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Dems boot their boss

MADISON -- Backlash from the state budget that Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle plans to sign Friday prompted Senate Democrats to dump their leader of less than a year.

MADISON -- Backlash from the state budget that Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle plans to sign Friday prompted Senate Democrats to dump their leader of less than a year.

On a secret ballot Wednesday, the 18 Senate Democrats ousted Sen. Judy Robson, D-Beloit, as majority leader and replaced her with Sen. Russ Decker, D-Weston.

The vote came one day after Robson and the other 17 Senate Democrats pushed a controversial state budget through the Senate. All 15 Republicans voted against measure, which was nearly four months overdue.

In a floor speech Wednesday, Democratic Rep. Frank Boyle of Superior said Robson was the third woman to be removed from legislative leadership in recent years, referring to former Senate Majority Leader Mary Panzer, R-West Bend, and ex-Assembly Minority Leader Shirley Krug, D-Milwaukee.

Robson's ouster means women legislators have "a limited future in leadership," Boyle said.

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Decker said Democrats decided they needed a "stronger message" as they approach elections next year. He said he would try to get along with the governor, but his "first priority" is Senate Democrats.

"I think I have a different style," Decker said, comparing himself to Robson. "I think I'm a little more to the point."

Other Democrats said they backed Decker to get a stronger advocate.

"We'll be a stronger caucus, as a result of having a leadership change," said Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus.

Robson did not talk to reporters, but aide Josh Wescott said she was blindsided by her ouster. She was chosen as majority leader after Democrats won Senate control in November elections last year.

"She's proud of the record of the last 10 months," Wescott said.

Decker said he would push to pass a bill to deregulate the cable industry soon, but that he wanted to amend it to require that consumer complaints are answered by Wisconsin-based workers. The bill, which AT&T is heavily lobbying for, has already passed the Republican-run Assembly.

Another priority is Healthy Wisconsin, the $15 billion plan to provide universal health care coverage through a payroll tax. Democrats put the plan in their version of the budget, but took it out in a compromise with Republicans.

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Decker said Senate Democrats would tweak the measure and pass it again soon.

He said he did not expect to let the Senate vote on a bill banning smoking in public places until a compromise can be reached between Senate President Fred Risser, D-Madison, the bill's sponsor, and Sen. Roger Breske, D-Eland, the bill's chief opponent. The smoking ban is a priority of Doyle and Robson.

Senate Democrats should have played a stronger role in final budget negotiations, Decker said.

Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch, R-West Salem, has said he was told to negotiate directly with Doyle and his aides, instead of Robson. Huebsch had insisted that Doyle be directly involved to ensure the governor would not veto key items agreed to during budget discussions.

Doyle also got involved after budget talks between legislators dragged on for months without progress.

Wescott said Senate Democrats played a key role in the budget process and that Decker himself put his stamp on transportation policy and other parts of the spending plan.

Decker said Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, will remain as assistant majority leader. Decker said that next week he will announce new committee appointments -- including co-chairman of the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee, which he gives up to become majority leader.

Doyle backed Robson in the power struggle. Decker said he had talked to Republican leaders on Wednesday but not to the governor.

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Decker, 54, who sometimes works as a bricklayer between sessions of the Legislature, was elected to the Senate in 1990. He is the third leader of Senate Democrats in the past five years -- a period in which his party lost, then regained, control of the Senate.

In a statement, Doyle spokesman Matt Canter called Robson "a leader of great integrity" because she "understood that the state needed a budget, and was willing to make compromises in order to protect Democratic core values."

Doyle plans to sign the budget at a ceremony at 9 a.m. Friday at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

-- Copyright © 2007, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

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