The 10th Senate District is a mostly rural area bordering the Mississippi River in northwestern Wisconsin that has been something of a family fiefdom. Republican Jim Harsdorf served it from 1981 to 1989, and his sister and fellow Republican Sheila Harsdorf has held it from 2000 to today. Prior to this, Sheila served an Assembly district for 12 years that her brother had previously held for four years.
All told, Sheila Harsdorf has been a legislator for more than two decades and has never lost in 11 tries for office. But one of those was a recall election in 2011, and though she won easily, with 58% of the vote, Harsdorf wants to make sure she can never be recalled again. She has introduced a constitutional amendment to severely restrict the use of recalls.
"It is a very dangerous road to go down to allow recalls when there's a disagreement on an issue," she declared. "You don't want to discourage elected officials from making those tough decisions."
But there is no evidence that Harsdorf, other Republican legislators who faced a recall, or Gov. Scott Walker have suddenly gotten more tame. Indeed, the Republicans continue to push a sweeping agenda of change.
Moreover, their conservative revolution arguably began as a result of a recall. Milwaukee County voters used the recall to toss former Milwaukee County Executive F. Thomas Ament and seven county supervisors out of office after these officials passed a lucrative pension plan that could have made a millionaire out of Ament. Walker was soon elected county executive and later portrayed himself as a reformer to win the office of governor. If not for the recall, Walker might still be an obscure state representative from Wauwatosa.
Yet the proposed measure by Harsdorf would make it impossible to recall someone like Ament, because it would only be allowed for politicians charged with a criminal or ethical violation. Ament simply passed a quite legal plan that left Milwaukee County in financial ruin and made many public employees wealthy.
Harsdorf's measure would greatly restrict the recall, turning it into a rubber stamp for legal investigations, rather than functioning as a lever of direct democracy. And the measure applies not just to state officials but local officials. The National Conference on State Legislatures (NCSL) estimates that three-fourths of recall elections involve city councils and school boards. In Wisconsin, ironically, most of those local recalls have probably been launched by conservative activists.
In most states with a recall, it can be done for any reason. Just four states have adopted language as restrictive as Harsdorf's proposal.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and conservative bloggers like Christian Schneider have argued that it's become too easy to recall public officials. But as the NCSL has noted, "Historically, recall attempts at the state level have been unsuccessful." Its data shows that since 1908, when the first recall law was passed, there have been just 36 recall attempts of state officials in the U.S. and 17 that were successful. That includes the recent wave of recalls in this state.
And it's already tougher to do a recall in Wisconsin. Wisconsin requires anyone wanting to recall an official to get enough signatures equal to 25% of those who voted in the last election. Idaho requires just 20%; Georgia, Oregon and Rhode Island 15%; and California only 12%.
Schneider has argued that back in the horse-and-buggy days, it was harder to organize a recall. If so, that would only be a reason to increase the number of signatures required, perhaps to 40% of those voting in the last election, as Kansas requires.
But is it really so easy to recall an official today? Gov. Jim Doyle had a disapproval rate higher than Walker's, yet an attempt to recall him went nowhere. Opponents of state Sens. Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center) and Bob Jauch (D-Poplar) threatened to recall them from office because they opposed pro-mining legislation, but neither recall materialized. California voters have initiated 32 gubernatorial recall attempts since 1911, but the 2003 recall of Gov. Gray Davis was the first to reach the ballot.
The reality is that recalls aren't easy. The passage of Act 10 created a level of political ferment in Wisconsin that was nationally and historically unique. To write legislation based on that experience, rather than considering the entire 87-year history of Wisconsin's recall, is quite shortsighted.
It smacks of an attempt by politicians in power to protect themselves from the citizens, by barring them from deciding what is or isn't a firing offense. But as this proposal is an attempt to amend the constitution, it must be passed by two successive sessions of the Legislature and then by voters in a statewide election. I'm guessing the legislators' bosses - the voters - won't appreciate having their right to recall politicians all but eliminated.
Bruce Murphy is the editor of UrbanMilwaukee.com