The Wisconsin Capitol alongside the office building where, in 2011, Republicans drew new political maps in secret. Angela Major/WPR

In the political powder keg of 2011, Wisconsin redistricting passed without protest
Chaos and Quiet
Chaos and Quiet

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It can be dangerous to predict what future historians might write about the political history of Wisconsin, but it seems like they might have a lot to say about the year 2011. Because in terms of state politics, that was the year that changed everything.

If you lived in Wisconsin in 2011 — and even if you didn't — you might remember it was chaotic.

Scott Walker, a conservative Republican from Milwaukee County, had just been elected governor. About a month after he took office, he introduced his landmark plan that would decimate the state's public employee unions.

It sparked weeks of intense protest. Tens of thousands of people showed up in downtown Madison for weeks. People literally took over the Capitol.

Protestors of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers pack the rotunda at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011. Andy Manis/AP Photo

But on the same day that the Wisconsin Assembly passed Walker's labor law now known as Act 10, another event went largely unnoticed. The U.S. Census Bureau released a new set of data used to draw political maps.

During this chaos, work quietly began on one of the most consequential bills of the decade: redistricting.

A red map

Although the process began quietly, redistricting did not sneak up on people. It happens every decade after the Census. It was not a surprise.

But in 2010, people were focused on other issues. This was two years after President Barack Obama was elected. He had just signed the Affordable Care Act, and the Great Recession was still fresh on people's minds.

There was a backlash against Democrats and the Republican base was fired up. GOP strategists were looking for ways to seize power.

In 2010, Republican strategist Chris Jankowski was running a national group called the Republican State Leadership Committee. While other groups focused on high-profile national races, Jankowski's group focused on state races. 

He knew state races mattered most of all that year, a year ending in zero, because whoever won would be in charge of redistricting. 

"We use data and objective research, we didn't have to actually meet the candidates to know what we could do," said Republican strategist Chris Jankowski.

Jankowski created a program called REDMAP: The Redistricting Majority Project. By funneling national money into local districts where the numbers suggested Republicans could win, the group's goal was to flip state legislatures and give the GOP the power to draw the next set of maps.

"We use data and objective research, we didn't have to actually meet the candidates to know what we could do," Jankowski told NPR's Planet Money in 2018. 

Jankowski's group was methodical and targeted. They got involved all over the country in races where people didn't necessarily expect it, including districts in Wisconsin.

Leading up to Election Day, most people expect Republicans to do well. In midterm elections when one party controls everything, the pendulum tends to swing back the other way.

But on election night, when results started rolling in, it was a red wave. Plenty of states got swept up, but nowhere did it hit harder than in Wisconsin. 

In the governor's race, Walker handily beat Democrat Tom Barrett. In the race for U.S. Senate, Republican Ron Johnson beat progressive icon Russ Feingold. Republicans flipped Wisconsin's congressional delegation, and in the state Legislature, Republicans captured majorities in the Senate and Assembly.

Republicans Scott Walker, left, and Ron Johnson celebrate their elections to the Wisconsin governorship and U.S. Senate, respectively, on Nov. 2, 2010. Jeffrey Phelps/Mike Roemer/AP Photo

The night was full of surprises. The Democratic leaders of the Assembly and Senate both lost their races. 

This included Russ Decker, the powerful majority leader of the Wisconsin state Senate. His race was especially surprising because people didn't realize he was vulnerable. 

But Jankowski did. After REDMAP's polling suggested Decker could be beat, the group swooped in and campaigned against him. Looking back, Jankowski said the red wave would have happened with or without REDMAP, but in races like Decker's, it made a big difference. 

"It was a great year in 2010. There's no question that Republicans would have been in a good spot in redistricting without REDMAP," he said at a Harvard forum in 2017. "But I don't think Wisconsin would have happened."

Wisconsin Republicans had won more than just one election on Nov. 2, 2010. They'd won the biggest political prize of all: the power to draw the maps that would shape elections for the next decade. 

The map room

Among the people watching election results closely in 2010 was Republican strategist Joe Handrick.

Handrick had decades of experience in politics. He ran his first campaign for the state Legislature when he was still in college in the 1980s, eventually winning seats in the state Assembly and Senate, not to mention a stint as chairman of the Northwoods town of Minocqua. 

