Rep. Pocan retools his approach to form bonds with Republican colleagues

When people first enter politics, it can take a while before they settle down and reach across the aisle. That was certainly the case with Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.).

Elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1998 to replace then-state Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Pocan quickly gained a reputation for being an outspoken progressive. It was a label he worked to earn. 

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“When I first got elected [to the State Assembly], I was pretty much a bomb thrower,” Pocan said. “I got in there, I’d throw the bomb. People would say, ‘Hey, what’d you hit?’ [I would say] ‘I don’t know, it blew up!’ That’s all I knew; something blew up.”

Verbal grenades were not the only weapons the progressive Wisconsin native had in his arsenal; for a time, he gave out a monthly “Golden Turkey Award,” inspired by former Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) and his “Golden Fleece” award, to ideas and people he considered egregious. Recipients included an energy company that had tried to skirt Wisconsin’s laws by shutting off people’s heat in the dead of winter, and an ineffective weapon hotline for schools instituted in the wake of the Columbine massacre. A few fellow assemblymen were recipients of the dubious avian accolade, as well.

That combativeness earned him praise from then-Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), who called Pocan “exciting as a legislator,” and led Wisconsin newspapers to label him a “flame-throwing back-bencher,” “the most aggressive progressive in the Legislature,” and the “bad boy of Assembly Democrats.” 

However, Pocan began to soften his bellicose stance in 2004 when he was appointed to the Joint Finance Committee (JFC), which is composed of members from both bodies of the Wisconsin legislature, and has responsibility for reviewing all state appropriations and revenues. 

Over the six years that he sat on the committee, its partisan composition changed three times. The year he joined, Republicans dominated with 12 of 16 seats. Two years later, the committee was split right down the middle. During Pocan’s final two years on the committee, Democrats possessed three-quarters of the seats.

Pocan originally sought the position because he felt he could have a greater effect on policy. Yet the nature of the committee’s work and its shifting configuration meant Pocan worked long hours toward a common goal with his ideological opponents.

“I think getting on that committee really fine-tuned how I work,” Pocan said. “It taught me how to work with people on the other side of the aisle. [If] you spend eight hours a day, three days a week for four months writing a budget, you get to know people.”

That willingness to retool his approach paid off when the committee was split in half. It was only because he modified his approach that he was able to get anything done.

“That year I was on the committee when it was 8-8, nothing got a vote unless it [was bipartisan]. So if you wanted anything to move, you had to pull votes from the other side,” Pocan said. “At one point they assigned the corrections budget to myself and a very conservative legislator, Scott Suder … and at first, people thought, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be interesting.’ ”

At first blush, it looked like a partnership destined for failure: Pocan, the bomb-throwing unionized print shop owner, was paired with Suder, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Nevertheless, the two legislators were able to allay each other’s fears and put together a corrections budget that passed with a unanimous vote. 

That sort of approach characterized the rest of Pocan’s time in Wisconsin. He defused his bombs and grounded his Golden Turkeys in order to focus on legislation. 

“By the time I left the legislature, I had freshmen coming in [and] saying, ‘Hey, I hear you’re the guy who breaks bread with Republicans,’” Pocan said. 

And what a selection of Republicans it was: Pocan met and cultivated a working relationship with the aforementioned Suder, the current majority leader, as well as with Robin Vos, speaker of the assembly. He even worked with future Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on issues pertaining to the state’s corrections system.

Pocan has now taken over another one of Tammy Baldwin’s old seats, this time serving Wisconsin’s 2nd congressional district. In addition to staying on friendly terms with Republicans in the Wisconsin Assembly, Pocan is also working on reaching out to his counterparts in Washington. That includes fellow Badger State native Paul Ryan (R), with whom he serves on the House Budget Committee. 

Though there are some stark differences on policy — Pocan says that the Wisconsinites he has talked to “don’t want to change Medicare as we know it,” and he has heavily criticized the “fuzzy math” in Ryan’s budget — Pocan left his most explosive language back in Wisconsin. Instead, his focus is still on finding common ground. 

“Once [Ryan and I] see what we have in common … you actually get things done because you realize you actually have a lot more in common when you talk with each other, not at each other,” Pocan said.

The two have plenty to bond over. Ryan is good friends with Vos, and Pocan’s mother resides in Ryan’s district. Their districts even share a border, which splits Rock County.