Wisconsin held a series of recall elections over the course of a year, giving voters a chance to decide whether they approved of one-party rule by Governor Scott Walker and his anti-labor Republicans.
For most of the national media, the only story that mattered—at least the only story they’ve bothered to tell—is that of Walker’s victory. Thanks to a massive infusion of our-of-state cash, the governor retained his office—albeit by the narrowest re-elect margin for a Republican governor since 1968.
But Wisconsinites always knew there was more to the story of the fight to check and balance Walker. And, this week, they successfully completed the critical struggle, ending the governor’s complete control of state government.
From his election in 2010, Walker controlled not just the executive branch but, for all intents and purposes, the legislative branch. A pair of loyal Republican lieutenants, brothers Jeff and Scott Fitzgerald, made sure that the governor’s wish was their command—with Jeff Fitzgerald running the state Assembly as its speaker and Scott Fitzgerald running the state Senate as its majority leader.
Without the Fitzgerald brothers, Walker could not have advanced his agenda.
When Walker was elected, Republican control of both chambers seemed to be assured for the whole of his first two years. That was particularly true in the powerful state Senate, where the GOP held a wide 19-14 advantage. The only power the Democrats had was that of withdrawing consent by leaving the state, as the fourteen dissenters did when Walker began moving to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public employees.
But the recall elections changed all that, ending the the arrangement that empowered Walker.
Now the Senate has a 17-16 Democratic majority.
Last summer, labor unions and their allies used recall elections to sweep two Republican state senators out of office. With the resignation earlier this year of a third Republican senator, Scott Fitzgerald found himself in a power-sharing circumstance with the Democrats through the next round of recall elections: for the governorship and several more Senate seats.
On June 5, Walker won the governor’s race. But one of his steadiest backers, state Senator Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, finished roughly 800 votes behind Democratic challenger John Lehman.
Lehman, a former legislator with a progressive, strongly pro-labor record, campaigned as a firm foe of Walker’s agenda. And national right-wing groups such as the Koch brothers–funded Americans for Prosperity operation did everything in their power to beat him. They even organized a massive final rally in southeastern Wisconsin’s 21st district, featuring House Budget Committee chair (and conservative icon) Paul Ryan.
Even after Lehman won, the Republicans fought to prevent him from taking his seat, with an extended recount fight, threats of legal actions and a smear campaign suggesting that his victory (in a district with a substantial minority population) resulted from “voting irregularities” in African-American and Hispanic precincts of the historically Democratic city of Racine.
For a time it seemed the GOP would do anything to prevent Walker from losing his iron grip on state government.
Ultimately, however, Lehman prevailed. And, on Tuesday, after he was seated, control of the Senate formally shifted to the Democrats, with progressive Mark Miller taking over from Scott Fitzgerald as majority leader and Fred Risser, the longest-serving legislator in the country and a progressive stalwart, taking over as Senate president
Committees were reorganized to put progressive Democrats in control. (State Senator Lena Taylor, an outspoken progressive from Milwaukee, is now the co-chair of the powerful Joint Finance Committee.) Democrats immediately called for a special session to address job creation issues.
Walker’s resisting. He’s not interested in governing if he has to work across lines of partisanship and ideology. Unfortunately for the governor, however, he can’t govern if he does not compromise.
Walker no longer can govern at will. And it is no secret that the hyper-partisan governor despises this new reality.
That makes the fall elections in Wisconsin—like legislative competitions across the country—critical tests. Voters in Wisconsin will have a chance to maintain the separation of powers they established through the recall elections, just as voters in a score of other states will have a chance to check and balance Republican governors by shifting control of one of more legislative chambers to the Democrats.
What’s notable is that, in Wisconsin, via the recall elections, change came early. And dramatically.
Walker won his gubernatorial election. But he did not maintain his power. The voters, by shifting control of the Senate to the Democrats, checked and balanced one of the most powerful and controversial governors in the nation.