After Wisconsin recall, a test for both parties
MADISON, Wis. – Meet the new boss, says Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, pledging to make peace with Democrats after his historic recall victory.
But it will take more than a promised meeting with lawmakers over beer and brats to ease tensions. Walker's wounded adversaries will want proof that the triumphant governor isn't the same as the old boss.
"A lot of what the governor had to say he said last year in his inauguration address," a skeptical Democratic state Sen. Jon Erpenbach said Wednesday. "It didn't take him but five minutes not to follow through on that."
Walker and his recall challenger, Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, sought to strike conciliatory tones after the votes had been counted. They urged both sides to renew efforts to work together.
Still, their remarks fly in the face of how Republicans and Democrats have actually behaved over the last 18 months, since Walker made it clear he intended to eliminate collective bargaining rights for most public employees. The move fueled intense partisan bitterness, all but halted the wheels of the Legislature and led to weeks of massive protests.
The acrimony extended throughout the state. A poll released last month by the Marquette University Law School showed that 29 percent of people stopped talking to someone about politics because of disagreements over the recall. A Tuesday exit poll showed a deeply divided electorate, with almost no crossover voting.
Walker's talk of mending fences will be tough for families and friends torn apart over politics to accept, Erpenbach said.
"People have lost more than most politicians realize," he said.
Proof of Walker's earnestness, and that of Democrats, will be in how their words translate into actions.
The best place to start would be changing state law to allow a recall challenge only when an elected official has committed a crime or malfeasance, said Republican state Rep. Robin Vos, the presumptive new speaker of the Assembly.
"I actually hope this is the thing we can come together on," Vos said.
Walker and Democrats could also look for agreement on a stalled proposal to open a new iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin. Republicans who controlled the Legislature last year couldn't reach a deal with Democrats or moderate GOP Sen. Dale Schultz, who opposed the plan supported by Walker and the mining company.
During the recall campaign, Walker said talks were ongoing with the company and that he would call the Legislature back for a special session this year to pass a deal, if one could be struck.
With the end of the recall campaign, he expressed hope that "we'll get there." He also promised that an "unbelievable" number of jobs would be created around the state in coming weeks. He did not elaborate.
In other matters, lawmakers have been trying to find agreement on a proposal that would make more venture capital available for businesses, an idea both sides embrace as a way to create jobs. But the measure has gone nowhere, largely because there's no money available.
Striking a deal on that would help Walker show he's sincere in working with Democrats, said state Rep. Brett Hulsey, a Madison Democrat.
Walker received a hero's welcome Wednesday from his cabinet, which gave him a 3½-minute standing ovation as Walker hugged each member. The governor said he spoke with Democratic leaders and "there's a sense people are ready to move on from this."
"We're just talking about the next step," Walker said. "We're not gloating in the victory."
During the battle over union rights, Walker refused to compromise with Democrats, who responded to the collective bargaining plan in the Senate by packing up and leaving the state for three weeks.
Assembly Democrats held court over a three-day filibuster that ended with them shouting "Shame!" at Republicans after they forced a vote in the middle of the night. One Democratic lawmaker was so enraged he shouted "You're (expletive) dead!" at a Republican.
Then recall campaigns last summer targeted six Republican and three Democratic state senators, which kept the pot boiling. If there was ever any thought that tensions would die down, it was dashed with the launch of the Walker recall in November.
Needless to say, feelings are a little raw around Madison. And healing them won't be as simple as having lawmakers over for brats and beers, as Walker said he wants to do.
The biggest test will come whenever lawmakers reconvene for their next session.
It appears Democrats may take control of the Senate by one vote, based on preliminary results from Tuesday's recalls. They would have control at least through the end of this year, with November elections determining who is at the helm starting in 2013.
No matter who is in charge, finding a way to pass significant legislation will certainly require compromise – something that's been in short supply around the Capitol.
For months, Walker has said that he regretted not making his case for the union proposal publically before taking action. And in his comments Tuesday night, he stressed the desire to reconcile with political foes.
"It's time to put our differences aside and find ways to work together to move Wisconsin forward," Walker said. "The first step is just bringing people together and figuring out some way if we can thaw the ice."