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Opinion | Forward Thinking: It’s not you, it’s Gerry

Political columnist Eliza Cussen dissects how Wisconsin’s massively gerrymandered maps contort the truth of the state’s demographically and culturally diverse cities

By Eliza Cussen

A yard sign seen outside the Democratic Party of Brown County building on Chestnut Street promotes ending gerrymandering. John McCracken photo. Jake Phelps headshot illustration.

When I told my Madison friend that I was moving to Green Bay, she stepped back and gasped.

“But Eliza, what will you do without access to Thai food,” she said. “How could you bear it?”

“Well,” I told her, “I’m moving to a city that has the third-largest Southeast Asian population in the state. I’m going to be able to get my pad see ew.”

While egg roll access is a critical issue in itself, this conversation reveals something about how Northeast Wisconsin is constructed in the state’s political imagination. For people in Madison and Milwaukee, there is little distinction drawn between Eau Claire and Wausau, or Green Bay and Rhinelander. The northern half of the state is assumed to be white and overwhelmingly red.

Because the electoral maps have been drawn to make it that way.

Gerrymandering, the process of drawing political maps to benefit one party over another, has been shaping Wisconsin residents’ perceptions of their communities for a decade. It groups partisan voters together so that you basically live in a Democrat neighborhood or a Republican one. Brown County is one of the most badly gerrymandered areas in the state.

Of the eight State Assembly seats within Brown County, only one of them is held by a Democrat. The 90th is carved meticulously to isolate the City of Green Bay from its more affluent suburbs. According to 2020 Census data, Green Bay has a median income of $7,000 less than that of surrounding suburbs Ashwaubenon, Allouez and De Pere. Newly released Census data also showed that Green Bay is also more racially diverse, with a 77% white population compared to a 90% white population in surrounding suburbs. It is as though Republicans have created their own gated communities to keep poorer, browner voters out.

This played out in 2020 when local doctor and Democratic candidate Kristen Lyerly challenged Republican incumbent John Macco for the 88th Assembly District. Lyerly ran a killer campaign that appealed to progressives and moderates. She was savvy, charismatic and hard working. By contrast, Macco looked like at any moment he might pull off his mask and reveal his true reptilian form. And yet he won the election by a slim margin.

Gerrymandering reduces the impact of all our votes. It means that whoever is in power is likely to stay in power and the effort to run elections seems less and less worth it every time. Why would a 22-year-old vote, much less run for office, if they have never seen their local seat change hands?

These politically gated communities don’t just impact us electorally. They impact us culturally. They help form our regional identity and our individual sense of self. The Republican-biased maps distort reality, making Wisconsin seem far more conservative and homogenous than it truly is. This works to make progressives in these red districts feel isolated and powerless. It also makes the region seem hostile to young, diverse people looking for a city where they might belong.

The Brown County I know is anything but homogenous. It is diverse and thriving. In the five years I’ve lived here, I’ve seen the area come to life economically and culturally. Last year, the Brown County Democrats elected new officers running on a bold progressive platform. Its membership is becoming larger, younger and more engaged. As young professionals get priced out of Madison and Milwaukee, they are starting to see that Wisconsin’s “Bay Area” is actually kinda cool.

In 2022 we have a chance to repair the disconnection between the people who live here and the faces that represent them. With the release of new Census data, the State Legislature must redraw the state’s district lines. While safeguards against gerrymandering are still not in place, the Republican’s selective cartography is limited by Governor Tony Evers’ veto powers. This means that after several likely court battles, Wisconsin’s maps might start to look fairer.

If you’re a progressive reading this, don’t let the state’s current maps gaslight you. You’re great, your town is great and, actually, our future here is bright.

Eliza Cussen is a writer, campaign consultant and entrepreneur based in Green Bay Wisconsin. She serves as Communications Director for Kristina Shelton for Assembly. Originally from Sydney, Australia, she moved to Wisconsin in 2014.

The views and opinions expressed by weekly columnists, illustrators and community members submitting letters to the editor are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of Green Bay City Pages, its advertising partners or its parent company Multimedia Channels. Editorials are clearly labeled and represent the views of the Editor who wrote the column. To submit feedback, a letter to the editor, pitch an idea for a recurring column or voice a concern, email Green Bay City Page Editor John McCracken at [email protected].

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