Democrat Dianne Hesselbein elected new Senate minority leader

Senate Democrats chose Hesselbein to lead their caucus as Sen. Melissa Agard runs for Dane County Executive

Sen. Dianne Hesselbein speaks at a podium
Sen. Dianne Hesselbein, D-Middleton, introduced the bill to expand BadgerCare on Oct. 31, 2023. Robert D’Andrea/WPR

Sen. Dianne Hesselbein, D-Middleton, will serve as the next Senate Minority Leader after being elected by her colleagues at a meeting of the caucus on Friday afternoon.

Her election comes one day after Sen Melissa Agard, D-Madison, announced she is stepping down from the leadership post.

The transition comes as the Wisconsin Supreme Court is due to rule on a challenge to the state legislative maps that could fundamentally shift party power in the Legislature and offer the vastly-outnumbered Democrats an opportunity to seize some seats.

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Hesselbein, who currently serves as the Democratic caucus’ vice chair, was elected by her colleagues in a vote that took place over a Zoom meeting late Friday afternoon, and was not open to outside observers, including the media.

She was elected to the Assembly in 2012 and to the Senate in 2022.

Democrats are currently firmly in the minority in both the Assembly and Senate. If the existing maps, which heavily favor Republicans, are overturned by the high court, legislative Democrats could gain many more seats and undo a Republican supermajority in the Senate, with an eye towards potentially building their own majority.

In a statement, Hesselbein didn’t name that potential explicitly but alluded to “great opportunities ahead” for Democrats.

“As leader I will ensure that everyone has a voice. I pledge to make every member of our caucus — and the people we represent — a priority,” the statement reads. “I am proud to have the support of my colleagues to lead these efforts going forward and make our caucus even larger and more effective.”

Agard has served as minority leader since November 2022 and in the Legislature since 2012, beginning in the Assembly. She announced Thursday she’ll step down from leadership to run for Dane County Executive, but will serve out the remainder of her term in the Senate. Her Madison district is considered safe for Democrats, who currently hold 11 of the Senate’s 33 seats.

“I have so much faith in my caucus to be able to do the hard work, to build their numbers and lift up the values of the people in all across the state of Wisconsin and be good partners with the Assembly and the governor’s office,” Agard previously told WPR.

In addition to Hesselbein, Sens. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, and Jeff Smith, D-Brunswick, ran for minority leader. Smith released a written statement after the vote saying Hesselbein would provide Democrats with solid leadership headed into a “difficult and exciting year.”

“This is a time of great possibility for Wisconsin,” Smith said. “I look forward to continuing my work as Assistant Leader alongside Senator Hesselbein and all of my Democratic colleagues.”