An offer of beer and brats is as good an olive branch as any in this land we call Wisconsin. Accordingly, at least 37 Democrats, 60 Republicans and one independent lawmaker accepted Gov. Scott Walker's invitation to down a few brewskis at the governor's mansion Tuesday night in the name of reconciliation. The goal was to find a way to move beyond the extreme partisan rancor that culminated in the June 5 recall election against Walker, who beat back Democratic challenger and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
But does common ground exist? And if so, where is it? It might strike some as counterintuitive, but Rep. Robin Vos (R-Burlington), co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee, which controls the Legislature's purse strings, says he thinks it can be found in reforming the state's constitutional provisions for recalling lawmakers. Last session Vos proposed limiting recalls to politicians facing criminal charges, but that idea did not go over well with Democrats.
He might now have public opinion on his side. In exit polls conducted on Election Day by Edison Research, 60% of voters said that recall elections are appropriate "only for official misconduct." The state constitution currently does not specify any criteria for recalling elected officials.
Vos declines to call the exit poll result a "mandate" for change, but says it's a powerful statement nonetheless.
"When 60% of people agree on anything, that's usually a political consensus in the world we live in today," he says.
Vos says the exit polling jibes with his experience going door-to-door when he found "scores" of people - including those who did not support Scott Walker - opposed to the recall campaigns launched in the last year against Walker, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and others.
"This is an area where I think Democrats and Republicans could come together," says Vos.
And the four-term lawmaker thinks he has a carrot that might appeal to Democrats: closing a legal loophole that allows incumbent politicians to raise unlimited contributions to cover expenses incurred from the time a recall drive is launched until an election is certified. Working together is a worthy goal, but, adds Vos, "I'm also enough of a realist to know that Democrats have had concerns about politicians' ability to raise unlimited money."
Walker raised at least $5 million more than would ordinarily be allowed under normal fundraising limits, according to Bill Lueders, Money and Politics project director for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. Vos says he is open to "changing the constitution" to close the loophole.
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) appears willing to bite at that idea: "Any [recall] reform would have to be tied to closing the loophole on unlimited contributions."
Recalls should remain an option when politicians violate Wisconsin's "values and traditions," says Barca, but fundraising limits would provide a starting point for conversation with Republicans.
Barca says he is hoping that common ground could be forged in a special legislative session on jobs. "We have such a skills gap and training issues in this state. It seems like this is something we could do that would have an immediate impact on getting families back to work, helping communities and helping the economy."
According to reports from the brat summit, which was closed to media, Walker said he would be willing to meet with lawmakers to discuss a special session.
Calling such a session before January, however, could prove tricky for Republicans. If former state Sen. John Lehman holds on to his narrow June 5 recall victory over Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine), the state Senate will be under Democratic control until at least the November elections, when all of the Assembly and half the state Senate is up for reelection. Waiting until January would be better for Republicans if they prevail in their goal of immediately flipping the Senate back to GOP control. On the other hand, if Walker is serious about bipartisan lawmaking, split houses force compromise on both sides.
Isthmus contacted Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie twice over two days to see what areas the governor had identified for common ground with Democrats and whether he might call a special session. Unfortunately, as is often the case, Werwie did not respond.
Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Horicon) and Sen. Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) also did not get back to us, even though their very nice aides fielded our calls.
What is it going to take for a callback, guys? A beer and a brat?