Wis. governor aims to bridge divide with cookout
MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- Nothing brings people together in Wisconsin like the promise of beer and brats.
At least that's what Gov. Scott Walker hopes.
Exactly one week after the Republican fought off a Democratic-led attempt to recall him from office, Walker tried to mend some fences by inviting state lawmakers from both parties over Tuesday for a cookout featuring brats, a local sausage whose name is pronounced "brahts."
The idea isn't new. Politicians have long recognized the symbolic and sometimes substantive power of sharing a meal or drink to bring people together.
President Barack Obama used the tactic early in his presidency in 2009, when he invited a black scholar and the white police sergeant who arrested him to the White House to share a beer and talk about race relations.
But other, similar efforts haven't gone as well.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a former brewpub owner, invited the House speaker to meet him for a glass of bourbon under a tree on the Capitol lawn last month after House Republicans blocked a vote on civil unions for same-sex couples.
The two met in the middle of the night without staff or reporters, but Democratic governor failed to convince Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty to end the filibuster. The session closed without a vote on the measure.
In Tennessee, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam tried to carry on his Democratic predecessor's tradition of holding bipartisan breakfast meetings with legislative leaders during the session. But minority Democrats expressed frustration with the meetings and stopped attending.
Such meals have traditionally been held outside the public eye at restaurants or bars near the capitol so officeholders can chat informally about the issues of the day.
But as both Republicans and Democrats have become more partisan, and the attacks more pointed, the willingness to break bread or share a cold one has diminished.
Walker's tenure in Wisconsin has been marked by bitter partisanship, with all 14 Senate Democrats fleeing the state for three weeks last year in an ultimately futile attempt to stop Republicans from passing Walker's bill eliminating most public workers' collective bargaining rights.
After the measure became law, Democrats led the effort to recall the governor and a number of Republican lawmakers. Walker kept his job, but others didn't.
The governor has expressed regret over the bitterness of the fight, and after winning his recall election by a 7-point margin last week, he floated the idea of having all 132 state lawmakers over to the governor's mansion for brats and beers as a way to bridge the divide that has driven state politics for a year and a half.
Lawmakers may bring their spouses and two staff members, but otherwise, the two-hour picnic is closed "to provide a relaxed environment for lawmakers to socialize with each other and with the governor," said Walker's spokesman Cullen Werwie.
It makes sense to keep the picnic private to encourage conversations and avoid accusations that it's just a photo opportunity, said Brandon Scholz, a Republican consultant and former state party executive director who's now head of the Wisconsin Grocers Association, which handled food for the event.
The menu includes brats from five Wisconsin companies, including Johnsonville Sausage, the nation's largest brat maker. MillerCoors, which moved its headquarters to Chicago when Miller and Coors merged but is still considered Milwaukee's hometown brew, will supply beer, along with three smaller Wisconsin brewers.
"Food is always a good starting place," Scholz said. "And beer is always a good starting place."
Make no mistake, Wisconsin's first love is cheese (and there will be a cheese tray at the cookout), but the state's affection for both beer and brats is well documented. More than 200,000 brats are consumed each Memorial Day at a Madison event billed as the World's Largest Brat Fest. One year, the Capitol dome was illuminated mustard yellow in recognition of the event.
Sheboygan, which claims to be the "Bratwurst Capital of America," celebrates Bratwurst Days every August, and Johnsonville is based in nearby Sheboygan Falls.
Brats differ from sausages or hot dogs in the way they are made. Sausages are typically any encased meat product. Brats are a specific type of sausage, usually pork, defined by their spices and the way the meat is ground.
While they were being presented as a peace offering at the picnic, they were part of the partisan fight last year.
Two alternative brat festivals were organized in Madison, featuring locally produced brats, after it became known that executives and others connected to Johnsonville, organizer of the World's Largest Brat Fest, had donated to Walker's campaign.
Some of the bitterness is still lingering. Two lawmakers, Republican Rep. Steve Nass and Democratic state Rep. Mark Pocan, said they won't attend Tuesday's picnic. Nass cited comments critical of Walker made over the weekend by the chairman of the state Democratic Party and a Democratic state senator.
Pocan, who is running for Congress in a heavily Democratic district that includes Madison, said he welcomed the spirit of bipartisanship but he owed constituents who worked on the recall to get more results than just sharing beers and brats with Republicans.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)