EAU CLAIRE — The COVID-19 pandemic made 2020 a difficult final year of service for all three of west-central Wisconsin’s outgoing state legislators, but the frustration felt by Sen. Patty Schachtner was intensely personal.
Not only did Schachtner, a Somerset Democrat, see the dark side of the pandemic daily in her other job as medical examiner for St. Croix County, but this fall the virus hit her family hard.
The toll began with a sister-in-law, brother-in-law, sister and niece testing positive and ended when her father, Richard Rivard, came down with the virus. The 88-year-old U.S. Air Force veteran, who was a resident at Hammond Health Services, died from COVID-19 on Nov. 14.
“Had it not been for community spread, he never would have died,” Schachtner said this week. “My anger and grief is still going on … and there are over 300,000 families in this country going through the same thing I am.”
Schachtner remains upset that the Legislature passed a pandemic aid package in April but never met or did anything else to address the disease that has killed more than 4,800 Wisconsinites and left tens of thousands without jobs. She puts the blame for that inaction squarely on the shoulders of Republicans who hold majorities in both the Assembly and Senate and thus set the legislative calendar.
“It made me so angry that we weren’t doing anything to help people,” Schachtner said. “As the daughter of someone who did nothing wrong but died from COVID in a nursing home, my anger and frustration with legislators who are playing political games while attending mass spreading events says more about them than it does about me.”
Despite her 2020 frustration, Schachtner, like fellow outgoing legislators Reps. Romaine Quinn and Bob Kulp, said she treasured her time as a legislator.
Since she never expected to win a special election three years ago for a 10th Senate District seat long held by Republicans, Schachtner said she feels blessed to have had the opportunity to serve even though she lost her bid for reelection in November to Rep. Rob Stafsholt, R-New Richmond.
Likewise, Quinn, R-Barron, called his three terms representing the 75th Assembly District “the honor of a lifetime,” and Kulp, R-Stratford, characterized his seven years representing the 69th Assembly District as “extremely rewarding.” Both men chose not to seek reelection.
All three legislators will be replaced Monday when newly elected lawmakers take the oath of office.
Both Quinn, a real estate agent, and Kulp, a businessman, defended the Legislature’s handling of the pandemic.
Despite the narrative Quinn said is being pushed by Democrats about the Legislature shirking its duty by not meeting during most of the pandemic, Quinn insisted it’s not unusual for lawmakers not to meet much after April in election years.
“We went in and passed everything we could in one shot,” Quinn said. “For people who wanted us in session, what did you want us to do? The schools are funded and the budget is passed.”
In the meantime, Quinn said he and other legislators focused on constituent service, which accounts for about 90% of their work.
Kulp said the pandemic was probably the most difficult challenge he encountered as a lawmaker because the political divide made it impossible to please anybody.
“We believed we were doing the best we could with the data we had with regard to balancing the concept of freedom and the ability to move about and people’s real health concerns, but people just would not hear you,” Kulp said. “You just got yelled at from both sides.”
When asked about the highlights of their time in office, none of the outgoing legislators mentioned their involvement with controversial, headline-grabbing bills. Instead, they all pointed to legislation they worked on that affected the lives of a group of constituents.
Kulp said his high point came when chairing a Legislative Council study committee on dyslexia, a learning disability. The committee’s work led to Wisconsin’s first dyslexia-specific law, authored by Kulp, which required the creation of a dyslexia guidebook for school districts. He believes it will help stop a slide in reading scores among state children.
Quinn mentioned his leadership on the Legislature’s Rural Wisconsin Initiative, which has pushed for the expansion of broadband and telehealth services in rural areas, as well as a bill he authored to help individuals with disabilities.
Colin’s Law, named after a young man from Rice Lake, enables people with invisible disabilities such as mental illness or hearing impairment to indicate that information on their driver’s license, which could help avoid potential misunderstandings with law enforcement.
“That was probably my favorite bill to work on because there was a real person behind it. The idea came from the mom of a son who struggled. It’s kind of a cool story,” Quinn said. “Anytime we can diffuse a situation ahead of time, the better in this day and age we live in.”
Schachtner said she is most proud of successfully working to get a “Welcome to Wisconsin” sign erected by the St. Croix Crossing bridge and to pass a disability voters rights bill. The bill addressed a problem, brought to her attention by a constituent who had been prohibited from voting, by making it legal for a resident to vote if a disability made it impossible for them to speak their name and be understood.
After serving in the minority for her entire stint in the Senate, Schachtner said she learned lessons about state government that will make her a better constituent.
She will now expect legislators to listen to her concerns, whether she voted for them or not, because that’s how she spent a lot of her time in office.
“We have to remember that we live in a democracy and whoever wins represents all of us,” Schachtner said. “If you’re not listening to the people who didn’t vote for you, you’re not doing your job.”
She encouraged all voters to hold their elected officials accountable, especially when it comes to putting more emphasis on playing politics than helping people — the misplaced priorities she accuses Republican legislative leaders of following in response to the pandemic.
“As a constituent, I find that appalling,” Schachtner said. “If your goal is to make the governor look not successful, then your goal is not serving the people of Wisconsin. Do better.”
Asked what message he would like to share with lawmakers, Quinn pointed directly at the partisan divide. He called on legislators to be nicer to each other.
“At the end of the day, the biggest thing is I would encourage my colleagues to tone down the rhetoric, especially on the floor,” Quinn said. “Just because someone doesn’t agree with you doesn’t mean they’re a bad person.”
Kulp shared a similar sentiment promoting civility.
“There’s a lot of work left to be done,” Kulp advised. “Just work together on the things you can, and keep the political posturing to a minimum. Keep doing the good work for the people of Wisconsin.”