Channel 3000+ Extra: Former Gov. Jim Doyle on divisiveness in politics, future of democracy

MADISON, Wis. — Former Governor Jim Doyle holds some unique distinctions in Wisconsin’s political history. He was the last Democrat to be governor with a split legislature and then Democrat majorities in the state legislature, as well as the last governor to serve with an attorney general of a different party. His parents also played a large role in the early days of Wisconsin’s Democratic Party.

Doyle sat down for an extensive interview with News 3 Now ahead of the November election. You can watch the entire interview above, with a transcript below.

Naomi Kowles: Let’s start with division. Are we as divided politically as we think we are?

Former Gov. Jim Doyle: Yes, I mean, we’re very divided. Whether it’s as much as we think we are–I think probably not quite as much as people think we are, but we’re certainly very divided. And people have — most people politically forever have sort of made up their minds well in advance, even when they don’t think they have. But if you look at so-called independent voters, they’ll have a very significant history of either voting for the Democratic candidate or the Republican.

I think what’s different is, there’s always been–at least in Wisconsin, at least — I shouldn’t say that always, but in my time in politics, there was a 10 to 15 to 20% group of voters that each party would be trying to persuade. And now that pool that you’re trying to persuade is down to five, six percentage points. So there were years–I mean, when I was running for Attorney General, Governor Thompson was running for governor where he’d get, so the top name on the ticket for governor, he’d get close to 60%. And then the next name, Attorney General, I get close to 60%. So you’d see, you know, 20% of the people that were voting for a Republican at the top and a Democrat at the second (line), and then when I was governor, (that) happened as well. I mean, I ran well ahead in 2006. And then a Republican was elected attorney general that year. So that doesn’t really happen much now.

I mean, so yes, we are definitely more divided. But I don’t know, I guess I’m always sort of hopeful. And I should also add, I think one of the real issues is we in Wisconsin, most of the country is divided just as we are, it’s just our division happens to be, just by sort of chances, 50/50. So if you were living in Nebraska, it’s very, very divided. It’s just that it’s divided 60/40 or something like that. You’re living in Wisconsin, it’s very divided, and it’s divided at 50/50. And so that’s what makes these races so incredibly competitive.

Naomi Kowles: You mentioned that, you know, you not only served as Attorney General under a Republican governor, you also–you were the last one to serve as a Democratic Attorney General…with a different party as governor. You were also the last one, interestingly enough, to serve as governor with a legislature that was controlled by two different parties, where the Democrats and the Republicans each had one of the chambers. I mean, it’s a different political environment, do you think that would ever happen again?

Former Gov. Jim Doyle: Well, if we had fair methods of reapportionment in the legislature, it could happen again. When I first started as governor, getting elected in 2002, we had as big Republican majorities in both houses of the legislature as they have today. I had enough to sustain my vetoes. So I had, you know, they had to work with me. But they were very, very big — in both houses — Republican majorities. My last two years as governor at the end of my second term, we had elected both houses as Democratic. And in between, we had split.

So there was a movement in my eight years, from all-Republican very overwhelmingly, to first divided, and then to a legislature that was Democrats in both houses, although only by one or two votes. Which is — you don’t want to have — you don’t want to be a Democratic governor with Democrats only having a one-vote margin in the Assembly because every member of the Assembly then gets to sort of have a veto on what’s going to happen.

But the big difference is we had maps that were somewhat fair that you could work with. Now this majority is so locked in that … Republicans can win control with just 44% of the vote for the Assembly and they can have control. So I think that’s the real problem that’s happened here in Wisconsin, is they’ve just taken away — the Republican legislature and Republican governor just took away the chance, and then the Supreme Court took away the chance for us to have at least some attempt at competition.

Naomi Kowles: Since 2020, we’ve obviously seen a lot of criticism and skepticism and disbelief in the election process. Are you concerned about just the bigger future of the Democratic process itself?

Former Gov. Jim Doyle: Well, I am. I mean, it’s just shameful what’s happened. You know, Trump has done such disservice to the democracy of this country. Richard Nixon lost an election in 1960 to John Kennedy by just a tiny little amount, and there was some — at least the historians claim — some fairly legitimate challenges that could have been made to votes particularly in Illinois, and Nixon for the good of his country, whatever you think of him later, said, it’s just important we have continuity, and we have a peaceful transfer.

Similarly, Al Gore won the popular vote, probably won Florida–you never quite know. But there was a whole process to that, they went through the legal counting process. Not some storming the Capitol, but a legal process. And when it showed that George Bush had won by what, 300 votes or something like that, Al Gore stood up long before the electoral votes were counted and said: for the good of the country, it’s important to step aside.

