Kleefisch proves a force in state politics
OCONOMOWOC—Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch walks into a local coffee shop without a fuss.
There’s no entourage, not even a press aide, as she orders a cup of coffee, sits down with a reporter and reflects on her life and her career.
Four years ago, Kleefisch was a stay-at-home mom who completed business assignments while her daughters napped. Her political vision was focused tightly on her husband’s career as a Republican member of the state Assembly.
Now, she constantly tours the state as Gov. Scott Walker’s surrogate on small business and workforce development as she talks up jobs and the economy.
At 38, she already has won a primary against a seasoned political pro and been on a victorious statewide ticket in 2010. Last year, she—like Walker—won a recall election.
She also has overcome Stage 2 colon cancer, which struck her in the middle of the 2010 campaign. She is now cancer-free.
“There are days you feel like you’ve lived a week in a day,” she says.
Kleefisch, it appears, is just getting started.
Next month, she’ll be among the featured speakers at the Right Women, Right Now national summit in Nashville, Tenn. The group, part of the Republican State Leadership Committee, aims to recruit 300 Republican women candidates in the 2013-14 election cycle.
Kleefisch, a Right Women, Right Now co-chair, ticks off barriers some women face in running for office, including fundraising and family responsibilities.
“Another one,” she says, “there are a lot of women who don’t wake up in the morning, look at the mirror and say, ‘Hey, sugar, you should run for office.’ It doesn’t happen. They often need to be asked or encouraged.”
There can be a tendency by some to underestimate Kleefisch. After all, she has been around politics for only a few years. And the real power in Madison resides with Walker and the Republican legislative leadership.
Those who know her, though, say she is formidable.
“From what I’ve seen of Becky, my money is on her,” says Iowa Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican. “She is articulate, she is passionate. She understands the issues. I’ve heard her bounce from issue to issue in great detail explaining how they impact her state and the nation.”
Walker says, “I would match her skills against any lieutenant governor in the country.”
Her husband, state Rep. Joel Kleefisch (R-Oconomowoc), says, “Those who know her know that she’s undeniably bright, quick-witted, a philosophically strong person who undoubtedly has a fantastic future ahead. I think only fools would underestimate her.”
College, then TV news
The political bug has been with Kleefisch for quite some time. So has her ability to persevere.
“I always had this love for politics and policy,” she says. “I was a political junkie.”
In college, she first attended Miami of Ohio, where at age 20 she was ticketed for underage drinking. That took place at around the same time her family moved from Ohio to Wisconsin.
She followed her parents and enrolled for a semester at the UW-Milwaukee. She finished her senior year at UW-Madison, earning a degree in journalism.
And then she took on the broadcast world. She says her goal was “Chicago, New York, Washington or bust.”
She got a job with a Rockford television station and then came to Milwaukee to work at WISN-TV (Channel 12), where she was a reporter and later a morning anchor. Her future husband also worked there. They have now been married 14 years and have two children, Ella, 10, and Violet, 7.
After the birth of her first daughter, she left the station in 2004, determined to devote her energy to her family. The couple sold their home and downsized. And her husband ran for office and won a seat in the Assembly.
Kleefisch also set up her own marketing company. She also began making appearances on Charlie Sykes’ radio program on WTMJ-AM (620).
The right Kleefisch
In May 2009, Kleefisch and her husband attended the state Republican Party convention in La Crosse. There was a straw poll for lieutenant governor, and Joel Kleefisch nabbed a few write-in votes.
Joel Kleefisch says he bumped into Sykes, who told him: “I think a Walker-Kleefisch ticket would be great but I think you’re the wrong Kleefisch.”
Rebecca Kleefisch said she laughed off the suggestion. But the seed had been planted. She began to think about a run. She appeared at several tea party events, interest in her candidacy took off and she entered the race.
An evangelical Christian and a conservative, Kleefisch struck a chord with a good chunk of the Republican primary electorate. She also used Facebook to her advantage, widening her circle of political friends.
