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State Journal: Polly Williams's redistricting tangle

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Assemblywoman Polly Williams, the Wisconsin lawmaker who gained national prominence for her sponsorship of Milwaukee's school-choice program, is engaged in a bruising political battle over legislative redistricting.

Ms. Williams, a black Democrat, believes the leaders of both parties are trying to use redistricting to undermine her re-election chances and reduce the number of outspoken blacks in the legislature.

Given that most or all of the redistricting maps currently before a three-judge panel in U.S. District Court call for increasing the number of black-majority districts in Milwaukee from three to five, Ms. Williams's concerns may seem puzzling to some.

But five is one too many, as Ms. Williams sees it.

"By doing that you weaken all five,'' she contended.

Right now, for instance, her center-city district is 91 percent black. Under a plan approved by the legislature, but vetoed by Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, her district would become 65 percent black, as would four other districts in the city.

Ms. Williams argues that political brokers drew the lines to shift the balance of power in favor of the 35 percent white minority in each district, which would be able to elect the black candidate who is most acceptable to the white community.


Under the plan, Ms. Williams would lose about 54 percent of the constituents who have put her in office the past 12 years. In addition, she could be forced to run against another incumbent, a white lawmaker who has been a vocal opponent of school choice.

"It's no secret that I am the target,'' she said.

But Dave Patrick de Felice, the press secretary to Speaker of the House Walter Kunicki, said the Democratic leadership was not trying to write her out of a district. The incumbent Ms. Williams would ordinarily face has said repeatedly that she will move out of the district if the map stands, he noted.

Moreover, the addition of a safe district for blacks was meant to expand their influence, Mr. de Felice explained. "To pack those districts we thought was unfair to black legislators.''

Ms. Williams also points a finger at the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the powerful teachers' union that is bitterly opposed to the school-choice program.

Richard Collins, the union's president, pointed out that Ms. Williams is just one of a number of legislators whose districts have been redrawn. "It's one of those classic redistricting battles that is going on [and] Polly Williams is looking for a scapegoat.''--K.D.

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