Tag Archives: wisconsin recall

Two steps forward

Despite rising statewide unemployment and a groundswell of anger about GOP Gov. Scott Walker’s policies toward the middle and working classes, corporate-backed Republican lawmakers narrowly clung to control of the Wisconsin Senate following historic recall elections on Aug. 9.

Republicans retained four of the six Senate seats challenged by Democrats, leaving them with a 17-16 advantage in the chamber.

Democratic state Rep. Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, handily defeated Republican incumbent Dan Kapanke, R-La Crosse, by a 55-45 margin. Democrat Jessica King, D-Oshkosh, edged out Randy Hopper, R-Empire, by 51-49. Hopper’s campaign was doomed by marital and ethical lapses.

Democrats needed to take three of the races to reclaim the Senate. Although they failed, the election revealed significant vulnerability for the Wisconsin GOP as it heads into a major election next year.

Democrats made strong showings in solidly Republican districts, scoring 40 percent or better in every race and coming within striking distance in the effort to recall Sen. Luther Olsen. His district, which he retained with 52 percent of the vote, is so solidly Republican that he hasn’t even faced a Democratic challenger in more than 16 years.

Voter turnout was at “presidential levels” in many wards, according to poll watchers.

All of the incumbent Republicans oppose LGBT equality and all of the Democratic challengers support it.

Ray Vahey, of the Milwaukee-based LGBT advocacy group Equality Wisconsin, said he expects the backlash against the state’s Republican leaders to gain momentum as voters begin to feel more of the sting of Walker’s agenda in the coming months.

“People have not felt yet the dreadful impact from the budget and from other acts that (Republicans) have pushed through,” Vahey said. “And the wholesale disenfranchisement of minorities, the aged and the poor through the voter ID bill and the attack on immigrants and other minorities will have an effect that (Republicans) did not intend. I believe that it will drive us closer and closer together. I think it will dawn on people that equality is not safe for any of us until it’s safe for all of us and that economic justice is a civil right.”

Fair Wisconsin director Katie Belanger also tried to look at the upside of the election on the morning after. “We are happy that two strong pro-equality allies were elected last night and that we are continuing to gain more allies in the state Senate,” she said.

Many recall voters were likely unaware of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report showing that first-time unemployment claims in Wisconsin rose during the second quarter of this year at triple the rate of the first quarter, propelling the state into second place for the highest rate in the nation. Only Kentucky had a higher unemployment claims rate for the second quarter.

Right-leaning media outlets, including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, suppressed the report. Walker, who was endorsed by MJS, ran on a pledge to create 250,000 jobs in Wisconsin.

Voters in the recall races also had to wade through a daily onslaught of misinformation from both sides in the most expensive state Senate campaigns in Wisconsin history. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign re-ports that so far more than $35 million in spending has been tallied in nine recall races, including three targeting Democrats. One of the latter races has already occurred, and two others are scheduled for Aug. 16.

The amount of spending on the recall races has dwarfed the $19.3 million spent in 115 legislative races in the state last year.  The final tally could surpass the $37.4 million spent in the 2010 gubernatorial race.

The lion’s share of money on the right came from out-of-state corporate interests, most of it from front groups for billionaires David and Charles Koch. They stand to gain lucrative no-bid contracts from the state under GOP leadership.

The Koch-backed groups Americans for Prosperity and Club for Growth teamed up with the anti-gay group Wisconsin Family Action on a scheme to send fraudulent absentee ballot applications to voters in the final weeks of the campaign. The mailers listed a return date after the election.

Randy Stoffel, an out gay man who takes care of his elderly parents, said his Washington County household was among those that received the deceptive ballots. His mother, a registered Democrat, was planning to fill one out and return it, but Stoffel interceded, he said.

“I’m afraid with this ballot thing that a lot of older people are going to think they’ve cast their vote and not go to the polls,” Stoffel told WiG two days before the election. Stoffel said he spoke with several seniors in Menomonee Falls who were planning to do just that before he explained to them that the mailers were a scam.

A number of irregularities were reported on election night in the race between anti-gay incumbent Alberta Darling and pro-equality challenger Sandy Pasch. Returns in that race were held up for several hours by Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus, who came to national fame earlier this year when she suddenly “found” 7,000 unreported votes for right-wing Supreme Court Justice David Prosser after his challenger had already declared victory.

