Wisconsin Assembly Approves Amendment To Limit Recalls of Elected Officials

Story Transcript

JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

Here’s a bit of news that you might not have heard about. New limits on the rights to recall elected officials passed in the Wisconsin Assembly last week. That holds even greater significance in Wisconsin, because, as you probably remember, the governor, Scott Walker, was entangled in a heated recall effort against him last year.

Now joining us to discuss this is Brendan Fischer. He’s general counsel with the Center for Media and Democracy.

Thanks for being with us, Brendan.

BRENDAN FISCHER, GENERAL COUNSEL, CENTER FOR MEDIA AND DEMOCRACY: Thanks for having me.

DESVARIEUX: So, Brendan, last week the Wisconsin Assembly passed a proposed constitutional amendment that would limit the recall power of its citizens. Can you just give us the specifics of the amendment?

FISCHER: Sure. So, currently Wisconsin’s constitution allows for the recall of any elected official for any reason, for any reason that the voters see fit. This amendment would change that and limit this recall right to–only to allow a recall in the case where an elected official is convicted of a felony or an ethics violation. So that would really seriously limit this right to recall that we’ve had in the Constitution for decades, actually since the progressive era.

DESVARIEUX: And we should mention that this amendment still has to go through the full legislature two sessions in a row and then be approved in a statewide vote. So the earliest that we could actually see this would be 2015. Who actually introduced this amendment? And essentially who’s behind this proposed change?

FISCHER: Sure. So it passed on a partyline vote: all Republicans voted for it; all Democrats voted against it. And it was motivated by the recall efforts over the past few years. As you alluded to in your introduction, when Governor Walker was elected in 2010, he ran on a platform of jobs and job creation. And all of a sudden, he introduced radical changes to the state’s collective bargaining rights, which had been a part of the state for decades, as well as a lot of really other very extreme changes to state laws and policy that he never mentioned during the campaign. So a lot of voters felt betrayed, and they initiated a recall against him, and as well as a recall against several senators. And at the time, they ran against the recall, they ran against the idea of the recall, with this idea that the recall is not about accountability; it’s supposed to be limited to cases of where somebody’s committed a felony or an ethics violation. And now they’re trying to change that. They’re basically trying to take the power away from voters that they exercised over the past few years.

DESVARIEUX: What do you think is really at stake here if recalls are more limited? Does this subvert democracy in any way?

FISCHER: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, the whole idea of the recall authority is accountability, that if you’re not doing what the voters elected you to do, that they have some sort of authority to recall you, to hold you to account. When you take that power away, then you give much more power to elected officials to run rampant.

You know, it’s also interesting: not only did the Assembly pass this proposed constitutional amendment; they also passed a statutory change to limit recalls for county and municipal officials and school board members in the same way. You can no longer recall a county board member for any reason. It can only be limited to conviction of a felony or for some sort of ethical violation.

And if that rule had been in place back in 2002, Scott Walker’s political career may never have advanced. It was in 2002 that the Milwaukee County executive at the time, Tom Ament, was embroiled in a pensions scandal. It was not a felony. He was not convicted of any sort of ethical violation. But Walker and many others called for his recall, and they began collecting petitions for his recall. The county executive stepped down. Scott Walker was elected county executive. And that really accelerated his political career and eventually elevated him to the governor’s mansion.

DESVARIEUX: Oh, the irony.

Thank you so much for joining us, Brendan Fischer.

FISCHER: Alright. Thanks for having me.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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