Why Republicans Are Wrong About Recalls
The bill to restrict recalls is a naked attempt by political officials to protect their jobs.
It was back in 1996 that Racine Republican George Petak became the first state senator in Wisconsin history to be recalled from office. Today, some call him a hero for casting the decisive vote in favor of the legislation to build Miller Park. But I doubt Racine voters today think they made a mistake. Indeed, they are still angry because their county is one of five (along with Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington) that continues to pay a sales tax to support the Milwaukee Brewers baseball franchise.
This is a local tax, collected in just five of 72 Wisconsin counties, but never approved locally. The deal’s dirtiness was exposed when then Gov. Tommy Thompson campaigned for the legislation and famously said, “All the taxes come from Waukesha and Milwaukee. Stick it to em.” Thompson and legislators knew they couldn’t approve statewide funding (a statewide referendum had soundly rejected paying for the stadium) so they “stuck it” to five counties whose citizens and local representatives opposed the tax.
You might call that taxation without representation. Deepening the outrage, Petak had promised to vote against the tax and then changed his vote.
Petak would still be in office today if a new measure proposed by Republican legislators is passed: it would greatly restrict recalls, allowing them only if an elected official is charged with a criminal or civil ethics charge.
This law would have also prevented the recall effort against Milwaukee County Executive F. Thomas Ament, who engineered passage of infamous pension plan, and the seven county supervisors who were thrown out of office.
Of course, the real goal here is to prevent something like the recent recall action against Gov. Scott Walker. But the effort was unsuccessful. And was the attempt so unjustified? Walker ran for governor saying he would not touch the benefits of teachers and local government workers and would cut benefits only for state employees. And he never hinted at something as revolutionary as eliminating all public unions. In fact, some members of public unions voted for him. Walker’s campaign was misleading, his reforms were shockingly sweeping, and to this day no one knows who actually wrote Act 10; even Walker has admitted he did a poor job of preparing and selling the electorate for this change. Some one million people objected to Walker’s law; should such a democratic uprising be prevented?
Yes, says state Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, who introduced the bill restricting recalls in the last legislative session (the measure passed the Assembly but languished in the Senate), and has now re-introduced it. This is a proposal to amend the state constitution, so it must be passed by two successive sessions of the legislature and by voters in a statewide election before it becomes law.
Harsdorf was among the Republican legislators targeted for recall in 2011 (she survived). “It is a very dangerous road to go down to allow recalls when there’s a disagreement on an issue,”she declared. “You don’t want to discourage elected officials from making those tough decisions.”
Actually, declared an editorial in the Beloit Daily News: “it’s a more dangerous road to go down to allow the political class — stung recently by recalls — to define what is or is not acceptable — — to them — in the exercise of citizens’ constitutional rights.”
In all three cases I mentioned, concentrated political power was at work: a stadium bailout that frustrated voter’s wishes, a cabal of self-dealing county insiders, and a never-discussed bill that a Republican governor, senate and assembly sought to quickly pass while refusing to negotiate with Democrats.
Of course, in all three cases voters could have exercised their objections in the next election. But as the Beloit Daily News noted, “That election could be two, four or more years away. That’s a long time to live with a mistake. It’s often said government ought to operate more like a business. Name a business that would keep a manager for years after concluding the wrong person had been hired. And name a business that would allow the employee to define what is or is not a firing offense.”
In the case of the county pension plan, its costs mounted every month the plan was in force. Recall proponents hoped a switch of management could reduce the costs to taxpayers. And while the results weren’t as sweeping as hoped, a new county executive and different board at least succeeded with a suit against the county’s consultant that recouped some of the costs for taxpayers.
In the case of Act 10, its impact on the benefits and rights of government employees was nearly immediate, as was its ruinous effect on unions. Yet Walker was not up for reelection for four years. Hence the push for a recall. In the case of Petak, the recall was simply a vote of frustration, but it served to send a more emphatic message about subsidizing the millionaire owners and players of sports teams.
Some may disagree with the recall of Petak or the attempt against Walker; some may even feel the county recalls targeted too many supervisors. Of such disagreements are democracies made. But in all cases there were vital issues at stake where a wave of citizens had erupted with objections. Why curtail this exercise of their constitutional rights?
I would agree with those who think the legislative recalls in reaction to Act 10 got out of hand. But it’s never a good idea to write laws based on a year’s worth of data. Over the longer course of history, “recall attempts at the state level have been unsuccessful,”the National Conference of State Legislatures has noted. Its data shows that nation-wide since 1913, when the first recall laws were passed, there have been just 35 recall attempts of state officials in the U.S. and 18 that were successful. That’s one recall of state officials every 5.5 years in the entire nation.
When I noted some of this history in a past column, I was met with some strange objections by conservatives Christian Schneider and James Wigderson.
Schneider made the bizarre claim that since some citizens felt Ament had committed misconduct in office, that would have been enough to allow a recall. In fact, there was a legal investigation launched and no proof could be found that Ament did anything illegal. Under Harsdorf’s proposal, as the bill’s language makes clear, no recall is allowed unless a criminal or civil complaint has been filed against the official. In essence, this means a recall may simply rubber stamp a legal investigation, rather than functioning as a lever of direct democracy.
As for Wigderson, he argued that the county pension scandal represented “extraordinary circumstances under which most of us would support having recall elections.” If so, I would assume he will oppose the Harsdorf bill. If not, his argument makes no sense.
The reality is the the recall against county officials was led by conservatives, as were many local recalls assisted by the Citizens for Responsible Government. I don’t agree with every recall ever launched in this state. Nor do many members of both parties. But that’s not a reason to all but ban them from Wisconsin.