Darling, one of the Koch brothers’ staunchest allies in Wisconsin, had unlimited access to campaign cash, making her race was the most expensive of them all. She defeated Pasch 54-46 by managing to exceed turnout for the 2008 presidential race in the religious-right portions of Senate District 8, including Menomonee Falls, Germantown and Waukesha.

Pasch’s defeat was especially poignant for equality advocates and other progressives. A tireless campaigner with a squeaky clean record, Pasch was seen by many as the best hope of scoring the upset that could have handed control of the Senate back to her party.

An enthusiastic overflow crowd at the Sheraton Hotel in Brown Deer waited until late in the evening to celebrate Pasch’s victory. They watched with dismay as Pasch’s lead for most of the night evaporated as reports from right-wing districts trickled in after the other five races had been called.

“That district was always going to be a very tough district for a progressive to win,” Belanger said. “As close as Sandy came was an indication of just how hard she and all of the volunteers worked to win that seat.”

Looking at the recalls as a “dress rehearsal” for 2012, Brenda Lewiston said Democrats proved they were battle ready. An out Pasch supporter, Lewiston helped collect signatures for the petitions to recall Darling and knocked on doors on Pasch’s behalf throughout the campaign.

“This race was phenomenal in terms of party organization,” Lewiston said.

Lewiston was among the volunteers attending Pasch’s victory party who either witnessed or heard about attempts at voter suppression on Election Day. Employees at Glendale City Hall misinformed voters that they weren’t supposed to cast ballots on Aug. 9, Lewiston said.

Also among those watching Pasch’s election with great interest was Rob Zerban, who’s taking on U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan in 2012. Ryan, who authored a plan to turn Medicare over to private, for-profit insurance companies, is expected to be the nation’s No. 1 legislative target for Democrats next year.

“It certainly is a challenge for Democrats to win seats in Republican districts (like Darling’s),” Zerban said. “Everyone must turn their focus now on Paul Ryan.”

Pasch supporters seemed to have their eye focused primarily on Walker’s future. Buoyed by high Democratic numbers in Republican districts, they expressed confidence that Walker will not survive a recall effort next year. With every new report of a Democratic gain, they chanted, “Recall Walker, recall Walker.”

The Democratic Party plans to begin circulating petitions to recall the governor in January.

Gay foes funnel big cash into recall races

An anti-gay extremist group is pouring big money into commercials for GOP senators facing recall elections on Aug. 9.

Wisconsin Family Action has spent at least $304,000 in recent weeks on broadcast ads smearing the Democratic opponents of two right-wing state senators. That’s a remarkable level of spending for the small evangelical group, according to political observers.

Although WFA is not required by law to disclose individual donors, contributors are likely to be some of the same out-of-state groups that are shoveling cash into Wisconsin senate races at levels never before seen in the state, observers said.

WFA is an evangelical Christian group headed by Julaine Appling, a never-married woman who lives with her lifelong companion, Diane Westphall, in a home they own jointly in Watertown. The two also work side by side at WFA.

But despite the marital status of its leaders, WFA’s stated mission is to bolster the institution of “traditional” marriage. The group works to achieve this goal exclusively by fighting legal recognition of gay and lesbian relationships.

Appling spearheaded the successful 2006 campaign to amend the state’s constitution to ban same-sex marriage and civil unions in the state. She’s currently mounting legal challenges aimed at revoking the domestic partner registry law signed by former Gov. Jim Doyle.

Yet the commercials paid for by WFA never mention gays, abortion or any other right-wing social issues. In fact, WFA’s most frequently aired ad attacks the driving record of state Rep. Fred Clark, who hopes to unseat Sen. Luther Olsen in Senate District 14 (which stretches from Waupaca County to the eastern part of Sauk County).

“They’re not talking about gay marriage, they’re talking about Fred Clark accidentally hitting a bicyclist with his car,” said Wisconsin Democratic Party chairman Mike Tate.

Tate said Appling was able to spend only about $200,000 for WFA’s flagship effort, the voter referendum that prohibited same-sex marriage and civil unions. Put in that perspective, Tate finds WFA’s sudden high-stakes position on issues outside its narrow purview to be alarming and suspicious.

