Settling politics

Much of the legislation GOP Rep. Pat Snyder is most proud of involves social programs such as addiction treatment, help for the homeless, and securing a minority loan program.


Snyder sees a slight shift toward a more moderate legislature. But observers say that’s because the GOP, since gaining control of the legislature in 2011, already advanced major parts of their agenda

Make no mistake: Pat Snyder is a Republican. He believes in economic freedom, keeping taxes low and family values. In his five months in the state legislature representing the Wausau area’s 85th Assembly District, he has voted along party lines.

But talking to the former radio show host who was elected in November, one might forget his political roots. When he talks about a series of bills to help the homeless as only the tip of the iceberg; when he talks about expanding programs to help people suffering from drugs and other addiction; when he talks about getting an additional $100,000 for the Marathon County Development Corporation’s minority loan program; when he talks about a referendum to legalize medical marijuana; or when he talks about increasing education funding as his line in the sand, one might forget that “R” after his name.

Almost. Then again, some observers see recent legislation from state Republicans as shifting toward a more moderate direction. It depends who you ask.

Not a chance, says Ed Miller, UWSP Political Science Professor and Center for the Small City Co-Director. He points to marginal gains in education funding, continued support of school voucher programs that essentially subsidize those attending private schools, loosening high-capacity well regulations, and the continued battle over the state’s 2010 redistricting, which Miller calls a blatant example of pro-Republican gerrymandering. (Though the school voucher and redistricting issues came up before Snyder took office, Snyder did vote with his GOP colleagues this spring to loosen high-capacity well regulations, a bill that opponents call a privatization of groundwater.)

But political science professor and Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service Program Director Eric Giordano does see a moderate shift, and there’s a simple explanation. When Republicans first took control of the Wisconsin legislature in 2011, they acted quickly to advance their agenda, Giordano says, and often purposefully left the opposition party in the dark. Now with three solid terms of control, he says, they’re more likely to reach across the aisle and adopt more moderate positions.

Giordano also points out that Snyder is an individual legislator, with his own personal thoughts. Having a daughter who is a teacher, for example, likely has influenced his views on education. And Snyder’s own personal battle with alcohol abuse may play into his thinking as a lawmaker.

“He has his own mind on this and many other issues, which may not perfectly fit with a particular ideological viewpoint,” Giordano says. He points out longtime Congressman Dave Obey, a Democrat, had a near perfect National Rifle Association voting record.

Both Giordano and Miller point out that many of the controversial state policies, such as the union-busting Act 10, were taken care of in the early days of Gov. Walker’s administration. In other words, the really controversial policies already were taken care of before Snyder took office.

But Snyder himself sees something of a shift toward a more moderate legislature, even if that shift only slightly moves the needle.

In addition to saying he supports a referendum on medical marijuana, Snyder co-sponsored legislation making it easier to for people to access CBD oil—a derivative of the marijuana plant that previously was illegal in Wisconsin. Though it died in previous years, the bill was signed into law this spring. The oil has been shown to help treat epilepsy and contains no psychoactive properties.

Snyder sees himself as a pragmatist. To him, some of the socially minded programs make economic sense. Help someone with addiction now, and they will cost taxpayers less in the long run. Properly funding education helps ensure Wisconsin has a workforce in the future. Increasing funding for a minority loan program helps create more startups, which studies show have the most effect on growing the state’s economy.

In an interview with Rep. Snyder last week about his first term in office so far, he talked about what’s he’s been able to accomplish, what he thinks about the direction of his party, and what he hopes to accomplish in the future.

I went through all the legislation passed through the Assembly this year. It looks like you pretty much voted along party lines.

I listened to everything on the floor, and I pretty much agreed with my colleagues on the Republican side.

Looking through this legislation, there are things one might not expect out of the GOP playbook, such as funding for addiction programs, the homeless, etc. What’s the GOP philosophy at the state level right now?

We realized that things like people struggling with addiction, other folks struggling to get a job, or getting out of poverty, that we need to invest in them now rather than not helping them, because a lot of the time if we ignore them, they will constantly be in the system. They won’t find their true potential or be able to get themselves out of difficulty. What I’m seeing is more of a “let’s invest in them now, let’s help them now” approach. It’ll have more people self sufficient, working to have their lives back and reach the goals they want to reach.

Would you say that’s a shift for the GOP in the state?

It might be. You know, when I was out campaigning for the job, a lot of people have the stereotype of a Republican who is “don’t let the government do anything, let everyone be accountable for themselves” and it’s more of the old, “help the rich,” and all that. I’ve never subscribed to that. I’ve always believed you can help people without overtaxing the rest of the citizens.

The realization right now is that there are traumatic events in people’s lives that have set the mold they’re in right now. We have to get off of this “what’s wrong with you” attitude and see if there are ways to help this. Mental health is key — that’s one of the top things. There are so many people, even in our prison system, who I think need some help in counseling on the mental health side. Otherwise what are we putting back on the streets when they get out?

The state is considered dead last for business startups, and the state’s approach seems to be aimed at an outdated, hope for the 500-job manufacturer to move to town. In reality, studies show that most job growth comes from small businesses growing.

