Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Why Republicans Are Wrong About Recalls

The bill to restrict recalls is a naked attempt by political officials to protect their jobs.

By - Apr 11th, 2013 11:50 am

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?

State Senator Sheila Harsdorf

State Senator Sheila Harsdorf

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.

Categories: Murphy's Law

9 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Why Republicans Are Wrong About Recalls”

  1. John O'Neill says:

    They want to bar mere Circuit Court Judges from staying any of their edits as well.

  2. Dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    Restricting Recalls is bad idea.

  3. stacy moss says:

    There is obviously an excess of democracy in Wisconsin. We have too many people who want to vote on too many things. Elected officials know better than just about anyone how damaging elections are. Every time you make the rule of the people easier, people get more unruly.

  4. Kay says:

    I have no problem at all with this bill *if* we are allowed to petition for a referendum on questionable legislation. We’re we able to do this, Act 10 would have fallen like a lead balloon.

  5. Jill Thurtell says:

    Was there ever a hand count of the votes from the Walker recall?

  6. Jim says:

    Excellent piece once again Mr. Murphy. Unfortunately for Wisconsin, the arrogance of the Republicans in the state legislature & Governor Walker knows no bounds. After all, this is the party that has gerrymandered districts ensuring Republican legislative majorities for the next 10 years at a minimum. This is the party whose leadership instructs its private legal firms to defy the order of Federal judges to turn over all re-districting documents that show how the gerrymandered district were created. Finally when the Federal judges granted a request to turn over the computers to the plaintiffs, these Republican leaders turned over computers in which the hard drives were sledgehammered in order to render the redistricting data unretrievable. This is the way the Republican party operates everyday in Walker’s Wisconsin.

    Why does it surprise anyone that Republican legislators who will order the destruction of evidence to thwart the authority of the Federal judiciary would also have so little regard for lowly voters in the state of Wisconsin to exercise the recall authority to remove them from office? This bill WILL pass both houses & will be signed into law by Scott Walker. Republican legislative members in Walker’s Wisconsin CAN do anything they want to; they will let no one, not a state judge, the rule of law, or a Federal judge stand in their way.

  7. Sue says:

    A shame this is going to happen. However, it appears that if you have enough money you can manipulate the process anyway. Who is going to sign a recall petition knowing that it could end up in a searchable database, paid for by the taxpayers?
    Recalls are pretty much dead in this state for that reason alone.

  8. Kyle says:

    Sue – what I don’t understand is why people who signed the recall are letting it be a sign of shame. Yes, conservatives are using it to call out Republicans in Republican leaning areas who signed it, but that’s the nature of politics. Voters don’t have to state a reason at the polls, and some decide their vote on sillier criteria than that.

    But liberals now have a database of a million* like-minded individuals to draw from. Most political organizations would sell their souls (or at least their ideals) for a list like that. Yet you’re hiding in shame from a public stance that you took. What that tells the other side is that you’re weak and ashamed of your views, which only encourages them to use it as a weapon against you.

    (* – based on the original claim of more than a million signatures)

  9. John Foust says:

    Trying to follow the logic of Schneider and Wigderson? There’s your trouble. What’s next, trying to make sense of Owen Robinson and Richard Esenberg?

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us