Handrick's interest in politics goes back even further.

"It probably happened sophomore year in high school when I came to the realization that I was never going to be a starter on the football team, and I was never going to be a starter on the cross country team," Handrick said. "But boy, I was good at figuring out how to get elected to the student council." 

Joe Handrick in Johnson Creek, Wis. Handrick has decades of experience in Wisconsin politics and was brought on as a redistricting expert when Republicans were drawing new maps in 2011. Angela Major/WPR

When Republicans won in 2010, Handrick knew it was a big deal for his party because he specialized in redistricting. He worked on maps for Wisconsin Republicans in the 1991 and 2001 redistricting cycles.

He was so highly regarded by Republicans, that they enlisted him again for the 2011 redistricting cycle, but the chain of command was a little bit different. Technically speaking, Handrick was hired by a law firm, that was hired by another law firm, that was hired by Republican legislative leaders to help with the map-drawing. 

"So I was basically a contract hire," he said. 

Two Republican legislative aides joined Handrick — Tad Ottman, who worked for Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, and Adam Foltz, who worked for Republican Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald.

Instead of working from the Capitol, they set up shop across the street at the private law firm Michael Best & Friedrich. They called their office "the map room."

The Fitzgeralds, who are brothers, were responsible for setting the agenda for everything that went through the Legislature. But for redistricting, they used a tactic that's not typical for most legislation. 

They forced every rank-and-file Republican lawmaker to sign confidentiality agreements, which some people have called "secrecy oaths."

Instead of working on the new maps at the Capitol, Republicans set up shop in a sleek glass office building across the street at the private law firm Michael Best & Friedrich. They called their office "the map room." Angela Major/WPR

One by one, each GOP senator and representative visited this law firm to look at their district, and their district only. Under the terms of the confidentiality agreements, they had to keep it private.

Looking back, Handrick said he wouldn't have done it that way, but it wasn't his call. 

"I think it made the legislators look bad. It made it look like they were trying to hide something," Handrick said. "As one of the mapmakers, I don't want to hide anything. I think I'm producing really good work."

Traditional redistricting principles 

Handrick said he had a specific assignment, to create a map that would pass court muster. Because even when there's single-party control, courts can still be involved in redistricting.

In those cases, courts often look at whether a map meets the requirements of the Voting Rights Act. It has to make sure that the voice of minority communities gets heard, and that they can vote for the candidates they want.

This is one of Handrick's specialties: making sure a map meets this rule by drawing what are known as majority-minority districts.

"My source of selfish pride has always been that this kid from up north has been able to have a real and tangible role in helping improve minority representation in Wisconsin," he said.

Handrick and the other mapmakers have to balance a set of traditional redistricting principles. Districts have to be equal in population, compact, contiguous, respectful of so-called "communities of interest" and local boundary lines, among other criteria. 

"I've had a real good knack for being able to take the complex, competing criteria and make them work together," he said.

Some of these principles are loosely defined. Take compactness, the idea that a district shouldn't be too spread out. The U.S. Supreme Court measures this with what it calls an "eyeball approach." They know it when they see it.

The term "communities of interest" is even harder to define. The idea is to keep people with "common interests" together, but one person's view of what this means can be quite a bit different than another's.

Sometimes these principles contradict each other, and mapmakers prioritize one over another. 

For example, Handrick emphasizes compactness. He said funny-shaped districts are how you know a map is gerrymandered.

However, some other mapmakers disagree, including Keith Gaddie, who worked with Handrick on the 2011 map.

Gaddie, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, was a redistricting consultant who was hired to work all over the country, including Wisconsin. He has written several books about politics. In his 2004 book "Born to Run: Origins of the Political Career," he wrote an entire chapter about Handrick.

"Optics matter, but optics can fool you. We could draw you a perfectly square district that was a gerrymander," said Keith Gaddie, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and former redistricting consultant. "So don't let shape fool you."

Gaddie has since left the profession but occasionally speaks about redistricting at forums and other events. In 2020, he addressed "The People's Maps Commission," a group formed by Gov. Tony Evers to develop a redistricting plan.

