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The Power of Recalls in Wisconsin | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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The Power of Recalls in Wisconsin

With Wisconsin recall elections looming against four Republican state senators—as well as Governor Scott Walker and Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch—the state’s politics was thrown for another loop Friday when a targeted senator up and quit.

State Senator Pam Galloway, a Tea Party favorite and one of Walker’s steadiest backers in the legislature, announced her immediate resignation from the legislature and her decision not to contest the recall election.

The move had dramatic repercussions:

1. Republicans have lost the complete control of state government that allowed the governor to advance an austerity agenda that was defined by attacks on unions and deep cuts in public education and public services funding—along with the harshest voter ID law in the nation, a rigidly partisan redistricting of legislative districts and what critics complain has been a battering of the state’s open-government tradition.

2. State Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald, (brother of Assembly Speaker Jeff) a Walker ally who is targeted for recall, has lost his position as the dominant player in the legislature. He now must enter into a power-sharing agreement with minority leader Mark Miller, a progressive Democrats who led a historic walkout by his caucus during last year’s struggle over Walker’s labor law changes. Committee assignments will be redone to reflect what is now a 16-16 split in the Senate.

3. Governor Walker, who has threatened to call special sessions of the legislature to deal with pet projects, will now only be able to do so if he can work with the Democrats—something he has not done up to this point.

4. If, as expected, the federal courts reject the state’s redistricting plan, it could be sent back to a legislature where Democrats can now play a critical role in drawing the maps. That could result in a significant upturn in their fortunes going into this fall’s elections.

5. Republicans have lost their premier candidate in one of four state Senate recall elections that are now scheduled for May 8 primaries and a June 5 election. Galloway had raised major money and organized a campaign of consequence before announcing that family health concerns had led her to exit the legislature. Now, Democrat Donna Seidel, a popular former county official in the Wausau-area district and the assistant minority leader in the state Assembly, emerges as a clear front-runner for a seat that—if she wins—would tip the Senate to full Democratic control.

All of these changes were made possible by the recall power, which allows citizens to petition for new elections. This old progressive tool of accountability was used last summer to force a number of Republican senators who supported the Walker agenda to defend their seats.

Going into last summer’s recall votes, Republicans held a 19-14 advantage in the Senate. Two Republicans were defeated, leaving the GOP with a narrow 17-16 advantage—and giving moderate Republican Senator Dale Schultz the power to temper his party’s excesses. Now, with Galloway’s exit, the chamber goes to the 16-16 split.

After the next round of recalls, it is possible that Democrats could end up with full control of the Senate, potentially by a margin of up to 19-14—or, if Fitzgerald is defeated by upstart challenger Lori Compas, 20-13.

Additionally, a new Democratic Senate could sit with a new Democratic governor, as Walker’s recall is now all but certain to take place on the same day as the senators.

What has happened is remarkable. What could happen is historic. And the people, using the recall power afforded them by progressive reformers of a century ago, are making it happen.

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