June 23, 2017
By: Christian Schneider of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
In the past handful of years, it has appeared as if notable Wisconsin Republicans were falling from the sky. In 2011, Reince Priebus became chair of the Republican National Committee; the following year, Gov. Scott Walker fought off a nationally-publicized recall attempt. And Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan became the 2012 Vice Presidential candidate, eventually ascending to Speaker of the House.
With all these flashy new youngsters making news, Wisconsin's decades-long conservative standard bearer watched quietly from the wings. When Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner first took his seat in 1979, Ryan was 9 years old and America still couldn't conceive of the idea of "President Ronald Reagan."
But if Sensenbrenner harbors any envy towards the new crop of state conservatives, he doesn't show it. "I've backed and mentored Paul and Scott and (U.S. Rep.) Sean Duffy right from the time they decided they were going to run," he told me this week. Sensenbrenner says he considers them all close friends and often serves as a "sounding board" when they want to work through issues.
"Some would refer to me as the political 'Godfather,'" he jokes.
And while some view the 74-year old as the state's resident conservative curmudgeon, he delights in trading humorous birthday gifts with Ryan, which he believes demonstrates "the depth of our friendship." Recently, the Speaker gifted Sensenbrenner an empty water cooler bottle, telling him to use it to go out and trap cow flatulence in an attempt to reduce climate change. In return, Sensenbrenner has sent Ryan a talking toilet paper dispenser, a small reindeer that defecated brown jelly beans, and some men's hair coloring gel.
Given that Sensenbrenner won his first election to the state legislature before both Woodstock and Neil Armstrong's moon landing (as a law student in the late 1960s, he roamed the UW-Madison campus with the likes of fellow students Tommy Thompson and Dick Cheney), he has seen the Republican Party undergo numerous identity crises. When I asked him how to keep the party from fracturing in the Era of Trump, he pointed to Wisconsin as an example of how to keep coalitions strong.
"In both 2010 and 2016, we really did a good job of keeping the different elements of the Republican Party that have been very divisive in other states together in Wisconsin," he said. He added that unity within the party requires "different pitches for different groups of people," and that candidates in Wisconsin have been able to bridge that gap in a way missing in other states.
The old-school Sensenbrenner does, however, decry what he calls the cable news "24-second news cycle," which he thinks spawns negativity and political extremism. "I've never had as contentious town hall meetings as I've had this year," he said, accusing "hateful and spiteful" Sanders Democrats of "shouting down anyone who they disagree with."
Of course, Sensenbrenner's nearly half-century in Congress hasn't been without its low points. At a town hall meeting in 2011, he made a crack about the size of First Lady Michelle Obama's posterior, for which he quickly apologized. On the job, Sensenbrenner thinks the toughest time he's had was in the mid-2000s, when he tried to crack down on illegal immigration well before Donald Trump had publicly considered the issue.
Yet four decades in office certainly haven't dulled Sensenbrenner's partisan edges. When I asked him about the Senate health care bill unveiled on Thursday, he immediately chastised Senate Democrats for opposing the bill so soon after it was made public. "Good question to ask of Senator (Tammy) Baldwin," he said, taking aim at his Wisconsin colleague who faces re-election in 2018, "whether she read it before she decided to vote against it."
Speaking of 2018, Sensebrenner tells me is definitely going to be on the ballot again. Given that he represents one of the most Republican districts in the nation, generations of young conservative stars have come and gone waiting for him to retire or run for higher office.
When I asked him what he would say to those Republicans patiently waiting to run for his seat when he's done, he answered in his trademark gruff manner.
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