Wisconsin’s lasting political lessons

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By Greg Romberg

I wouldn’t have voted for Scott Walker for governor had I lived in Wisconsin in 2010. If I’d been asked to rate his performance over his first year and a half in office, I would have given him very low marks, as I thought his agenda to strip a variety of rights from government employees and make them scapegoats for all the state’s ills was inappropriate and overly divisive. Having said those things, I would not have voted to recall Walker in Wisconsin’s recent election either.

Elections have consequences. Wisconsin spoke loudly in 2010 by electing a governor who proudly associated himself with the Tea Party movement and giving Republicans majorities in both chambers of their General Assembly. When Walker and the legislature charted an aggressive course to strip employees of collective-bargaining rights and to balance the state’s budget largely on the backs of government employees, opponents pushed back hard, and the eyes of the country focused on Wisconsin as protesters flooded the state capitol and Democratic senators used procedural mechanisms to keep the Senate from meeting. But after all of the hullabaloo, Walker and the Republicans passed their program.
Shortly thereafter, efforts to recall the governor began and became part of a huge national debate that ultimately had more to do with the national political impasse we face than whether Walker should be the governor of Wisconsin. National leaders from both parties paraded across the state in an effort to influence an election that they didn’t really need to be concerned about.
The biggest problem with the whole circus is that recall was never intended to be used just because an elected official is working to carry out an agenda people disagree with. It is a blunt object that should be used only in cases of corruption, malfeasance or gross negligence or incompetence. Recall should never be utilized simply because some people don’t like an official’s agenda. Rather than recall officials we oppose, we should work to turn them out once their terms expire.
The Walker recall turned into a national referendum on things well beyond the scope of the original issues and became part of the rapidly declining civility that we need to restore if we are to overcome the stifling partisan divide under which we currently operate and find some sort of consensus.
Much was made of the fact that Walker was the first governor to survive a recall election. His success was obviously partly because of the massive resources that came from like-minded people across the country who saw retaining him as a vote against the president, but I’d like to hope the overriding issue was that he’d simply not done anything that should have made him subject to recall in the first place.
While it is likely that the Wisconsin recall will be a rallying cry for both sides to continue to escalate the divisive politics leading up to this fall’s election, we can hope that upon further reflection it will lead to a more judicious use of recall in the future and a wake-up call that we want our elected officials to work constructively on our behalf instead of continually taking shots at each other.

Greg Romberg is president of Romberg and Associates, a government relations and public affairs firm. He lives in Evergreen with his wife, Laurie, and three daughters.