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Wisconsin Senate recall efforts are buzzing, but Walker is the ultimate target

"Recall Dan Kapanke" button
“Recall Dan Kapanke” button

While massive rallies at the state Capitol in Madison have garnered national attention over the past month, the nitty-gritty battle for Wisconsin’s future is under way on small-town street corners, in suburban shopping malls, on factory floors and at neighbors’ front doors.

An energetic, deliberate and calculated campaign to recall eight GOP state senators who backed Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union and educational budget-cut agenda is under way. The two-front campaign aims first to retake Wisconsin’s Senate for the Democrats — and ultimately unseat Walker himself.

One major effort is happening now 150 miles east of the Twin Cities in La Crosse, home district to teetering Republican Sen. Dan Kapanke.

Button worn by Wisconsin union supporters.
Button worn by Wisconsin union supporters.

Kapanke, who stood fast with Walker on key votes, has been identified in a recent Daily Kos poll as the most vulnerable Wisconsin state senator. According to the poll, 55 percent of voters in Kapanke’s western Wisconsin district would vote for a generic Democrat over him. Kapanke’s district, by the way, went 61 percent for President Obama in 2008 over Sen. John McCain. Walker barely won Kapanke’s district in November.

“He walked off the plank with Scott Walker,” said Wisconsin Democratic Party Communications Director Graeme Zielinski. And, so, Kapanke is a target.

How Wisconsin’s recall law works
Wisconsin’s election recall law is pretty simple: Get 25 percent of the voters in a district to sign a petition seeking the recall of an elected official who has been in office for at least one year. The petitioners don’t have to prove or even assert that their targeted official has done anything wrong … legally, politically, morally or otherwise. (In Kapanke’s case, he’s been in office for six years, and 15,588 signatures need to be collected.) Have the signatures verified. If the petitions are in order, an election is scheduled for six weeks hence. The target of the recall is allowed to run to retain his or her seat. If there is more than one challenger, then a primary must be held. So, in effect, a “recall” triggers a full election challenge to the incumbent.

Presto! Then, someone like Kapanke survives — assuming he wants to run again — or a new lawmaker takes his seat in Madison.

Besides his Walker backing, Kapanke has faced ethics charges. It’s led to signs at public gatherings that read: “Recall Hanky-Kapanke.”

Right now, the Republicans control the Senate 19-14. If the Democrats can flip three of the districts, they would gain control 17-16.

Using an NCAA tournament metaphor in discussing Wisconsin’s own brand of March Madness, Zielinski told MinnPost Wednesday, “Right now [Kapanke] would be the No. One seed. But, remember, there are four No. One seeds.”

Four recall victories and Wisconsin’s political landscape would begin to shift.

Dems say their recall efforts are broadbased
In the hinterlands, the signature gathering is going great guns, organizers say. Zielinski wouldn’t divulge exactly where the petition campaigns stand, but allowed that just three weeks into many efforts, the drive is ahead of goals. Headquarters at union halls and Democratic Party offices are buzzing. And it’s not just left-wing, Solidarity-Forever activists. Not by a long shot.

“Just about everybody’s got a petition for their friends and family to sign,” Theresa Carey said. She’s a small-town lawyer/business owner who helps mediate divorces. She admits to usually voting for Democrats. But she’s been concerned about Walker-backed cutbacks to small towns and schools like hers, Viroqua, population 4,300.

Doings in Madison, she said, are “making activists out of people who have usually been on the sidelines.” That includes her: She set up a Facebook page, one of several to organize recall efforts.

Carey said at a recent “listening session,” Kapanke defended his support for Walker. But he didn’t satisfy the crowd. After the session, Carey said one longstanding Republican sought her out and signed a Kapanke recall petition.

It all begs the question of how Walker won last November and why even some union members — Democrats mostly — cast their vote for him. But they did and now, to a certain extent, they are scrambling for a do-over.

Thus, from Viroqua to the powerful union halls of Milwaukee, the petition campaign is intense.

Brewery Workers UAW official Patrick Weyer
Courtesy of Wisconsin AFL-CIO
Brewery Workers UAW official Patrick Weyer

“I’m helping to get boots on the ground,” Patrick Weyer, president of Brewery Workers UAW Local 9, told MinnPost Wednesday. On the executive board of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council, Weyer said members of his union are circulating petitions in recall districts in and around the Milwaukee metro area.