Gaddie told the commission that there's nothing inherently good about prioritizing one of these criteria over another. For example, Handrick doesn't like funny-shaped districts, but Gaddie said shape doesn't matter.

"Optics matter, but optics can fool you. We could draw you a perfectly square district that was a gerrymander," Gaddie said. "So don't let shape fool you."

Gaddie also told the commission that following other redistricting requirements, like creating majority-minority districts, can have unrelated consequences. That's because Black voters, especially in Milwaukee, overwhelmingly vote Democratic, so when they're packed into a small number of districts, it can give Democrats less power in the Legislature.

"In crafting those districts, you're going to be packing in Democratic voters. It's as simple as that," Gaddie said. "You're necessarily going to introduce some skew in the map that will naturally tend towards the Republican advantage."

Every map is the product of decisions like these. It's complicated, there's a lot to argue over, and even mapmakers who worked on the same project together can have different priorities.

'You have to make choices'

On July 11, 2011, the redistricting bill that Republican mapmakers had been working on behind closed doors for months was introduced.

Notably, this was the first time Democratic lawmakers got to look at the map at all. Even though that private law firm had been working for the Legislature, Democrats were not allowed to see their own districts, or anyone else's.

Two days later, the Legislature held the first and only public hearing for the redistricting bill. 

Handrick didn't testify at this hearing. Neither did Gaddie. The Fitzgerald brothers — the two most powerful people in the Legislature — didn't speak either.

They sent Ottman and Foltz, their legislative aides. Ottman did most of the talking, beginning right away by saying the proposed map met the traditional principles of redistricting, specifically equal population, sensitivity to minority concerns, and districts that are compact and contiguous. 

"The plans we will present to you today were drawn in accordance with those principles," Ottman said.

Former Democratic U.S. Rep. Dave Obey testifies at legislative hearing on Republican redistricting plans on Wednesday, July 13, 2011. It was the same hearing where Tad Ottmanand Adam Foltz spoke to lawmakers. Scott Bauer/AP Photo

Their testimony that day was a crash course in how mapmakers have broad authority to prioritize these traditional redistricting criteria when and where they want.

For example, Ottman said they decided to put the cities of Kenosha and Racine together in a single Senate district to unite large urban areas and keep rural areas separate.

But that wasn't the case in Sheboygan, where mapmakers could have put the entire city in a single Assembly district surrounded by a rural area. Instead, they chopped it in two.

"Either choice is legally valid," Ottman said.

Once the prepared remarks wrapped up and lawmakers started asking questions, they mostly focused on their own districts. They wanted to know why mapmakers moved a line here or there.

Ottman fielded most of the questions, and his answers are almost always the same lines: the map meets the traditional redistricting criteria, therefore, it's legal.

"I know I'm gonna sound like a broken record, but it kind of comes back to the same point," Ottman said. "There are reapportionment principles that are applied to any map drawing, and you have to make choices between them. And it's a matter of which choices you make."

For most of the hearing, the audience was quiet, which was somewhat unusual for this period in Wisconsin history. This hearing happened in between the passage of Walker's big union law and the recall elections that would follow. People were mad, and hearings were often interrupted by shouting.

During this hearing, there was one politely confrontational moment. Sen. Jon Erpenbach, a Democrat from Dane County, wanted to know whether mapmakers looked at any other criteria, like whether the map was good for Republicans.

"Did you look at the partisan makeup of the districts at all?" Erpenbach asked.

Erpenbach asked some variation of this question five times. Each time, Ottman dodged, coming back to the traditional redistricting criteria. 

"The principles were the ones I enumerated," Ottman said.

"So the answer is no?" Erpenbach asked. 

"The answer is that we follow those three legal principles," Ottman responded.

Two day later, the legislative committee run by Republicans passed the map. It passed the state Assembly and Senate just days after that. 

Unlike the other big bills that passed in 2011, there was no chanting, no outrage. A few weeks later, Walker signed it. 

But it wouldn't be until the next election, in November of 2012, that Wisconsin would see the power of this map.  

This story is part of "WPR Reports: Mapped Out," a podcast about redistricting in Wisconsin. Never miss an episode by subscribing now on your favorite podcast app or at


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