Recall election: Sen. Robert Wirch and Jonathan Steitz

If you thought the recalls finished with last week’s elections, think again –recall fever is still simmering in parts of the state. In Southeastern Wisconsin Sen. Robert Wirch (D-Kenosha) will face off against Republican challenger Jonathan Steitz, while in Northern Wisconsin Sen. Jim Holperin (D-Conover) is being challenged by Tea Party activist Kim Simac.

These two recalls are the final chapter in the drama that erupted in Wisconsin when Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican Legislature introduced the Budget Repair Bill, which required contributions to health insurance and pensions by public employees and limited their collective bargaining privileges. The Republicans were recalled for their affirmative votes for Walker’s bill, while Democratic senators are being chastised for leaving the state for three weeks during the height of the battle.

Last week, four of six Republicans held on to their seats, foiling the goal of Democrats to gain three Senatorial seats and a majority of the chamber. In July, Sen. Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay) easily held off a weak Republican challenger and kept his seat. Today the Senate has a 17-16 Republican majority.

That leaves the two final Democratic recalls, which could increase the size of the majority, or keep things the same. The only thing we know for sure is at this time tomorrow, the negative campaign ads will cease across the state. That is, until the effort to recall Gov. Walker gets into high gear.

Wirch is favored to win in a close match for the 22nd Senatorial District that covers all of Kenosha County. Holperin, who holds the distinction of being the only state politician to ever be recalled twice (he faced a recall while serving in the state assembly), is in a difficult race against Simac in a district that has become increasingly conservative in recent years.

ThirdCoast Digest is focusing on the 22nd Senatorial District recall of Sen. Wirch. We were unable to sit down personally with either candidate in tomorrow’s race, but both made appearances on WisconsinEye and here are the highlights from those interviews.

St. Sen. Robert Wirch

Sen. Robert Wirch

Wirch has served in the Wisconsin Senate since 1996, winning re-election in 2000, 2004 and 2008. He sees the recall effort against him as part of a political civil war in Wisconsin.

“This is due to Gov. Walker and the Fitzgerald brothers not willing to compromise and going too far,” Wirch said. “Sen. Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center) said the Republicans are guilty of over reaching. Politics is the art of compromise, and we have to go back to it.”

Wirch said the unions were on their knees and willing to make the contributions to their health care and pensions, but the GOP wanted to destroy the unions and “take away the dignity of their members.” The only end he sees to this war is to play out the recalls and the recall of Gov. Walker, to get the feelings of betrayal out of everybody’s system.

Wirch said that he and the 13 other Democratic senators fled to Illinois, not only for the attack on collective bargaining but also for the potential 33 political appointments Walker had in the Budget Repair Bill, the sale of state power plants with no open bidding and the unchecked power promised to the Health and Human Services Secretary.

“This was the worse bill I’ve ever seen in my life as a legislator,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that the Governor and Fitzgeralds tried to ram it through while the state was still on a high from the Packer’s Super Bowl win.”

He said the Wisconsin 14 had only planned to leave for a few days to delay the bill and educate citizens as to what was in it. “But it spiraled out of control and we became a national political movement. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to ‘speak truth to power.’”

Wirch said his opponent’s promise to never abandon his post if elected is “shameful,” adding that he should be ashamed for backing the Governor who declared war on the people of Wisconsin.

As for the state budget, which Wirch voted against when he returned from Illinois, he describes it as “mean-spirited and an attack on education and seniors.”

Instead of making $800 million in education cuts to K12 education and severe cuts to technical colleges and state universities, Wirch said the GOP could have used the $636 million surplus found by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau during the budget process and applied it to schools.

“They could have put one-half or two-thirds of that back in, but they only added $40 million back. That shows the utter disrespect they have for education.”

On Voter ID, Wirch said the law is an attack on seniors, the disabled and poor, considering there was no voter fraud found by the federal prosecutor in Milwaukee and only 12 cases were identified statewide by Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen.

