Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

1996 Petak-Plache Recall Race Holds the Key to 2011 Recalls

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Folks, I live in Racine, Wisconsin, so I know full well what happened on June 4, 1996.  But for the rest of you, here’s a quick primer.

In October of 1995, George Petak (R-Racine), Wisconsin state Senator from district 21, cast the decisive vote in order to fund the construction of Miller Park in Milwaukee (and keep the Milwaukee Brewers in Wisconsin) by allowing a five county “sales tax” of .01% to go into effect.   (In case you’re wondering, the other four counties being taxed on behalf of the Brewers are Ozaukee, Milwaukee, Waukesha and Washington; the sales tax is expected to end sometime between 2015 and 2018.)

Now, Petak had said until the very last minute that he’d vote “no” on this.  But then-Governor Tommy Thompson twisted his arm, Petak voted “yes,” and many in Racine County (including Brewers fans) were incensed because Petak hadn’t done what he said he was going to do.  (In fact, the Racine Journal-Times’ headline the day after the vote was something like “Petak votes no,” giving us our very own “Dewey beats Truman” moment.)

This palpable anger over Petak’s “bait-and-switch” tactics was the main reason he was recalled, and the palpable anger over Scott Walker’s “bait-and-switch” tactics with regards to the state budget and most especially the fight over collective bargaining for public employee unions is the main reason why the six Republican state Senators have been forced to run in recall elections. 

Experts, including political scientists, said in late 1995-early 1996 that Petak would never be recalled, because the two previous recall elections in WI history had retained the incumbents, but they were wrong.   While experts, once again including political scientists, didn’t think that nine Senators (six Rs, 3 Ds) would end up having to defend their seats in recall elections — but again, they were wrong.

The reasons why Petak’s decision was controversial were:

1) Racine County had no county sales tax mechanism at the time whatsoever, and getting the mechanism in place in the short run cost more than any collecting of tax.

2) Racine County, while next to Milwaukee County, doesn’t get a lot of business visitors or tourist business from there, so any economic “help” coming from this would be negligible.

3) As previously stated, Petak had said he was opposed until the 11th hour, then switched his vote.  This turned the anger over the idea of a county-wide sales tax into white-hot rage and led to Petak’s recall

4) And last but certainly not least, as the Wisconsin state Senate was comprised of 17 Rs and 16 Ds at the time Petak cast his vote, you can see why the big money came out in order to change the composition of the state Senate.  Not to mention all the requisite highly-negative ads.  (Why do they run those ads, anyway?  They only rarely change an informed voter’s mind, and trust me — in Wisconsin, we are informed about these issues or we don’t bother voting.)

Petak, who was primaried by another Republican but fended him off, eventually lost to Democrat Kim Plache and was the first government official to be recalled in Wisconsin history.**

What I saw in 1996 is what I’m seeing right now with the recall efforts against the six Republicans who will face an election on August 9, 2011 (three days and a few hours from now).   It’s an election being held at an odd time, where passions must be high to get voters to the polls.  There’s lots of money coming in from out of the state and inordinate negative ads on television and radio, some of which bear little resemblance to reality.  The control of the Senate is in question, as the Dems need only three of the six seats to “flip” to Democratic control (then to retain the two Democrats who were recalled and need to run on August 16, 2011).  And the vitriol on both sides is so deafening it’s nearly impossible to tell who’s going to do what to whom at this point, as it’s now become an endurance contest.

However, there are some differences as well, those being:

1) We’ve never had nine Senators recalled in the same year before (3 Ds, one of whom has already retained his seat, Dave Hansen of Green Bay, and 6 Rs).

2) We’ve never had a Governor who’s this unpopular before.  Walker’s been tied to all six Senators (for good or ill) due to all of these votes being taken on Walker’s behalf and due to Walker’s agenda.  So these races are as much about Scott Walker as they are about the individual Senators.

3)  And finally, the national Democratic and Republican parties have taken a far larger role in 2011 than I remember them doing in 1996.  Both major parties seem to believe that if their side wins these six recall races, they’ll gain traction for the 2012 House, Senate, and Presidential races.

As to the tactics of what’s going on in order to get out the vote — well, quite frankly, some of it is highly disturbing.  There are allegations that PACs favoring Sandy Pasch (a Democratic Assemblywoman from Sheboygan) gave out free food in exchange for a quick ride to the polls, which is wrong no matter who does it.  (I’m all for giving out free food.  And I’m all for voting.  But the two shouldn’t go together.)  Then, there are the allegations (noted in the same article) that the sitting Senator from district 8, Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), Pasch’s opponent, has colluded with outside PACs to send out fake absentee ballots with the wrong dates on them.  Under Wisconsin law, doing anything like that — the collusion by itself, mind you — is against the law.  While putting the wrong dates on the absentee ballots is just stupid.  (Note that in the case of alleged wrongdoing with the “free food for votes” scam, Pasch herself had nothing to do with it.)

Next, in one of the recall races being held on August 16, 2011, the Republican challenger, Kim Simac, refused to debate incumbent Senator Jim Holperin (D-Conover) and didn’t tell anyone she wasn’t going to show up.  Not a good move there, no matter how her handlers try to spin it (supposedly Simac “never committed” to this debate; I can’t imagine that excuse is going to go over well with the voters).