“People are coming out of the woodwork,” Weyer said of volunteers. “There’s pretty much a groundswell . . . And I don’t mean just labor. I haven’t seen anything that’s energized the middle class like this. I think this recall effort is going to surprise a lot of people. People are saying to Walker, ‘You went too far.’ “

Unprecedented recall efforts
The proliferation of recall efforts in Wisconsin is unprecedented in U.S. history. Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter Craig Gilbert has written that since 1913, only 13 state legislators in the country have been recalled. Right now in Wisconsin, there are efforts to recall 16 senators.

Wisconsin is now ground zero for what seems to be a growing recall movement in the United States. “After a century of existence, the recall is ready to come into its own,” Joshua Spivak recently wrote in Politico. He explained the rise of technological innovations — such as all the websites and Facebook pages — allows for more recount wildfire in Wisconsin and elsewhere. As if to prove the point, Spivak, a senior fellow at Wagner (N.Y.) College’s Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform, is the creator of “The Recall Elections Blog.”

There is an effort to recall eight Democratic state senators, too. Much of that is supported by a Salt Lake City organization called the American Patriot Recall Coalition, which is affiliated with a right-wing group called Americans Against Immigration Amnesty.

Democratic leaders believe their party’s targeted lawmakers, are, generally, in safe districts that they can defend. “Our members are very good fits for their districts,” Zielinski said.

Minnesota’s recall law
By the way, Minnesota’s recall law and the state’s Constitution have significantly higher hurdles than in Wisconsin. Petitioners must show malfeasance or nonfeasance and any recall action for state offices must be reviewed by the Minnesota Supreme Court. Three recall attempts have been made in recent years, first on Attorney General Mike Hatch (2001), then on Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer (2004). All fizzled when the Supreme Court said the petitioners hadn’t met their burden to prove malfeasance.

In Wisconsin, assuming all deadlines are met and all legal challenges are swept back, the Democratic Party is looking at a possible June 28 Election Day for the Senate recall tests.

“There’s going to be a Democratic Senate by midsummer,” Zielinski predicted.

He added: “What these recalls do is build an infrastructure. It helps us grow this movement, help educate the public. We have lots of happy warriors right now.”

That recall infrastructure, from Viroqua to the breweries, will be ripe for the ultimate recall campaign.

“You hear people saying, ‘This is going to blow over,’ “said Zielinski. “It’s not going to blow over.”

Gov. Walker was inaugurated on Jan. 3, 2011. Expect the recall petitions to remove him to start circulating on Jan. 3, 2012.

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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by David Peterson on 03/24/2011 - 10:33 am.

    I was in Madison two weeks ago supporting the education protestor and I have to say I hope this effort pays off. The issue that disturbs me most with the Republican parties voting and lawmaking this session is the blatent disregard for any sort of compromise. The extremist leadership has snuck to the top (eg, Tony Sutton here in MN) rather than people who are actually concerned with the general welfare of the state. I certainly hope that Wisconsin can stand up and show they aren’t going to take this partisan politics. They are clearly targeting political enemies and making moves to keep their party in power while disguising these bills as “job developers”, etc.

    If it does succeed though, the next big step will be keeping the democrats who may replace these folk accountable.

  2. Submitted by dan buechler on 03/24/2011 - 10:41 am.

    This is one of the stupidist (my spelling) ideas around. Look what is happening to the mayor of Miami because he offended a wealthy businessman. The country right now is basically becoming ungovernable if you don’t believe me read the two cultures editorial by Paul Krugman,

  3. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 03/24/2011 - 10:49 am.

    The Republicans in Wisconsin seem to have been depending on an interesting combination of factors that have worked for Republicans in the recent past, but which when combined and over stressed seem to have blown up in their faces:

    1) The ability control to media spin. The national media has been anything BUT even handed in their treatment of the Wisconsin public employees unions, glossing over the concessions those unions had already made and spreading the B.S. that public employees are overpaid,


    the internet seems to have overwhelmed the self-regarded “official” media by providing accurate information, thereby revealing the conservative, pro-wealthy biases of the mainstream media and massively increasing the public’s awareness that the “official” media can no longer be trusted to provide them with accurate information, to look out for their interests, or to assist them in doing so themselves.

    2) A public that wasn’t paying attention and had a very short memory. Our Republican friends have depended on their ability to “cram things down the throat of the public” and, despite some level of protest (which could always be dismissed as a few “bleeding-heart liberals who always complain about everything”), and being able to depend on the public’s short memory to protect them from any electoral consequences of taking actions with which the general public completely disagreed.