On the future redistricting of Racine and Kenosha counties (making the cities one district and the rural areas another), Wirch sees it as mean-spirited gerrymandering.

“It has taken the competitive nature of these seats away and also broken up the working relationships between the communities,” he said. “It didn’t have to happen. I co-sponsored a bill with Rep. Brett Hulsey (D-Madison) to use an independent third-party to draw districts, to make fair districts.  We didn’t have to spend $350 per hour for lawyers to do this.”

As for the number one issue facing the 22nd Senatorial District – jobs – Wirch said he is the best candidate to help bring more jobs to the Kenosha area, since he understands what they have lost. He recalled that when he graduated from high school, there were 10 union shops in the city where a person could walk in and get a job. Now, the county has undergone a transformation away from basic industry to specialized employers.

Jonathan Steitz

22nd St. Senate district candidate Jonathan Steitz

Steitz formerly owned a small event management and production company before enrolling at Northwestern University to pursue his Law and MBA degrees in 2004. Since graduating in 2007, Steitz has worked for an international law firm, working with European clients seeking to issue bonds, equity instruments and finance businesses.  A native of Texas, Steitz moved to Kenosha in 2001.

He said the galvanizing issue for his entry into the race was Wirch’s leaving the state in February along with the 13 other Democratic senators. Steitz has promised on his website that he will never abandon his post or let down the people he is representing.

“I was appalled,” Steitz said about the Wisconsin 14. “I called Sen. Wirch when it occurred and told him his job was to represent me in Madison and to get back to work. It was completely wrong to leave the state. It was an abdication of his duty and a terrible example to the kids.”

Steitz explained that he is a Republican because from a young age he was taught the ideals of personal responsibility, limited government and that the private sector — not the government — creates jobs.

“We need to make hard decisions now instead of waiting and becoming Greece,” he said.

Because Steitz has never held an elective office, he has no voting record to study. Instead, Steitz was asked how he would have voted on the issues of the past eight months by WisconsinEye.

Steitz sais would have voted to limit the collective bargaining privileges of public employees for two reasons. First, he cited the$3.6 billion deficit facing the state and how there could be no tax increases.

“They were just asking the public employees to do what workers in the private sector have been doing,” he said.

Second, Steitz referenced Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who said ‘public employee unions don’t work.’

“You typically have labor on one side and management on another. But with public unions you have labor on one side negotiating with elected officials they put in office. Without limited collective bargaining, you don’t get at the root issue of the financial problem.”

Steitz said the position of limiting collective bargaining is not a difficult sell in Kenosha, despite its blue collar past.

“Kenosha has changed in the last 10 to 15 years,” Steitz said. “Now the largest employer is Abbot Laboratories in Northern Illinois, a private employer.  This was not against private unions, and people understand that.”

On education, Steitz is in favor of expanding school choice and charter options in the name of increasing competition. He noted that the government doesn’t allow monopolies to protect consumers in all other areas, except education, where he says it has not been good for kids.

“I think competition will help public education to get better,” he said. “My kids are in public schools, but I don’t think income level should determine where the tax dollars attached to a student are spent.”

As for Voter ID, Steitz agrees with the new guidelines for voting. “It is fundamental to democracy to protect the integrity of elections.”

Steitz is non-committal on the issue of redistricting, since the new boundaries will draw him out of the office he is attempting to win tomorrow, but he agrees with Wirch that job creation is the biggest issue facing the 22nd. He said many young couples like he and his wife are moving to Kenosha County for the quality of life and they need good paying jobs that don’t require a commute to Chicago.

“Wisconsin needs to be competitive, lower taxes and reduce the regulatory burdens,” he said. “When that happens, businesses will flood into the state. Gov. Walker says Wisconsin is open for business and I think Kenosha and Burlington should be the front door.”

Check back with TCD late Tuesday night for an update on the election results from Kenosha and Northern Wisconsin.

“Dusk in Madison photo (front page) by Maggie Thorton, Maggie’s Blogspot”


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