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Sen. Melissa Agard to step down as Democratic minority leader

The party is eyeing a chance at legislative power as the Wisconsin Supreme Court weighs a challenge to the state legislative maps

Wisconsin Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard, D-Madison photographed on June 28, 2023 in the Wisconsin State Capitol
Wisconsin Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard, D-Madison, is photographed on June 28, 2023 in the Wisconsin State Capitol. Drake White-Bergey/Wisconsin Watch

At least three Wisconsin Democrats are vying to be the next state Senate Minority Leader after Sen. Melissa Agard, D-Madison, announced Thursday 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’s legislative maps that could fundamentally alter party power in the Legislature.

Sens. Dianne Hesselbein, D-Middleton, Kelda Roys, D-Madison, and Jeff Smith, D-Brunswick, have confirmed to WPR they are vying to replace Agard. Senate Democrats will vote for the next minority leader during a caucus meeting scheduled for late Friday afternoon.

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Agard revealed her decision as part of an announcement that she is running for Dane County Executive. She said she plans to serve out her term in the state Senate during her campaign for the county executive job.

“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 all across the state of Wisconsin and be good partners with the Assembly and the governor’s office,” Agard told WPR.

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 more seats, and more power.

Agard said that sets up an opportunity to pass progressive priorities, such as enshrining abortion access and LGBTQ+ issues, legalizing cannabis and regulating firearm access.

“We’re unapologetic about the work that we’re doing there,” she said. “I am so proud of the seeds that have been sowed over so many years in the legislature, by myself and my colleagues. And I know in 2024, we have the real opportunity to turn the corner and make those things be a reality.”

Roys and Smith both said they are seeking the leadership position with eyes on new maps.

“When we have fair maps, we can build a majority,” Roys told WPR. “And that’s my single-minded goal, to help my colleagues get into the majority.”

Smith said that his experience in a politically competitive seat sets him up to see Democrats through what could be a year of dozens of special elections in redrawn districts.

“That doesn’t necessarily (mean) we will attain the majority, but we’re always going to be trying to gain the majority,” he said. “And I think I have far more experience in a very competitive district to be able to mentor and help candidates along the way.”

Hesselbein did not respond to a request for an interview.

Agard is the second candidate to join the race to replace Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, who is retiring. The winner will be chosen in a special election scheduled for November 2024.