State Sen. Dale Schultz: The man in the middle

MADISON -- Republican State Senator Dale Schultz became one of the most powerful voices in Wisconsin politics following last summer's senate recall elections. Schultz is now the swing vote in an otherwise evenly divided senate. He essentially has veto power over Governor Walker's legislative agenda.

Schultz is a moderate Republican who has sided with Democrats on some big issues. Schultz's power was on display in early March during the mining bill debate. His vote against the bill provided the margin that killed the bill, handing Republicans and Governor Walker a stinging defeat.

Schultz's goal in government is moderation. He is the Wisconsin State Senate's "man in the middle."

If there's one place in Wisconsin that captures the divided nature of the political climate it is the Wisconsin State Senate. This is the legislative chamber where the bitter divide was on display in full technicolor during the epic budget battle.

14 senate seats sat empty for three weeks as every Democratic member left the state to delay a vote on the controversial budget repair bill that eventually passed without them - in the process, stripping collective bargaining powers from public workers and starting a year of turmoil.

This is the chamber where nearly a third of the senate was under recall last summer, and another four face that threat this spring.

In the choppy sea of partisan politics, there is a 6'6" "island of calm," known as Senator Dale Schultz. "When you do something somebody likes, this is Wisconsin after all, people aren't just crabby all the time. Once in awhile they do say 'thank you,'" Schultz said.

Schultz's southwestern Wisconsin district has been saying that for the better part of three decades. Schultz was first elected to the Wisconsin State Senate in 1991. He served as the majority leader in 2005 and 2006. "You don't sit around and hold grudges or let old battles scar you for life," Schultz said.

Schultz has a reputation as a sensible centerist, who works across the aisle. In 2010, he was endorsed by Wisconsin's biggest teacher's union and won re-election with 65 percent of the vote. However, his career may well be distilled down to the stance he took during the budget battle - he was the lone Republican to vote against it.

"If you look at what has transpired in the last year in Wisconsin, undeniably the governor was able to achieve savings. I think that, for the most part, is good. On the other hand, if you look at what has happened to the social fabric of this state, it is appalling. My point at that time was there was a way to do both, and that's still my position. If I had to do it all over again, I'd be right where I was before," Schultz said.

That position would be right in the middle. The senate recalls left the Republicans hanging onto power with a one-vote majority. His one vote - meaning Schultz was suddenly the most important man at the Capitol. "The one moderate left in the Republican Party is going to wield extreme influence," Wisconsin Democratic Party spokesman Mike Tate said. "He literally has a veto over the party line votes that are occurring in the state Legislature," UWM Governmental Affairs Professor Mordecai Lee said.

Schultz forged a friendship with moderate Democrat Tim Cullen of Janesville, traveling around the state as a team to try to find common ground. "I think you're going to see a lot of reaching across the aisle," Schultz said. The two senators are sometimes caught literally talking across the aisle.

"What's been so unusual about the developments of the last year, is that what we used to call the moderate wing of the Republican Party or the Tommy Thompson wing of the Republican Party has sort of disappeared. The Republican Party has become ideologically conservative, just as symmetrically the Republican Party has become very ideologically progressive, so Schultz is kind of like a dinosaur. He's sort of like a reflection of the old days," Lee said.

The diplomatic dinosaur again bucked his party, thwarting a Republican attempt to change the recall process to their advantage by holding elections in new districts - the ones they had just redrawn, rather than the old districts which the new law mandated. "I've come to understand that if neither side is completely happy, you're probably doing the right thing. I'm just not interested in changing the rules," Schultz said.

"There is no question that Senator Schultz has required them to slow their roll and to think things through. It's many issues, like statewide vouchers, many issues that Senator Schultz has played a role in, and in turn, has made us slow the conversation down," Democratic Senator Lena Taylor said.

Schultz's role now is to be the senate's umpire - calling balls and strikes just as he sees them. He is a throwback to the idea of legislator who always votes with his conscience, but not always with his colleagues. "Here's a person who is sort of out of the mainstream of his political party," Lee said.

That was on full display last week during the divisive debate over the mining bill. "The summer recalls were last August, and here we are in March, and only now, for the very first time, has the political impact of last summer's senate recalls actually come to fruition," Lee said.

Schultz downplays his status as the indispensable man. "He, individually, is the guy who can decide if a new law passes or a new law dies," Lee said. "I think what you've seen since the recalls are numerous occasions where the Republican caucus has been the most pivotal vote. This is just my one occasion," Schultz said.

"The recalls still plague the state. It's still going to be an issue, but Senator Schultz had kind of developed a profile within the caucus that had a lot of us guessing, up until the last minute," Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said.

The Republican-supported mining bill failed because Schultz sided with the Democrats. "We could have passed a bill with about three-quarters of the elements that we were assigned to deal with.  I think that would have been a positive sign for mining in Wisconsin, and a positive signal to mining companies.  It may not have been enough for Gogebic Taconite, but we weren't doing a bill just for one company, we were doing a bill that would serve all companies in the future," Schultz said.

Schultz wanted a stricter permitting process for mining companies than Republicans were willing to entertain. "Dale Schultz and Bob Jauch put a proposal on the table that the company couldn't accept.  They put their bottom line on the table and didn't move off of it.  To me in politics, you can't forge a compromise if you don't have both parties willing to move," Governor Walker said.

Walker made it clear he blamed Schultz and Democratic Senator Bob Jauch, who came up with a compromise plan that was rejected. "To me, it is firmly on their hands. They are the ones to blame," Walker said.

"Maybe we live in such an ideological era that they preferred to lose than to compromise.  It's possible that in this new era, the political skills of compromise have atrophied because it seems to happen so infrequently," Lee said.

Much is made of Schultz's independent streak, but don't expect to see him switch parties. "I'm proud to be a Republican. I vote with the Republican caucus about 99 percent of the time, but that doesn't mean that you're excused from having a conscience or trying to do the very best job you can on the task that's assigned to you," Schultz said.

In what may be his biggest task, Senator Schultz seems to be on a mission to stand in the center among the crashing waves of division and restore moderation to the senate chamber. "I think Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird said it best: 'the one thing that does not abide a majority rule is conscience, and once in awhile, it tugs at you,'" Schultz said.

Some are encouraging Schultz to run for governor in a recall primary on the Republican side, or even as an independent. He has given no indication he's interested, and he tries not to be terribly critical of the governor, but his stances have made him some enemies in the conservative movement. Someone even egged his Capitol office last November.