Reflections on the June 5 Recall

By Ambassador Mark Green (Ret.)

I remember an episode from my state legislative days when we were grappling with an especially difficult set of issues. A colleague turned to me, shaking his head, and said, “The problem with this place is that too many guys know when the end of the world is: the first Tuesday in November in an even-numbered year.”

Compared to the chain of events culminating in the June recall vote, that seems like long-term thinking.

The 2011-’12 legislative term began on Jan. 3 as lawmakers took the oath of office. Less than two months later, union-led activists launched their first recall drive targeting state senators for their support of Act 10. Before those first recalls were even concluded, those same activists vowed to go after Gov. Scott Walker and others with a second recall drive as soon as state law permitted.

Sure enough, in November 2011, a second round of recalls began. Before those recalls were concluded, the regular 2012 elections began in April with nomination papers circulating for the fall elections.

From the date they were sworn in until the June 5 vote, lawmakers operated in an environment of recalls more than 85 percent of the time. In fact, Wisconsin was under one form or another of election season for more than 90 percent of the 2011-’12 biennium.

Welcome to a new political reality where any day just might be the end of the world.
It wasn’t always this way. Teddy Roosevelt famously called the Badger State a “laboratory of democracy” because its innovative policymaking so often inspired the rest of America. In the Progressive era, Wisconsin led with groundbreaking worker safety laws, women’s suffrage and other political reforms like primary elections and direct election of U.S. senators. Under Gov. Tommy Thompson’s conservative leadership, the state pioneered school choice and sweeping welfare reforms that broke the stranglehold of the bureaucratic welfare state. These reforms offended powerful interests and offered little immediate political reward.

Is there room for this kind of leadership today? Most of the elected officials targeted for removal survived, but at enormous cost. Estimates are that $125 million was spent during the recalls, much of it from out-of-state sources. More significantly, lawmakers were subjected to bitter personal attacks throughout the recalls.

Nearly one-third of the members of the Assembly and one-quarter of the senators were first elected in 2010. In their “formative months,” they’ve seen Wisconsin go through two rounds of recall elections. They’ve seen “fake candidates” — candidates who filed in the primary of the other party in order to extend the recall campaign timeline. They’ve even seen more than a dozen legislators go into hiding to prevent a voting quorum.

2013 will tell us if there’s still room for Wisconsin to be TR’s laboratory of democracy. Will we once again inspire the nation with our reforms or instead inspire special interests to punish the reformers? Leaders need to decide which of these will be our new normal.

Mark Green, a former state representative and U.S. congressman from Green Bay, served as U.S. ambassador to Tanzania in 2007-’09. He is a senior director at the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition in Washington, D.C.