So what Trump has done has been horrible for democracy. I think most anybody who’s been in political office has had my experience, which was I defeated three incumbents for my three offices. I was a District Attorney, Attorney General, and Governor. Each one of those I defeated an incumbent person who had those offices. In each case, that person loved the office they had, they were sorely disappointed that they had been defeated. They had really hoped that they could stay on and continue as Attorney General and Governor. And in both cases, they were very good people. And they called me up that night and congratulated me and you know, did what you’re supposed to do.

What Trump has done in behaving just like a little spoiled baby without any evidence has done a lot of damage. Now you see, it’s spilling over. Just today they’re reporting in Brazil an election in which the outgoing president is, you know, wondering whether he’s going to contest it, you’re going to refuse to accept it like Trump did. So, yes, I’m very concerned.

And I don’t think — I think in Wisconsin we’ve had a very good, a very safe, a very secure voting system. We always have. There’s no evidence to the contrary. The people out there working on the system, the clerks in the various counties are Republicans in most cases. They’re good people. They’re honest people. They’re devoted to the democracy of this country, and to claim that they’re somehow part of some massive conspiracy is, it’s horrible.

So yes…I just sort of hope that as Trump hopefully at some point moves off the stage, we’ll get back to — we’ll probably still be arguing, but at least we’ll say, “Look, we are a democracy. We count the votes, the one who has the most votes wins the election.”

Naomi Kowles: Let me ask you about your own party. Your parents are often credited with in some ways forming the Wisconsin Democratic Party of Wisconsin, post World War II. Do you think they’d be proud of where the Democratic Party of Wisconsin is today?

Former Gov. Jim Doyle: Yes, I do, I think I think they would be very proud. My father was the first party chair, my mother was the first woman ever elected to the State Assembly. And it’s hard to believe, but I think the first Democrat elected in Dane County for like, since the Civil War or something like that. And I think, you know– I was just with, a couple of days ago with President Obama — they would have been very, very proud of a party that supported and elected President Obama. Yes, I think they’d be very proud of the Democratic Party.

Naomi Kowles: Any advice for Wisconsinites casting their ballot?

Former Gov. Jim Doyle: Well, cast them. I mean, cast them and don’t think that somehow this is a rigged deal, because it isn’t. Cast your vote and then respect the outcome. It’s just sort of what you get taught when you’re in first grade, you know. There’s a contest, somebody wins it, somebody loses it, and then you graciously — if you’re the loser, you’re gracious about it. If you’re the winner, you’re gracious about it. So we’re a very, very evenly divided state, and everybody’s vote counts.

One thing that’s interesting is we’ve had turnouts now like nobody ever imagined. So we have a very, very engaged, for whatever reasons–good or bad, but I think it’s good. We have a very, very engaged electorate. And it just means everybody has to vote and make sure their voice is heard.

Naomi Kowles: Anything we’ve missed, you’d like to add?

Former Gov. Jim Doyle: I will say I just want to add, I think that the amount of money that goes into these campaigns now — I had the most expensive governor’s election ever. Nobody could imagine how much money we were spending. There were editorials written about how much we were spending. It’s probably going to be about a fifth of the money that’s being spent in the governor’s election this year. So we’ve gone beyond the point and I wish people would come to understand — although with the Supreme Court, it’s hard to do it with their decisions — but that we have to start putting some limits on this.

But again, you know, we live in a democracy. Democracies are big, they’re loud. They’re not intended to be polite. They are intended to be a time when people with very strong differing opinions bring them forward, and then we have the election and we see who wins.

Naomi Kowles: You actually mentioned, we were talking about this a little bit before the cameras started rolling. But you feel ads aren’t actually — the content of ads is not say, worse than it was back in the 1990s, early 2000s?

Former Gov. Jim Doyle: It’s worse, but they were — we always had pretty strong attack ads. I mean, and some of them were totally false. I mean any candidate, I could give you a litany of the ones I think were unfair against me and how untrue they were and what was going on. I think the one difference, there’s no doubt they’ve moved beyond any — in many cases — any semblance of the truth. So I see an ad right now against Josh Kaul that says he didn’t do something about a murder case from 1972. And that something happened in 2018 and he wasn’t there. He wasn’t even the Attorney General of the State of Wisconsin when that case was there. So it’s the kind of thing where they just make stuff up. And I just cite that one; I know there are a number of others. So yes, I think they have–they were never very pleasant in my day. And if — particularly when they were against you — you really thought they were unfair and untrue. But I think there’s no doubt they’ve now — in many cases — just don’t even pretend to have anything to do with reality.