Wis. Political Power at Stake Amid Recalls, Budget Debate

Monday, 13 Jun 2011 11:08 AM

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The political power in Wisconsin pivots on recall elections that have put six Republican and three Democratic senators on the chopping block in the continuing firestorm over Gov. Scott Walker’s budget-cutting actions.

Wisconsin, budget, scott walker, republicans, democrats
Demonstrators occupied the Wisconsin Capitol in February in March to protest Gov. Scott Walker's budget proposals. (Getty Images Photo)
And protests that erupted when the freshman governor announced his budget cutbacks in February are expected to return this week, as the Republican Legislature begins to debate the state’s new two-year budget. Walker’s proposals for the next biennium double down on his goal to downsize government.

Walker’s February proposals, including a law that pulled the plug on public employees’ collective-bargaining rights, turned the unusually snowy Wisconsin Winter into a blizzard of protests at the Capitol in February and March. The Badger State Spring became a season of petition-gathering in the partisan quests to bounce Republicans who supported Walker plans and to dump Democrats who not only opposed the measures but also fled the state in an attempt to foil their passage.

The controversy ushered in what promises to be a long, hot summer of political jousting beyond the budget battles during the next two weeks, with recall elections and/or primaries set for July 12 and Aug. 9.

Both parties are drawing lines in the sand, including the Republicans’ open acknowledgement that they intend to field spoiler candidates against the Democrats to force primaries that, in turn, would delay the recall elections. Not to be outdone, Democrats have hatched their own plans to run “placeholder” candidates to foil the GOP tactic.

The recall votes themselves are not a sure thing, as several still face court challenges.

But the promise of dueling alternative candidates stirred a controversial pot that didn’t need agitating: It’s been a cauldron since Walker’s proposals propelled thousands of protesters to the state capital of Madison, where they occupied the Capitol for weeks.

The pot has boiled hotter since a judge recently slapped a hold on the collective-bargaining cutbacks, saying that the law’s passage violated open-meetings rules. The law is in the hands of the state Supreme Court, with no indication yet on when it will rule.

Initial talk about GOP plans to run spoilers seemed like rumors wafting from smoke-filled back rooms (if it weren’t for the fact that it’s hard to find a smoke-filled room under the Badger State’s no-smoking law). Candidates’ campaigns denied being involved.

Clearing whatever smoke there might have been was the GOP’s open acknowledgement of the spoiler plan and the fact that some operatives in the party’s top echelon are involved, according to the La Crosse Tribune.

For example, James Smith resigned from the La Crosse County Republican Party Executive Committee to run as a spoiler against Democrat Jennifer Shilling in the recall election of Republican Sen. Dan Kapanke of La Crosse. Smith told the Tribune that he conferred with party leaders before opting for that tack in the race, in which Kapanke is seen as perhaps the most vulnerable of all the candidates facing recall.

And Stephan Thompson, the new executive director of the state Republican Party, told the Tribune that Democratic challengers have an unfair edge because they can be out campaigning while incumbents are tethered to their legislative duties at the Capitol.

“Because of this disadvantage, and the outrageous nature of elected officials facing recall for standing up for a balanced budget, the Republican Party of Wisconsin has advocated that protest candidates run in Democratic primaries to ensure that Republican legislators have ample time to communicate with voters throughout their districts after the state budget is approved,” Thompson said.

University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist Charles Franklin expressed surprise about the tactic during an interview with the Tribune. “It’s certainly unusual for a party not only to do it but to also defend it as . . . a normal political maneuver,” he said. “And I think that reflects just how high the stakes are in the recalls, that we’re seeing political tactics that are that unusual being used routinely.”

Republicans hold a 19-14 majority in the state Senate, a balance that allowed them to pass the GOP governor’s budget package and several other controversial measures.

“If Democrats pick up three or more seats, that puts an end to the Republican agenda and Walker’s agenda at least through the 2012 general election,” Franklin told the Tribune.

A power shift also would affect routine redistricting that’s in the wings.

On the flip side, Franklin said, even if the GOP loses a seat or two, if Republicans maintain their Senate majority, coupled with their majority in the Senate, politicos will interpret it as endorsing the conservative agenda.

The imbroglio’s offshoot is the acceleration of legislative action for Walker, and the GOP-controlled Senate and Assembly, to warp speed, according to The New York Times.

During the past few weeks, Walker has signed into law measures requiring voters to show photo IDs at the polls and to deregulate elements of the telecommunications industry. The Legislature also is scrambling to expand school vouchers, to allow carrying of concealed weapons, to cut Planned Parenthood financing, and to bar illegal immigrants from paying in-state tuition at Wisconsin’s universities.

“Why the urgency?” the Times report asked and answered: “Republicans, who suddenly swept into control of this Capitol in last fall’s elections, face a deadline of sorts. Though the lawmakers insist that their hurry-up offense is just living up to campaign promises, there is a threat looming: They are at risk of losing their newly won majority in the State Senate.”

“There has been not even a pretense of trying to find a bipartisan agreement on important issues,” the Times quoted Democratic Senate Leader Mark Miller as saying. “It’s the Republican agenda, and that’s it. The only negotiations now are among themselves.”

Republicans reject any notion that they are ramming through legislation, telling the Times that many of their pro-jobs, fiscally conservative measures are simply elements of the state’s next budget, which must be approved by July.

The controversial first five months of Walker’s governorship also led to the creation of Wisconsin’s newest city, if you want to call it that: Protesters are camped across from the Capitol in a tent city called “Walkerville,” reminiscent of the Hooverville shantytown encampments of homeless people named after President Herbert Hoover during the Great Depression.

A few moments of humor have squeezed through the angst and vitriol. On Thursday, as Walker was delivering the keynote address for an annual housing conference at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, four hard, booming knocks from protesters slamming the outside walls echoed through the auditorium.

Nary losing a beat, Walker improvised a line that drew laughs: "That's opportunity knocking for all of us now."

Opportunity is knocking in Wisconsin, and both parties are scrambling over each other during this steamy political summer to answer it.


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