winner again. Other top finishers: Eau Claire’s Zien, DePere’s Alan Lassee and Richland Center’s Schultz.


Sen. Gary George (D-Milwaukee)

Another dubious honor for the senator, whose counterbalancing accolades in our survey seem to underscore considerable gifts as well and considerable faults. Other top vote-getters: Wisconsin Rapids’ Schneider, (TIE) Whitehall’s Moen and Madison’s Risser, and Milwaukee’s Kunicki.


Most Outrageous


Sen. David Zien (R-Eau Claire)

Several said Zien’s outrageousness (he’s widely known as “The Biker Senator,” for example) is the calculated, publicity-stunt kind, rather than the incompetent, loose-cannon variety. Still, he beat his nearest rival by almost 20 votes. Other top finishers: Bear Creek’s “Boy” Lorge and Neenah’s Ellis.


Rep. Marlin Schneider (D-Wisconsin Rapids)

“He’s outrageous more in the way he goes to the mat for his causes, whereas some others just seem to be naturally whacko,” said one insider of runaway-winner Schneider. Other top vote-getters: Sen. Gwendolynne Moore (Milwaukee), Madison’s Chvala and (THREE-WAY TIE) Milwaukee’s George, Chippewa Falls’ Plombon and Verona’s Wineke.


Lawmaker Who Just Takes Up Space


Rep. Rick Skindrud (R-Mount Horeb)

This, our last, is our “State Capitol Furniture” category (with a nod to political gadfly Charles Sykes, who first coined the term in 1986). And, God help us, we have to report what both our survey and our experts told us. “Skindrud is the by-gone, good-old-boy type of legislator; but, in this case, it’s LBJ without brains,” lamented one (Republican) expert. “Nobody will ever accuse him of finding the solution to the welfare problem, that’s for sure,” said another. Other top vote-getters: DePere’s Alan Lassee, Bear Creek’s Lorge and Stoughton’s Silbaugh.


Sen. Roger Breske (D-Eland)

Just to emphasize that the GOP doesn’t have a monopoly on legislative easy chairs, we highlight two quotes about the Democratic winner here: “If it weren’t for his wife, … he wouldn’t have a clue;” and “Don’t get me wrong, he’s a real nice guy and he likes to dress up in suits and stuff. It’s just that I’ve never seen him do a damned thing – ever.”

Other top vote-getters: Menomonie’s Clausing, Madison’s Risser, Milwaukee’s Young and Kaukauna’s Vander Loop.




Back To Clips