Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Best Argument for Wisconsin's Constitutional Recall Law.

With the Republican Authority firmly in place, and their new gerrymandered districts, recall reform that basically allows elected officials to do anything they want short of breaking the law is on the fast track. We will have to live with the elections, elections Republicans will win despite more Democratic voters turning out.

So I thought it was interesting when I discovered this story out of Albany, NY:
ALBANY — Assembly Republicans backed a plan Wednesday that would let New York voters throw their representatives out of office before their term expires. The bill would amend the state Constitution to permit “recall elections” similar to those allowed in states such as California and Wisconsin, where voters can petition for a vote to remove an elected official at nearly any time.
In the meantime, after reading a number of newspaper editorials from around the state that missed the point of the recall law completely, I thought this piece smoked their whiny efforts to justify locking in a permanent Republican majority (shortened a bit):
Urban Milwaukee: Why Republicans Are Wrong About Recalls, by Bruce Murphy: The bill to restrict recalls is a naked attempt by political officials to protect their jobs.

It was back in 1996 that Racine Republican George Petak became the first state senator in Wisconsin history to be recalled from office. Today, some call him a hero for casting the decisive vote in favor of the legislation to build Miller Park. The deal’s dirtiness was exposed when then Gov. Tommy Thompson campaigned for the legislation and famously said, “All the taxes come from Waukesha and Milwaukee. Stick it to em.” Deepening the outrage, Petak had promised to vote against the tax and then changed his vote. Petak would still be in office today if a new measure proposed by Republican legislators is passed: it would greatly restrict recalls, allowing them only if an elected official is charged with a criminal or civil ethics charge.

This law would have also prevented the recall effort against Milwaukee County Executive F. Thomas Ament, who engineered passage of infamous pension plan, and the seven county supervisors who were thrown out of office.

Of course, the real goal here is to prevent something like the recent recall action against Gov. Scott Walker. But the effort was unsuccessful. And was the attempt so unjustified? Walker ran for governor saying he would not touch the benefits of teachers and local government workers and would cut benefits only for state employees. And he never hinted at something as revolutionary as eliminating all public unions. Some one million people objected to Walker’s law; should such a democratic uprising be prevented?

Yes, says state Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, who has now re-introduced a proposal to amend the state constitution, so it must be passed by two successive sessions of the legislature and by voters in a statewide election before it becomes law.

Harsdorf was among the Republican legislators targeted for recall in 2011 (she survived). “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.”

Actually, declared an editorial in the Beloit Daily News:  “it’s a more dangerous road to go down to allow the political class — stung recently by recalls — to define what is or is not acceptable — — to them — in the exercise of citizens’ constitutional rights.”

In all three cases I mentioned, concentrated political power was at work: a stadium bailout that frustrated voter’s wishes, a cabal of self-dealing county insiders, and a never-discussed bill that a Republican governor, senate and assembly sought to quickly pass while refusing to negotiate with Democrats. Some may disagree with the recall of Petak or the attempt against Walker. But in all cases there were vital issues at stake where a wave of citizens had erupted with objections. Why curtail this exercise of their constitutional rights?

When I noted some of this history in a past column, I was met with some strange objections by conservatives Christian Schneider and James Wigderson.

Schneider made the bizarre claim that since some citizens felt Ament had committed misconduct in office, that would have been enough to allow a recall. In fact, there was a legal investigation launched and no proof could be found that Ament did anything illegal. Under Harsdorf’s proposal, as the bill’s language makes clear, no recall is allowed unless a criminal or civil complaint has been filed against the official. 

As for Wigderson, he argued that the county pension scandal represented “extraordinary circumstances under which most of us would support having recall elections.” If so, I would assume he will oppose the Harsdorf bill. If not, his argument makes no sense.

The reality is the recall against county officials was led by conservatives, as were many local recalls assisted by the Citizens for Responsible Government. I don’t agree with every recall ever launched in this state. Nor do many members of both parties. But that’s not a reason to all but ban them from Wisconsin.

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