Scott Walker isn’t the only Wisconsin official targeted in a recall election by the left this June 5. Four GOP state senators who voted for his landmark reform of state labor laws will face the voters, along with Rebecca Kleefisch, Walker’s 36-year-old lieutenant governor.
Dramatizing the recall showdown over organized labor’s power to control states’ fiscal policies, Kleefisch will most likely go up against Democrat Mahlon Mitchell, head of a public sector union.
The former TV news anchor sighs when told she is the first lieutenant governor in the nation’s history to face a recall.
“I prefer to say I will be the first one to be elected twice in my first term,” she says. “We are all going to win because Wisconsin has changed in the last year — it’s now ‘open for business’ and jobs are growing.”
The state’s unemployment rate is 6.9 percent, compared to the national rate of 8.3 percent.
Another piece of good news: Walker’s reforms appear to have reversed a 12-year stretch of rising property taxes. During that span, property taxes rose 43 percent. But in the past year, local governments and school districts used the flexibility in Walker’s reforms to write new union contracts enabling homeowners to save an average of $700 over the current two-year budget cycle.
That kind of progress has allowed both Walker and Kleefisch to take early leads over their likely opponents. A new Public Policy Polling survey finds her leading Democrat Mitchell by 46 percent to 40 percent — the same margin by which she was elected in 2010.
But Kleefisch, considered one of the GOP’s rising young stars, is taking nothing for granted. Because she and Walker are running separately, she must raise her own money to fend off what is expected to be an all-out union campaign against her.
“It’s vital Scott Walker wins, but it’s also important he have his best partner in the No. 2 office and not a union boss seeking to undermine him,” she explains.
Kleefisch is used to tough races. In 2010, she was the mother of two young daughters running her first campaign when she suddenly learned only weeks before her hotly contested September primary that she had colon cancer.
She had a tumor the size of a grapefruit removed just before Labor Day. She ended up winning her primary easily, and has been cancer-free since her operation.
But her challenges haven’t spared her from the vitriolic criticism of liberals. John “Sly” Sylvester, a Madison talk show host, claimed she used her cancer to get elected, and that her attitude was “screw everyone else” who doesn’t have health insurance.
Sylvester did apologize for accusing her of providing sexual favors to conservative talk-show hosts to secure favorable coverage.
To her credit, Kleefisch says she has “forgiven the guy and moved on.” What makes her most angry is that “all of this visceral hatred was directed at me for just doing my job.”
Walker has given Kleefisch much more substantive duties than previous No. 2’s in Wisconsin.
“The governor is the CEO of the state,” she told me. “As his lieutenant governor, I am the marketing VP, helping to articulate why job creators should come to Wisconsin or expand. I am on the phone constantly prospecting with businesses.”
In addition, as Walker’s liaison to the state’s small businesses, she held 25 Small Business Roundtables throughout the state last year and brought back a raft of suggestions for how the state can streamline regulations and work more cooperatively.
Being upfront and assertive comes naturally to Kleefisch, who was the morning anchor on WISN-TV in Milwaukee, the media market that covers over half the state. While taking time off to raise her daughters, she was energized against Barack Obama’s dramatic expansion of government and she became a featured speaker at tea party rallies.
Urged to run by key business leaders, she crafted a campaign built around her view that government should operate with as much common sense as everyday people do around their kitchen tables.
“Our message that government shouldn’t use accounting tricks to fake a balanced budget or tax and regulate businesses out of the state resonated with people,” she told me. “They will again when we both win our recall elections.”
Left unsaid is that if Rebecca Kleefisch wins her high-profile recall battle, her standing with conservatives will be raised and make her a potential player on even bigger political stages in the future.
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