    The general public, at least in Wisconsin, despite 30+ years of constant national propaganda against labor unions, seems to have realized that something very essential to their well being was about to be summarily destroyed. This seems finally to have awakened them to the Republican Party’s war against themselves: the middle and lower classes (a war which we see being played out quite clearly in the halls of Minnesota’s own capital).

    3) The common Republican technique of setting various groups within the middle class against each other (public vs. private employees, for example) or setting the middle class against those who are living in poverty (Reagan’s nonexistent “welfare queen driving a Cadillac”). Using “divide and conquer” to distract those whom they were driving into poverty and keep them from noticing who was actually absorbing what should have been their own pay raises, benefit increases etc., (the fabulously wealthy and their political supporters) has been standard Republican procedure since the days of President Reagan.


    In Wisconsin, they finally stretched that tactic to the breaking point and their malfeasance was clearly revealed. The public finally realized that it is not each other who are damaging their lives, but those who have all the money – that the resentment toward each other so carefully engendered among the poor and middle class by the wealthy, their political supporters and the media which they now own, lock stock and barrel, was based on a carefully-crafted set of lies.

    Thus did much of the public experience an enlightenment in which they realized that their resentment should now be redirected toward those who are deserving of it – the fabulously wealthy, whose many and various forms of enriching themselves at the expense of the rest of the population are only beginning to be revealed.

    Wisconsin is likely to be only the beginning of the curtain being pulled back to reveal to the general public where all the money that should have paid their salaries has gone, where all their jobs have gone (and to what end), and how they, themselves, despite the protestations of “the rich,” have taken over paying the lion’s share of the cost of government over the past thirty years while their far wealthier fellow citizens and the nation’s richest corporations pay far less, if anything at all.

    Indeed, in this era where “sacrifice” is supposedly required, NOTHING has been asked of “the rich” but rather the middle class and the poor have, themselves, been sacrificed on an altar devoted to creating a very small, wealthy oligarchy which will run our nation and every state, with the rest of us reduced to the economic and political status of Medieval serfs.

    Indeed, here in Minnesota, our Republican legislature stands over that same altar, now, with their meat axes poised to sacrifice as many of the poor and middle class as they deem necessary in order to appease the gods whom they worship: “the rich.”

    Israel gave up child sacrifice three millennia ago after Abraham took Isaac up on the mountain of God. Clearly our Republican friends, despite their outward religiosity, have never read or understood those particular verses of the Bible (or they took to be far more important the memo they got from their higher ups rescinding them).

  4. Submitted by Richard Pecar on 03/24/2011 - 11:32 am.

    In a previous life as a private businessman, I administered numerous service contracts with government. I also wrote a state-aid to education formula for a neighboring state legislator who chaired a senate education committee (a weighted ADM formula).

    I have never had much love for AFSME. There is plenty of feather-bedding in AFSME. I also learned our educational system — mostly school administration and school boards — is lacking and desperately in need of a big serving of business acumen.

    With me it’s a “been-there, done-that” thing. I also remember the days when public employees were “public servants” and not the lower/middle tier of the elite. By today’s standards well above the average “middle class”.

    However, I am solid in my support of collective bargaining. It’s a matter of principle. My opinion we should recall every politician that believes elections constitute a winner-takes-all mandate for their ideology. Throw them out!

    Minnesota’s recall laws are ridiculous…

  5. Submitted by Rich Crose on 03/24/2011 - 11:48 am.

    Well said Greg.

    $9,246,697 average CEO salary of a Fortune 500 company.

    $46,390 average teacher salary in Wisconsin.

    You could hire 200 teachers for the price of one CEO.

    Republican argument: Without CEOs we wouldn’t have job creators.

    Union argument: Without teachers, we wouldn’t have CEOs.

  6. Submitted by Neil Bartlett on 03/24/2011 - 11:59 am.

    It’s funny how the Republicans are always touting themselves as the “party of family values.”

    In addition to “Hanky Panky Kapanke,” here in Wisconsin we also have another Republican Senator who’s being recalled, Randy “Bed” Hopper. Google his name and you’ll find out about all his shenanigans.

  7. Submitted by Peggy Huss on 03/24/2011 - 12:37 pm.

    On Wisconsin…

  8. Submitted by Arito Moerair on 03/24/2011 - 01:52 pm.

    How many people signing the recall petitions voted in November?

    I hate that it takes a massive, destructive overreach by politicians to get people to wake up. Wisconsin wouldn’t be having this problem if they’d voted correctly in November. It’s a blue state, notwithstanding the last election.

  9. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 03/24/2011 - 07:38 pm.

