Attempts to unseat senators could be historic

Now that legislators have voted on a controversial collective bargaining bill, Wisconsin appears headed into an extended, unprecedented period of recall attempts, although the first election is not likely until July or later.

Now that legislators have voted on a controversial collective bargaining bill, Wisconsin appears headed into an extended, unprecedented period of recall attempts, although the first election is not likely until July or later.

Despite a high bar for triggering such elections, experts and political party leaders predict at least a few of the 16 recall efforts under way against state senators -- eight Democrats, eight Republicans -- will result in voters going to the polls.

"I'm guessing some of these efforts are just PR attempts or theatrical politics, but a third to half are probably serious and will end up collecting enough signatures," said Mordecai Lee, a UW-Milwaukee political science professor.

Brett Healy, president of the conservative John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy in Madison, said it would be unusual if more than a couple of the efforts lead to elections. "It's the logistical component," he said. "There's so much time and work involved."

Still, even a couple of recall elections in the same year against state legislators would be historic -- Wisconsin has seen only four recall elections against state legislators in the 85 years since the state began allowing them. Two were successful, two were not.


Coincidentally, one of the unsuccessful attempts, in 1990, was against then-Democratic Assembly member Jim Holperin, who was targeted for his support of a treaty settlement with Chippewa Indians. Holperin, now a Democratic state senator from Conover, is a recall subject again.

A reconsideration

The recall process forces an elected official to run for office again before his or her term expires.

An official must be in office for at least one year before a recall can be initiated. That's why only 16 of 33 senators are subjects of recall efforts right now, and it's why Republican Gov. Scott Walker could not face a recall election until at least early next year, though planning has begun.

Walker's apparently successful effort to eliminate collective bargaining rights for most public sector workers has made his -- and the eight Republican senators -- removal from office a top priority for union members.

Democratic state party chairman Mike Tate said $940,000 has been donated to the party during the past week for recall efforts.

Meanwhile, the eight Democratic senators angered some residents in their districts because they were among the 14 who left the state for three weeks to delay a vote on Walker's bill.

"They weren't taking the oath of office seriously or doing their jobs," said Mark Jefferson, executive director of the state Republican Party.


Walker said Friday he is "not at all" concerned Republicans could lose the state Senate, but he acknowledged several recall efforts will move forward.

"In the end, I think a number of those seats will have recall elections," he said. "... I have no doubt they're going to get organized in many of those seats."

Tough task

All of the recall efforts have only a 60-day window to collect signatures equal to at least 25 percent of the vote in the last gubernatorial election in the district. Some of the recall efforts face even stiffer head winds.

Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, and Sen. Spencer Coggs, D-Milwaukee, represent hugely Democratic districts, and each was re-elected in 2008 without GOP opposition.

The only group trying to recall them so far is Americans Against Immigration Amnesty, a little-known Utah organization.

The group must prove it has at least one qualified elector in each district supporting its effort. For the Risser effort, the elector is Sharon Daniel of Madison, an insurance company clerk.

"I'm just an ordinary, everyday Wisconsin person. I've lived here 30 years," she said.


Daniel said she realizes "maybe no one will sign the petition," but she was upset with Risser because he "took off and left the state and left me unrepresented." She felt she had to do something, she said.

On the other side, Sens. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, and Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin, are considered unlikely to be in jeopardy. Each typically wins re-election easily, and Lazich had no Democratic opposition in 2008.

Attempts to reach the local residents in each district trying to recall them were not successful.

Possibly vulnerable

Others are more vulnerable, party leaders say.

Democrats point to Sen. Dan Kapanke, R-La Crosse, who represents a district President Barack Obama carried by 61 percent in 2008. Republicans note Holperin won with only 51 percent of the vote in 2008. Walker took 57 percent of the vote in the district last year.

The timing of any recall elections remains fluid.

Some groups have circulated petitions since Feb. 23. While they have up to 60 days to complete the task, they could submit their petitions earlier.


Officials with the state Government Accountability Board then have 31 days to substantiate each recall effort before setting an election date six weeks out. However, the board can take less time or ask a judge to extend the period.

"As we've been looking at the calendar, we think the earliest possible date is probably mid-July, although it could happen faster," said spokesman Reid Magney.

Copyright (c) 2011, The Wisconsin State Journal

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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