In a crowded primary, her name recognition from her days as a news anchor proved important in vote-rich Waukesha County and Milwaukee County.
With about three weeks left in the primary campaign, she was headed to a win. But something was wrong. She was losing weight and she felt terrible.
“I thought this is what a statewide campaign feels like,” she says. “You’ve got constant gut rot and you are exhausted all the time, your back cramps. You wonder whether you are going to hit the deck in the middle of a parade because your legs may give out.”
Her mother and husband persuaded her to go to the doctor.
On Aug. 26, 2010, Kleefisch awoke from a colonoscopy and received the news that she had colon cancer.
“I remember thinking right away, ‘OK, he didn’t say pancreatic cancer,’ which is how my dad died,” she says.
Kleefisch researched treatments and contacted Kirk Ludwig, a Medical College of Wisconsin surgeon. The decision had been made to remove a grapefruit-size tumor laparoscopically.
She resumed campaigning ahead of the surgery but noticed bleeding during a fundraiser.
Two days later, she underwent successful surgery to remove the tumor. Tests to her lymph nodes were negative. Genetic tests found no mutation.
Kleefisch was unable to go back on the trail, though, before the primary. Post-surgery, her digestive system hadn’t begun working properly. On election night, she left the hospital, voted and went to a victory party. She won the primary by more than 20 percentage points over her nearest foe.
Joel Kleefisch says his wife was stoic throughout the ordeal.
“Any family going through what we went through has dark moments,” he says. “I did the best I could to hide the dark moments that crept into my head. When Becky Kleefisch has her eyes set on something, there is no getting in her way.”
Two days after she and Walker won, she began a six-month regimen of chemotherapy.
“I’m fine,” she says. “Actually, this month will be my last every three-month checkup. Then I move to every six months because it has been three years.”
On the horizon
Her focus is set firmly on the future. She relishes her job.
“We’re changing the role of lieutenant governor here in Wisconsin,” she says. “That’s why I thought it was so important to have someone in a marketing capacity to come into that job. Someone who understood messaging, who understood the effectiveness and efficiency with which you need to tackle your high needs challenges. For us, what were they back in 2010? Jobs and the economy.”
She says she tries to echo a lot of what Walker says and “then behind the scenes, drill down on some of our toughest challenges.”
Mahlon Mitchell, the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin president who ran for lieutenant governor as a Democrat in the 2012 recall, says Kleefisch “is a friendly person and a good mother” but that she has been “a non-factor in the Walker administration.”
“I don’t quite know what her work is yet,” he says. “I don’t think the Walker administration uses her for much of anything.”
Walker says Kleefisch is a key player in his government. The two meet weekly. He lauds her for spearheading the Governor’s Small Business Summits, her role in chairing a panel on workforce investment and her work on veterans issues, including advocating to declare 2012 as the “Year of the Veteran.”
“We use her to add value to what we’re trying to do overall, from a small business standpoint,” Walker says.
Walker says he has seen Kleefisch grow in several ways, including her ability to connect with small-business owners and to deliver a crisp, effective message.
“She’ll laugh at me saying this, but because she wasn’t in elective office before. I think there was a tendency for her to want to almost overplay how much data and information she put in her speeches and discussions,” Walker says.
“I know that she and I have talked about this before. I’d say, ‘You’re the lieutenant governor, you’ve been in office for some time. People know that you’re smart, they know that you understand what’s going on. You have my faith and confidence. You don’t have to show every fact all at once. You can incorporate that on to the natural flow of a speech or conversation or discussion.’”
Walker hasn’t yet announced if he’s running for re-election in 2014, but ask him if he’d like to run with Kleefisch again and he says, “Absolutely, without any hesitation. She has done a spectacular job.”
Kleefisch is poised for yet another campaign in 2014, her third in four years.
She’s no longer a political rookie. She’s a veteran.
“Having never been a political candidate in my life before 2010, I would say I am absolutely ready,” she says.