“All of a sudden this little, tiny anti-gay outfit becomes a major player on the political scene? Come on. They’ve become a front group for somebody’s dirty cash,” Tate charged.

Cash from outside interest groups is dominating the summer recall races, as it did the recent Supreme Court race. It’s possible that WFA’s dollars are coming from Focus on the Family, a right-wing organization designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Tate said. According to Tate, who once headed Fair Wisconsin, Focus on the Family leader James Dobson often engages in stealth campaigns in local races.

All of the Republicans facing recalls have anti-gay records, according to Fair Wisconsin’s current executive director Katie Belanger. That would make them natural magnets for evangelical Christian donors like Dobson.

But ironically, Olsen is the only one of the group who ever sat down to speak with LGBT advocates, Belanger said. So why is WFA spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on defending this particular incumbent, when there are five others who won’t even bother listening politely to FW’s equality pitch?

WiG put this question to Appling via voicemail but she declined to return the call.

Experienced observers said there’s not much mystery to the situation. According to them, WFA has likely become another tool in the far right’s well-coordinated strategy to ensure Wisconsin remains solidly red. It’s speculated that Club for Growth, a front group used by the billionaire Koch brothers to promote their company’s corporate agenda, is now throwing money at Appling in an attempt to spread out its dollars.

If so, that represents a significant shift in Koch’s political strategy.

Koch money

David and Charles Koch run Koch Industries, the nation’s largest privately held company, with 70,000 employees and sales of $100 billion in 2008. The company was built by their father on oil trading and refining, but the brothers have expanded it to include coal mining, the paper company Georgia-Pacific and household products such as Teflon.

David Koch, a Kansan who’s intent on buying his way into New York society through massive gifts to art groups, has never been directly involved in anti-gay campaigns, Tate said. He would probably avoid being connected to a group of religious zanies as odd as WFA, which appears to be a tabloid scandal waiting to happen.

“That’s why there’s such a premium on being able to raise unlimited, anonymous dollars, so people don’t have to be publicly affiliated with causes and agendas that have some liability attached to them,” said Kelly Steele, spokesman for We Are Wisconsin, which is coordinating the effort to recall Republicans.

There’s no question that Koch and other big players on the corporate right are desperate to maintain the GOP’s tight grip on Wisconsin government. “At this point it is about absolute power,” Steele said. “They have both branches of the Legislature, the governor’s office and the Supreme Court to back them up.”

But it’s also about money. The state is considered Ground Zero for Koch’s national efforts to dismantle the organized labor movement. Since virtually assuming control of Wisconsin government in January, Koch and his fellow corporate nabobs have managed not only to incapacitate public unions but also to reduce access to the ballot box among minorities and students. They’ve decimated financial regulations, corporate rules and environmental standards in the state to benefit their business interests.

All of this has been accomplished through cookie-cutter bills created by the corporate-right group American Legislative Exchange Council. The bills are modified by local lawmakers to fit into each state’s existing statutory framework, according to the Center for Media and Democracy, which has created an online archive of over 800 ALEC bills.

Many of those bills have become familiar to Wisconsin residents in recent months, as the GOP has rammed them through the Assembly in advance of next month’s recall races. Some Wisconsin lawmakers even sit on ALEC’s board or hold prominent positions in Wisconsin government. State Sen. Alberta Darling is a dues-paying member.

Introduced in Wisconsin by Koch-backed lawmakers, ALEC bills have changed the state in six months into a place that would have been unrecognizable a year ago. In fact, a study published earlier this year said Wisconsin now resembles Mississippi in terms of the “pro-business environment” here. That means Republicans have given big tax breaks to the wealthy, created corporate welfare in the form of taxpayer-funded “incentives,” relaxed environmental and product liability laws, and eliminated many worker protections.

The study’s corporate-right authors touted all this as a great achievement, but few Wisconsin residents would want to be positioned alongside the nation’s perennial lowest-ranking state in terms of health, education and other quality-of-life issues.