I think it’s a priority. When you look at our state, 96% of the economy is small business. Wausau SOUP, some of things coming out of that, and MCDEVCO (Marathon County Economic Development Corporation)—that’s an area we need to invest in. That’s why I worked to get the minority loan funding through the budget, because the minority community, especially the Hmong, man they can expand jobs, they can create new companies. I’m all for technology, and the way folks can create things and use the internet for shipping, you don’t need the 500-employee company coming to town. Manufacturing and industry will always be an important piece but we need to get behind the small businesses and innovations.

Especially when those small businesses grow into medium and large companies.

Exactly. I hope WEDC (Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation) does a better job with this. I know there have been concerns in the past, but I hope they really start looking at this and really look at the ideas to help create jobs. You might start off with a small business with 10 employees, and even if that grows to 50 employees, that’s pretty good; that’s people drawing incomes, living in homes, adding to the tax base of the city or town. Those little things add up.

What’s been eye-opening about Madison and how it works?

I guess it’s getting to see how all these bills get together. Working with Congressman Sean Duffy (as outreach director from Duffy’s Wausau office), I wasn’t in Washington but I did get a sense of how the sausage is made, and how slow it is.

In Madison, it’s much faster. We have the Legislative Reference Bureau. When you have an idea for a bill, you notify them and call them up, and say this is what I would like the bill to do, and they research it and draft a bill. Then we’re blessed to have the Legislative Counsel, which is the state legal side of things to make sure your bill is constitutional and that there are no red flags.

The other thing I found is how nice everyone is. Sometimes from the outside looking in, you think everyone is at everyone’s throats, Democrats against Republicans. But I’ve gone to a lot of committee meetings and group meetings where I’ve been the only Republican in a committee of Democrats and it has been fine. There are a lot of things that come through where both sides agree, it’s just that there might be a disagreement on how much funding a bill gets. Ninety to 95% of the legislation is bi-partisan and gets through. It’s the 5% that makes the news when everyone disagrees. In the long run, there is a lot more cooperation than people think.

Anything you disagreed with your party on?

People from the outside think we’re a rubber stamp for Gov. Walker. In my opinion he’s done a fantastic job and cares about the state, but it doesn’t mean we don’t have differences. (One of the areas Snyder disagrees with Gov. Walker on is a fuel tax— adding 5¢ to the tax would generate more money for transportation, and constituents Snyder talked to were OK with it, as opposed to added registration fees.)

One of the things I said when I campaigned is if education wasn’t funded properly I wasn’t going to vote for the budget, but right now that looks pretty darned good.

I didn’t pay much attention to it when the pundits were talking, but when you have a daughter who’s a fourth grade teacher at Weston Elementary, she’s given me a lot of insight into the struggles they had when it comes to the mental health side of things. So I saw the governor add a little more to that, and we probably can do even more in the next session. She enlightened me pretty good.

I would like to be able to help the individuals in our district and the state without overburdening the taxpayer or taking away freedoms and liberties. We want to invest in the people who need help. But, it’s a two-way street too. The individual has to know that, OK, here is my hand, but you have to reach out and pull up too. They can’t just stay put and we lift them out of the boat, they have to work with us. If you’re talking to someone who is really interested in changing their lifestyle and bettering themselves, I don’t see anyone who would be against that.


Snyder has pressed to earmark $100,000 in the state budget to double the size of McDEVCO’s local minority business loan fund. The program helped Mary Thao launch her exotic fruit business in Wausau, but is now nearly depleted and awaiting more funds

You’ve talked about helping people with addiction, but on the other side of that, the legislature has introduced laws that would require drug testing for certain benefits. Doesn’t that counteract helping people?

Well, drug testing is only for those who are childless, so those who have children would still get the benefit. I see it as a tough love situation. I know the concern on that, but in the same sense, I’ve talked to different companies, and folks have to take drug tests just to get jobs. If we’re trying to get them off the dependency of addiction, then this pinpoints that they have a problem. The government set aside money to help with treatment. It’s not just, oh, you’re addicted, see you. It’s, OK, you’re addicted, here is the treatment. If you accept the treatment, you have the assistance.

You’ve had a bout with addiction yourself.

Absolutely. I really didn’t start drinking until I got out of college. It was something I tell folks, I was always my best salesman. I would tell myself, I don’t have a problem. I can quit anytime I want. I thought of myself as a victim. Why is everyone picking on me? I’m just drinking like everyone else does in Wisconsin.

After you have an accident, you go back and reflect. (Snyder was in an automobile crash in 2003, and spent several days in the hospital). What affected me was my kids later told me they were afraid on some weekends, because they were afraid I would come home inebriated. I thought, oh my gosh, what did I do to them?

My wife, this was new to her, she grew up in a family where alcohol wasn’t part of the lifestyle. On the other side, my dad was an alcoholic. So I knew that either she would be gone, my family would be gone, or I had to face up to this. After the accident the people who were negative toward me about my drinking, they all came and visited me (in the hospital). My friends who drank with me? Not one of them did. I didn’t have withdrawals, I didn’t have physiological addiction like someone on heroin or other drugs, but I know the addictive nature.

Has that given you empathy for those addicted?

Now that you put that out there, yeah, maybe that is it. Maybe that’s another reason, going back to folks who fail drug tests, that they should get treatment. I can say, you know, I’ve been in a similar situation, and I know that you don’t want to be like this forever. This is it, this is the treatment, now come on. You can be a lot more than you are right now.