The first attempt in Wisconsin to regulate primaries by law was the enactment of what was known as the Keogh law, chapter 439, laws of 1891. This act applied to Milwaukee county only, and was placed in the statute books through the efforts of the Milwaukee delegation in the legislature. No platform pledges had been made to reform the Primaries; no campaign had been conducted in the interests of such reform; no public demand made through the newspapers had furnished the inspiration or pointed the way; no meetings were held; no bands were employcd to please or torture the public ear, as the case might be; no impassioned orators appealed to the electorate to rise in its might and hurl from places of power and trust the faithless caucus manipulators. The impossibility of continuing to do party business in an orderly manner at mass caucuses in congested municipal wards had become apparent, and the practice already had been partially abandoned. in a quiet way, therefore, the representalives of Milwaukee voters attempted to crystallize into a concrete plan the nebulous ideas that had ruled in the government of the primaries for a number of years.
In country districts, villages and small cities the mass caucus had not fallen altogether into disrepute at that time. Contests there had been, it is true, and some sharp ones at that, but as a rule township and ward officers nominated in and delegates elected in rural primaries and the smaller municipalities were acknowledged to fairly represent a majority of the parties holding the caucuses. In some sections of the state, like the mining and lumbering regions of the north, complaint was made that at times caucuses were packed and ruled by mob law, and contests in conventions based on charges of that character were not unknown. But these instances were the exception, not the rule.
On the other hand, party managers and public spirited citizens had learned that the members of the parties in a thickly settled ward could not meet in mass caucuses and by a viva voce vote give expression to their choice with any assurance that the will of the legal majority would prevail. Where lines were sharply drawn between conflicting interests it frequently occurred that one or the other side would gain an unfair advantage by introducing nonresident strikers and heelers, members of other parties, toughs and hoodlums, to the disgust of respectable citizens who would thereby be driven away from the caucuses. In seeking a remedy for this condition, the party leaders and committeemen already had adopted a rule in many instances that party primaries were to be held open for at least an hour and voting was to be done by ballot. This was a step in the right direction, but it did not go far enough.
The Keogh bill, No. 136A, was introduced by that veteran democratic legislator, Edward Keogh of Milwaukee, who consented to allow the influence of his name to be used to the advantage of the measure, the democratic party having secured an overwhelming majority at the memorable "Bennett law election" the previous fall. Mr. Keogh had served one term in the state senate and was, at the time this bill was introduced, representing his district in the assembly for the twelfth time. He made it thirteen before he retired permanently to private life. But while he consented to father the bill, his age and the dignity of his position as the oldest member were such that he left to the younger members of the delegation the real work incidental to the passage of the measure. As it happened, Michael Kruszka, then in his first term, full of hard work, enthusiasm, and a desire to do something worth while, became the dry nurse of the measure.
The bill was first referred to the judiciary committee, made up of six democrats and three republicans.1
This committee failed to discover any constitutional obstacles to the passage of the bill but declined to assume responsibility for it and asked that it be referred to the Milwaukee delegation, which was done.2.
But the thought of abolishing conventions had doubtless not entered the minds of the men who were responsible for the enactment of this statute. At all events, the only effect of its operation was to cause delegates to conventions to be classed as officers and their names were placed on the official primary ballots and their elections held under the conditions that obtained in the selection of ward and township officers. It did not occur to the members of the legislature or the people of Milwaukee county that the Keogh law had abolished caucuses and conventions and substituted therefor a sweeping primary election. But such was the case, nevertheless.
1. The democrats were John Winans of Rock county, chairman; James D. Watson, Fond du Lac; Joshua E. Dodge, Racine; Neal Brown, Marathon; Conrad Krez and H. J. Desmond, Milwaukee. The republicans were Orrin T. Williams, Milwaukee; L. H. Mead, Washburn, Charles F. Osborn, Lafayette and Green.
2. Milwaukee was represented that year by the following members of the lower house:
First district, Humphrey J. Desmond (D)
Second district, William J. Friebrantz (R)
Third district, Edward Keogh (D)
Fourth district, Orrin T. Williams (R)
Fifth District, Conrad Krez (D)
Sixth district, William Pierron (R)
Seventh district, Charles H. Anson (R)
Eighth district, Henry Schuetz (D)
Ninth district, Philip Schmitz, Jr. (D)
Tenth district, John Horn (D)
Eleventh district, Ambrose McGuigan (D)
Twelfth district, Michael Kruszka (D)