Political Lowe-down: Story of the recall in Wisconsin

MADISON -- Wisconsin's gubernatorial recall election is an historic election -- the first of its kind in the state. It's legal, but is it right? Is it what the original advocates of the recall intended? As they say, the past is prologue, so as the recall looms, FOX6's Mike Lowe takes a look back at history for the story of the recall in Wisconsin.

On October 31st, 1926, Wisconsin changed its constitution to include "recall" after a fight led by progressive Republican Governor Bob La Follette. "The fight was to prevent elected officials who got elected on one platform from breaking with their platform and doing something else," UW-Milwaukee Professor of Governmental Affairs Mordecai Lee said.

A century later, voters are still asking if what happened that Halloween is a trick-or-treat for Wisconsin democracy. "The purpose of recalls in Wisconsin and nationwide was to have a short leash for politicians," Lee said.

Lee says the recall initiative has morphed into a sort of instant gratification tool for dissatisfied partisans, but it hasn't always been that way. "What's so odd about the recall in Wisconsin is that even though it's been in our constitution since the 1920s, people sort of forgot about it. It's sort of amazing. It's like nobody sat down and read the whole constitution, and suddenly it came back to life in the late 1970s," Lee said.

That was the case of Dane County Judge Archie Simonsen in 1977, who insinuated from the bench that a rape victim was to blame for being raped. People in Madison were so upset, they recalled him. "That was like the toothpaste coming out of the tube. Once it's out of the tube, you can't put it back in," Lee said.

For the last year, the toothpaste has been squeezed and smeared all over the state. In the space of one year, there have been 16 recalls for state offices in Wisconsin. Prior to this year in Wisconsin, there had only been 20 recalls in all of the United States since 1908 - the year the Chicago Cubs last won the World Series.

In U.S. history, prior to 2011 in Wisconsin, no more than two legislators had been recalled in any one year. Now in Wisconsin, it's the rule, not the exception, even at the local level.

"Since that time in the late 1970s, recall has increased in frequency. It's amazing when you look at the statistics. Suddenly there were recalls of school boards and town boards and efforts to recall state legislators," Lee said.

In the 1990s, state Senator George Petak of Racine cast the deciding vote to fund the construction of Miller Park - a reversal of what he had promised. He lost a recall election over that vote.

There have been others, but by far the most important is the recall of Governor Scott Walker. He is only the third governor in United States history to face a recall election. Lynn Frazier of North Dakota in 1921 and Gray Davis of California in 2003 are the other two.

According to some conservative thinkers, the Wisconsin recall was never intended to be used against governors and state legislators, all of whom only served two year terms at the time recall was adopted. Instead, they argue, it was for judges - those who served long terms.

When asked if he has concerns that the recall goes against the intent of what recalls were put in place to do, Gov. Walker said he does. "Years ago, we even had talk of a recall here in Milwaukee. I think the difference is, people viewed misconduct in office. They viewed if people had done something illegal, unethical or questionable, but it really wasn't about a policy difference. It wasn't about having passionate differences on the issues," Walker said.

Despite the fact that organizers collected nearly a million signatures in 60 days -- nearly twice the number they needed, Walker and other Republicans have made the case that this recall violates the spirit of the original idea.

"I didn't realize he was the spiritual advisor to the recall.  How dare he speak for the recall, or people who want his recall.  He was part of several unsuccessful recalls. He was part of a successful recall.  If he wants to talk about why he was trying to recall Jim Doyle all those times, why he wanted to recall Sen. Feingold, Sen. Kohl, then he can speak to that.  He has no place talking about why a million people signed their signatures on a petition," Wisconsin Democratic Party Spokesman Graeme Zielinski said.

That's the sticking point - why the recall is happening. For Republicans, Walker is a courageous hero who saw a problem and fixed it, and doesn't deserve the recall. For Democrats, Walker is a governor who hid his intentions during the campaign, and then fought a politically-motivated battle to end collective bargaining and crush unions.

"This is exactly what Bob LaFollette intended it for.  The reckless abuse of power by a dishonest governor who is peaking to corporate masters.  You think Bob LaFollette would be on the side of Scott Walker in this?  Does any right-thinking person think a guy who spent his career fighting against concentrated power and wealth, and power and dishonesty would back Scott Walker in this?  Walker is a picture perfect example of why the recall was installed by reformers like fighting Bob LaFollette," Zielinski said.

It's worth noting that Walker himself came to power as the Milwaukee County Executive under the threat of a recall of his predecessor, Tom Ament, who was embroiled in the Milwaukee County pension scandal and eventually stepped down, clearing the way for Walker's election.

Republicans rumbled about recalling Democratic Governor Jim Doyle for years before he decided not to run for re-election in 2010. "It seems to me that the premise of American politics is you get elected to a set term and at the end of that term the voters decide if they approve of what you did or disapprove of what you did," Lee said.

In all of the emotion, the tension and the drama of this singular political year in Wisconsin history, Walker argues the state has gone "recall crazy" and Walker says if he's removed from office, it could be just the start. "If we open this can of worms, even if I don't agree with everything this particular candidate believes in, if you vote for a recall who's to say a year later that somebody on the other side of the issue, that doesn't like their issues, that we're going to force a recall there as well?" Walker said.

Wisconsin is one of 19 states that allows for recalls, but one of the few that doesn't require a reason. What is required is a steep hurdle -- 25 percent of people who cast votes for governor in the last election within the district of the recall to sign a petition within 60 days.

Republican state Representative Robin Vos has mentioned amending the constitution again to limit recalls. "I think most people in this state don't want year-round elections and that's what we'll get if you ultimately have a recall that's successful," Walker said.

Professor Lee, who is on record as saying he's philosophically opposed to recalls, says this one nevertheless fulfills the original intent of the 1926 constitutional amendment. "It's fair to say that the efforts to recall state senators, Democrats and Republicans, the efforts to recall Lt. Governor Kleefisch fulfill what the progressives and the LaFollette's wanted to do. In other words, the voters at large could have the final say whenever they wanted if they were unhappy with an elected official," Lee said.

Vos' proposal to amend the constitution to make it more difficult to recall an elected official would only allow recalls for criminal and unethical behavior. Vos says he will continue to push for that, saying right now, the system that only requires signatures and no other stated reason is too easily manipulated.

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