Contrary to the hit-and-run coverage of national news networks, Wisconsin’s historic recall election did not begin when the polls opened at 7 a.m. Tuesday and end at around 8:40 p.m. with a stunningly fast and decisive victory by Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
Viewers from California to Connecticut can be forgiven for
thinking that the recall campaign just kind of popped up and then
went away in a day. That’s certainly how much of national
media—particularly television—covered it.
Not long after the major networks began calling the race, many switched to alternate programming. They packed up their big news trucks and their cameras, blinding lights and boom mics, and got out of dodge.
Those in the media who have covered this slog for more than 15 months know differently.
From allegations of choking and slapping among Wisconsin’s Supreme Court to pajama recall campaigns, it’s been one wild and unforgettable time in Wisconsin politics.
Before pushing this one to the Badger State history books, let's reflect on some of the weirder moments of the frenzied recall season—the kind of stuff that might make Hunter S. Thompson salivate.
Most of the moments come from liberals behaving badly—or at least oddly. But weirdness in Wisconsin politics knew no party affiliation.
There’s more but here’s Wisconsin Reporter's top 10.
10. Beer guy. Who could forget the story of Capitol protester and beverage tosser Miles Kristan, charged with disorderly conduct after dumping a beer on state Rep. Robin Vos’ head. Kristan, as the police report notes, screamed out some nasty invectives at the Burlington Republican, drenched him with some Wisconsin holy water, and fled. Pleading no contest to the charges, Kristan was ordered to pay court costs and Vos’ dry cleaning bill.
9. Sick notes. Scores of teachers protesting Act 10, the Walker bill — now law — that curbs collective bargaining for most public employees, got a helping hand to skip work from doctors who distributed sick notes at the capitol. It worked out as well as Juan Epstein’s “note from Epstein’s mother” on the 1970s sitcom Welcome Back Kotter. Many of the teachers got a kind of professional detention out of the deal, and the doctors picked up a few demerits of their own.
8. Fleeing 14. In the heat of battle over Act 10 in February 2011, 14 Democratic state senators took what they believed to be a courageous stand: They fled. To an undisclosed location. In Illinois. Supporters called them heroes. National news media certainly painted that picture. Conservatives saw them as cowards, derelict in their duty. The fleeing 14’s plan to stall a vote on the budget bill ultimately failed; the Republican-controlled Senate did some legal maneuvering and went on to vote without them.
7. Choke hold. It’s what people expect in their Supreme Court, really — allegations of choke holds, assaults, and name-calling from the august body. Liberal Justice Ann Walsh Bradley in June 2011 accused conservative Justice David Prosser of putting her in a choke hold, while Prosser denied the charges and his defenders said the judge was simply trying to defend himself against Bradley, who rushed toward him with raised fists. A special prosecutor threw out all charges, saying there wasn’t sufficient evidence. There were more than a few barbs on both sides about a cage match between the scuffling justices to settle the matter. The alleged incidents flowed out of Wisconsin’s bitterly divided political environment. Prosser, not long before, had survived a hotly contested Supreme Court race, and helped the conservative majority on the court uphold Walker’s collective-bargaining changes.
6. To error is Kathy. The April 2011 Supreme Court race pitting Prosser against liberal JoAnne Kloppenburg ended in confusion and anger when, two days after the election, Waukesha County clerk Kathy Nickolaus announced that thousands of votes hadn’t been counted. Kloppenburg had celebrated a 204-vote lead over the incumbent conservative, but Nickolaus then announced that 14,000 votes from the city of Brookfield had not been included. The votes gave Prosser the win, brought immediate demands for an investigation and spurred a prolonged recount. An independent investigator later ruled there was no malicious intent, that it was “human error.” But Nickolaus was asked to sit out overseeing the recent recall elections.
5. Pants on fire. Graeme Zielinski has never been accused of letting the facts get in the way of a good story, and he was called out again during the recall campaign by political fact checker, PolitiFact. Zielinski, spokesman for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, as is his wont, spread all kinds of nastiness through numerous tweets, accusing Walker’s campaign of footing the bill for the defense of a man accused of child enticement. The man, Brian Pierick, is peripherally connected to a two-year investigation into former Walker aides. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Zielinski’s former employer, ruled the spokesman’s rants as “Pants on Fire,” as far from the truth as they could be.
4. Barrett-slapped. Maybe for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett losing in Tuesday’s recall election to the same opponent who beat him in November 2010 by nearly the same percentage was a slap in the face. But one of his supporters took that feeling a little too far. Not pleased that Barrett conceded defeat within minutes after the Associated Press called the race for Walker, the woman slapped the mayor. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. She told Barrett she wanted to slap him on the face. He said he'd rather have a hug. When he bent down to do so, she clocked him. The candidate has said he will not press charges. He probably isn't much in the mood for a hug these days, though.
3. "Democracy is dead" guy. In an era of political hyperbole, the “Democracy is dead” guy takes the top prize. The Barrett campaign worker, perhaps understandably distraught over the Democrat’s defeat, went off the reservation with his rant about Wisconsin’s election. "If the people you see here behind me can’t get it done tonight, it’s done. Democracy’s dead,” he told CNN. Cheer up, Mr. Cranky Pants. Some 2.4 million people voted in the election, representing 58 percent turnout. That’s a record for a gubernatorial election. I’d say democracy is alive and well in the Badger State.