Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Brief History of Wisconsin Recall Elections

Now that the 2011-2012 spitstorm of Wisconsin recall elections is over, our elected representatives in Madison (the Republican ones, anyway) have promised to rewrite the state Constitution to make recalls more difficult -- requiring a charge of official malfeasance. They will probably move pretty quickly on that idea, too, while resentment of the recall process remains high.

But before that happens, let's take a quick look at previous recall elections in Wisconsin.

I'm going to stick with the recalls in my lifetime -- the ones I've drawn cartoons about -- starting with the recall of George Petak in 1996. Republican Petak represented Racine County in the State Senate.Republican  Tommy Thompson was Governor, and Republicans held a one-vote margin in the Senate. The Milwaukee Brewers wanted to replace County Stadium, and wanted Wisconsin taxpayers to chip in big time for the proposed Miller Park Stadium.

Instead of hiking taxes on the entire state, Thompson and the Republicans came up with the idea of imposing a .1% sales tax on Milwaukee County and the four counties which border it. Opposition to the tax in Racine County on Milwaukee's southern border was strong (not helped by Thompson's telling the rest of the state to "stick it to 'em"). Petak opposed the tax plan as well, but Senate leaders kept bringing their plan up for votes again and again, late into the night. Finally, at 4:00 in the morning, Petak changed his vote, and the tax plan passed.
Racine citizens started the recall process almost immediately. The Wisconsin Democratic Party claimed at first to have no part in the "No More Petax" drive, although that charade lasted about as long as the pretense that Petak and the Republicans had no connection to "push poll" telephone calls attacking the Democratic candidate, Kim Plache.
Plache, however, won the election, and Democrats gained the majority in the State Senate. Twelve years later, that .1% sales tax is still in place, and the recall is still a sore point with Wisconsin Republicans. It's also not a good idea for Racine residents to identify themselves as such at Brewer home games or Milwaukee sports bars.
The next year, right-wing religious groups, led by Family Research Council chair Gary Bauer and "Virginia Citizens for Reform" (and supported by presidential candidate Steve Forbes) launched a recall effort against Wisconsin's two Democratic U.S. Senators, Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold, based on their support of women's right to choose. The drive was unsuccessful, and was ultimately ... aborted.
Which brings us to the recall of Milwaukee County Executive Tom Ament in 2002. Ament was a reasonably popular County Executive -- at least, the Milwaukee Business Journal, for whom I was drawing at the time, and the Journal Sentinel liked him. Then the lucrative pension system for Milwaukee County employees and its capacity for bankrupting the county came to light and all hell broke loose. A group calling itself Citizens for Responsible Government mounted a recall drive against Ament. And they would have succeeded, too, if Ament had not resigned from office (thus saving his own $87,000 pension). Seven county supervisors lost recall races over the scandal.

An election to elect a new County Executive was held that summer, and the victor was none other than one Scott Kevin Walker.
Update: And if you perceived a link between the Milwaukee County pension scandal and the Republicans' 2012 attack on unions, give yourself a hand. Bruce Murphy has the best post mortem I've read yet on the bipartisan creation of the scandal and how unions are now paying the price for it.

There has also been a recall of the mayor of Sheboygan earlier this year -- a sordid affair involving public drunkenness and sexual assault. I haven't drawn any cartoons about it, but I bring it up because it is the only one of these recalls that involved "official malfeasance."

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