Koch Industries has at least 17 facilities or offices in the state that stand poised to secure millions in lucrative no-bid government contracts from Walker and GOP lawmakers. But it appears that Koch wants not only to get those contracts but also to wring the maximum profitability from them by avoiding potentially costly rules and regulations – and by not having to deal with an empowered work force.

Steele said that’s why Koch will go to the mat to prevent the Wisconsin Senate from changing leadership next month. That change would occur if three of the six Republicans being recalled were to lose their races, while the two remaining Democrats being targeted win theirs.

As of July 22, Club for Growth had spent at least $1.5 million on commercials in Wisconsin to support Republicans, Steele said. He expected that figure to climb much higher as the election draws closer.


For the record: Voting history of the GOP senators facing recalls

WiG looked at the ratings that various special interest groups have awarded the six GOP senators facing recalls. The ratings indicate the percentage of time the senators voted with positions taken by the groups during the legislative sessions shown in parentheses.

Robert Cowles, Green Bay
District 2

Voted to ban same-sex marriage and civil unions in Wisconsin.

  • Planned Parenthood: 25 (2007-08),
    0 (2006), 0 (2005)
  • Americans for Prosperity: 90 (2007-08), 71 (2005-06)
  • Wis. Manufacturers and Commerce: 100 (2010),
    90 (2009)
  • ACLU: 0 (2006)
  • Fair Wisconsin: 0 (2004)
  • League of Conservation Voters: 67 (2009-2010),
    50 (2005)
  • Sierra Club: 29 (2005-06)
  • Wis. AFL-CIO: 27 (2007-08)

Alberta Darling, River Hills
District 8

Voted to ban same-sex marriage and civil unions in Wisconsin.

  • Planned Parenthood: 50 (2007-08),
    17 (2006), 0 (2005)
  • Americans for Prosperity: 100 (2005-06)
  • Wis. Manufacturers and Commerce: 75 (2010),
    90 (2009)
  • ACLU 0 (2006)
  • Fair Wisconsin: 0 (2004)
  • League of Conservation Voters: 50 (2009-10),
    39 (2005-06)
  • Sierra Club: 14 (2005-06)
  • Wis. AFL-CIO: 27 (2007-08)

Sheila Harsdorf, River Falls
District 10

Voted to ban same-sex marriage and civil unions in Wisconsin.

  • Planned Parenthood: 50 (2007-08),
    0 (2006), 0 (2005)
  • Americans for Prosperity: 79 (2005-06)
  • Wis. Manufacturers and Commerce: 100 (2010),
    90 (2009)
  • ACLU: 0 (2006)
  • Fair Wisconsin: 0 (2004)
  • League of Conservation Voters: 58 (2009-10),
    50 (2005-06)
  • Sierra Club: 43 (2005-06)
  • Wis. AFL-CIO: 36 (2007-08)

Luther Olsen, Ripon
District 14

Voted to ban same-sex marriage and civil unions in Wisconsin.

  • Planned Parenthood: 25 (2007-08),
    33 (2006), 20 (2005)
  • Americans for Prosperity: 76 (2005-06)
  • Wis. Manufacturers and Commerce: 100 (2010),
    100 (2009)
  • ACLU: 0 (2006)
  • Fair Wisconsin: 0 (2004)
  • League of Conservation Voters: 67 (2009-2010),
    29 (2005-06)
  • Sierra Club: 29 (2005-06)
  • Wis. AFL-CIO: 45 (2007-08)

Randy Hopper, Fond du Lac
District 18

First elected to public office in 2008, Hopper has a limited legislative record.

  • Wis. Manufacturers and Commerce: 100 (2010),
    100 (2009)
  • League of Conservation Voters: 50 (2009-10)

Dan Kapanke, La Crosse
District 32

Voted to ban same-sex marriage and civil unions in Wisconsin.

  • Planned Parenthood: 0 (2007-08),
    0 (2006), 0 (2005)
  • Americans for Prosperity: 76 (2005-06)
  • Wis. Manufacturers and Commerce: 80 (2010),
    81 (2009)
  • ACLU: 0 (2006)
  • League of Conservation Voters: 67 (2009-2010),
    50 (2005-06)
  • Sierra Club: 43 (2005-06)
  • Wis. AFL-CIO: 50 (2007-08)

Source: Project Vote Smart