Back to the Rs — there’s Luther Olsen (R-Ripon), who said publicly that he was against the “fake Democrats” who entered the Democratic primary in order to give the Republicans more time to fundraise, yet then praised Rol Church, a long-time Republican Party activist, at one of his GOTV rallies.  Not to mention that Olsen is the first R known to have Gov. Walker at one of his rallies (even if Walker may have come in via the back door)  — most are keeping Walker away like the plague, knowing he’s “box office poison” due to Walker’s unpopularity (Walker is booed wherever he goes, including a recent appearance at the Wisconsin State Fair) — after saying that Scott Walker’s policies are “too extreme” for Wisconsin and saying he wishes he’d have voted differently back in February.

Vacillate much, Senator Olsen?

And let’s not forget state Sen. Dan Kapanke (R-LaCrosse), who said back in May of this year:

“We’ve got tons of government workers in my district – tons,” Kapanke said May 25 at the Cedar Creek Golf Club in Onalaska. “From La Crosse to Prairie du Chien and to Viroqua and to Ontario and to Hillsboro, you can go on and on and on. We have to overcome that. We’ve got to hope that they, kind of, are sleeping on July 12th – or whenever the (election) date is.”

During the candid chat, Kapanke said he was one of three Republicans in serious jeopardy of losing in a recall election.

The other two, he said, are Sen. Alberta Darling of River Hills and Sen. Randy Hopper of Fond du Lac.

“We could lose me. We could lose Randy Hopper in the 18th or Alberta Darling over in – wherever she is – the 8th, I believe,” Kapanke said.

Note this was before Luther Olsen’s recent nonsense, as I’d add Olsen to the list of seriously endangered R Senators.

At any rate, here’s how I handicap the upcoming races:

Sure to lose: Randy Hopper and Dan Kapanke may as well pack their bags and go home right now.  They will lose, and they will lose big — Kapanke may lose by double-digits to Assembly Rep. Jennifer Shilling, while Hopper will lose by at least six or eight points to Oshkosh’s Jessica King.

Will most likely lose: Luther Olsen has done himself no favors, and is the third-most likely Senator to be packing his bags.

Will probably lose:  Sheila Harsdorf has name recognition and has been better than the rest of the six Rs at answering questions and talking to her constituents.  Still, she’s parroted the party-line at every turn and refuses to believe any of her votes were wrong for Wisconsin, while her opponent, teacher Shelley Moore, is the person who led the recall effort against Harsdorf.  Providing Moore beats Harsdorf, it won’t be by much.

I sincerely hope this Senator will lose: Alberta Darling has big, big money behind her, and the ads in her favor far outweigh the ads against her.  However, most voters in her district know that it was Darling who led the committee that first “vetted” Scott Walker’s budget-repair bill that eliminated collective bargaining for public employee unions.  Darling, therefore, had all the power in the world to stop this mess before it started, but didn’t.  She definitely deserves to lose, but if she does lose to Sandy Pasch, once again it won’t be by very much.

The wild card:  I honestly do not know what’ll happen in the Robert Cowles-Nancy Nussbaum race.  Cowles has kept his head down and has said very little about his controversial votes; the only reason I think Nussbaum has a chance, aside from the large amount of people who signed to get Cowles recalled, is because she’s a particularly strong candidate (the only stronger one among the six Ds is Shilling) and has articulated a clear vision about what she’ll do once she gets in there.  (I think Nussbaum’s done the best job of this of all six Ds, though props go to King and Pasch for their clear and decisive answers in candidate forums and debates over the past several months.)

So there you have it; my gut says that four, possibly five of the Rs will be joining the unemployment line after the August 9, 2011 elections are over.


** I called it right away that Petak would be recalled; I was working as a cashier at the time, and I knew how angry people were over Petak’s last-minute vote switch.  Even Brewers fans — I’m one — were livid due to the lack of a Racine County sales tax prior to that vote.  Further, people were outraged that Petak would refuse to listen to his district, who were adamantly opposed in big numbers.  This reason — refusing to listen to his district — is why Petak was recalled and Plache went to Madison in his place.  It’s also why at least four of these Republicans will lose on August 9, 2011.

10 Responses

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  1. I will be volunteering for Sen. Wirch in Kenosha in about a week or so.


    August 7, 2011 at 12:23 am

    • Good for you, Lika. I approve. 😉 (What, you thought I wouldn’t? ;-))

      Barb Caffrey

      August 7, 2011 at 8:31 am

  2. […] recalled in district 21 before; this was George Petak, and I wrote about him and his recall race here.  Which is why he probably had to be promised something in exchange for his vote; elsewise, why […]

  3. […] and replaced by then-Democratic Assemblywoman Kim Plache.  (I wrote about that historic election here.)  While this isn’t nearly twice as many signatures as needed as seen in the statewide […]

  4. […] as I’ve said here before, we have recalled a Republican before in district 21, so it’s certainly not uncharted […]

  5. […] Petak was the first state Senator removed via recall.  (I wrote about the Petak-Plache recall here last August; Kim Plache, D-Racine, defeated Petak in the June 1996 recall […]

  6. […] First, check out my commentary about the 1996 recall race between R George Petak and D Kim Plache here.  Or take a look at a recent post where I discussed Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel writer Craig […]

  7. […] First, check out my commentary about the 1996 recall race between R George Petak and D Kim Plache here.  Or take a look at a recent post where I discussed Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel writer Craig […]

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