    I would call the deliberate infliction of harm upon vulnerable citizens caused by a willful refusal to raise enough revenue to maintain human services, K-12 and higher education and other essential human and infrastructure needs NONFEASANCE.

    Almost all the majority in the House and Senate are guilty, as I see it. And recall or impeachment are the alternative to letting them get away with it for two long years.

    The recalls may be characterized as “stupid,” Dan B., but desperate times call for desperate measures.

  10. Submitted by Allison Sandve on 03/24/2011 - 08:26 pm.

    If past is prologue, it’s hard to envision the recall efforts shifting the majority in the Wisconsin State Senate. Back in the day, I lobbied for a non-profit in the Wisconsin Legislature. Two state senators who were in office at the time were eventually recalled. But the circumstances suggest that a recall has to be preceded more by constituents feeling personally slighted by a legislator, and less by idealogical outrage.

    Back then, a Republican senator named George Petak was recalled after an 11th hour switcheroo, with his vote resulting in his Kenosha County constituents being handed a sales tax to fund what’s now Miller Park. (Those were the days when we’d see Bud Selig in the halls of the Legislature.) His district is now a swing one; back then, it still had the vestiges of a union stronghold where the UAW once loomed large. A few years later, an inner city district gave a Dem senator, Gary George, his walking papers. This, though, followed years of questionable, at best, ethics. Ultimately, he did fairly serious prison time.

    (Several legislative leaders from both sides of the aisle ended up pleading guilty to various wrongdoings, but that’s another story … those were the days when Wisconsin, which billed itself as the clean government state, started to feel more like Texas or Louisiana.)

    It took a fair amount of personal outrage to fuel the success of the Petak and George recalls. And Petak was always considered somewhat of a far-right fluke. The George recall succeeded in a shoe-in Dem district with a tiny turnout and a trusted challenger, Rep. (now Sen.) Spencer Coggs, whose family name is synonymous with the Milwaukee County Democratic Party.

    I’d put Randy Hopper, not Dan Kapanke, at the top of the vulnerable list, thanks to behavior that tends to alienate supporters and bolster foes’ momentum. His district definitely leans GOP, but is also is home to lots of prison employees, who are powerful and very ticked off. That, paired with his “randy issues,” could do him in.

    That said, Kapanke’s vulnerable. Closer to home, the effort to recall Sheila Harsdorf will be at least interesting. Her district includes the much-grown population of St. Croix County, where bigger numbers tend to lean GOP. She’s got street cred when it comes to constituent relations, something her predecessor never fully appreciated, and a family name that goes back.

    Still, the effort will be worth watching. She votes in lockstep with the GOP in a district that still has a lot in common with that of Dale Schultz, the solo GOP senator to buck the Walker tide.

    Two successful recalls? Definitely possible. A majority-shifting three?
    I don’t think the numbers, or the history, suggest it can happen.

  11. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 03/24/2011 - 08:50 pm.

    I hope the people of Minnesota understand how close we came to being just like Wisconsin. Not to say we the wingnuts having control of the house and senate isn’t bad, but we dodged a huge bullet getting Dayton instead of Emmmer. Look at what’s happening in Michigan. The governor can take over your town, fire elected officials and sell off town assets with no input from the locals. They are trying to shut down all the municiple liquor stores and hand that business over to their freinds. No matter how you feel about liquor sales its a huge revenue source for small towns. Right now in WI they are selling off state assets. Read the Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klien and all this will make sense.

  12. Submitted by Neil Bartlett on 03/24/2011 - 11:00 pm.

    David Moufang,

    You are correct. Wisconsin is a blue state. I think the activism that’s taken place has show that.

    As for why Walker got in, I propose 5 factors. Remember that these are just my observations —

    1 — The economy was in the dumpster. That’s probably the biggest reason.

    2 — Walker ran a truckload of negative ads, at least in my area.

    3 — Tom Barrett, his opponent, wasn’t very impressive or forceful.

    4 — We had 8 years of Doyle, a Dem. I think many were ready to see if the Repubs. could do better.

    5 — the Repubs. and conservatives here had the momentum and the enthusiasm. Like it or not, they outworked the Democrats.

  13. Submitted by Jerry Buerge on 03/25/2011 - 01:49 pm.

    Would it be also fair to say that it is entirely possible that the Democrats simply didn’t get out to vote because they felt complacent and were not interested in attaining anything other than a slim majority of Democratic legislators?

    But, I am willing to bet they won’t let that happen again and that the ease with which they can obtain the necessary signatures for recall will testify to that.

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