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Walters: Personalities dominate dog-days Capitol talks

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August 19, 2013

Let's give the late-summer personal dramas in the Wisconsin Legislature a name: “As the Dome Turns.”

-- Will Republican Sen. Dale Schultz of Richland Center run again next year? Schultz's best Senate friends for the last two years have not been Republicans but veteran Democratic Sens. Bob Jauch of Poplar and Tim Cullen of Janesville.

The “Three Amigos”—Schultz, Jauch and Cullen—each led their party in the Senate at one point in their careers; they have a total of 76 years in the Legislature. Although Jauch and Cullen have not officially announced they will seek re-election next year, they are expected to run again.

-- Will the bull of the Senate, Republican President Mike Ellis of Neenah, a legislator since 1971, act differently now that two-term Assembly Rep. Penny Bernard Schaber, D-Appleton, has begun what she promises will be a vigorous fight to defeat Ellis in November 2014?

-- Can Assembly Republicans avoid a bitter two-way knife fight to replace Majority Leader Scott Suder of Abbotsford? Suder is expected to resign soon for a better-paying job. And will two or three other Assembly resignations soon follow, triggering special elections?

Before Suder officially resigned, Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Bill Kramer of Waukesha and two-term Rep. Dean Knudson of Hudson were buttonholing peers to try and line up support to replace Suder.

Suder's departure was so imminent that Republican Rep. Tyler August of Lake Geneva began seeking support for Kramer's current job of presiding over the Assembly in the speaker's absence.

Understandably, Kramer is trying to move up the Assembly GOP leadership ladder. He started making contacts at the start of this month, forcing Knudson's hand.

Knudson is ambitious because he is attempting to leapfrog two of his political elders—Assistant Majority Leader Jim Steineke of Kaukauna and Caucus Chairwoman Joan Ballweg of Markesan—to move from a seat on the Joint Finance Committee to the second-most powerful Assembly leadership job.

One Assembly Republican speculated that Knudson has the backing of Speaker Robin Vos, who named the former Hudson mayor to the finance committee.

Knudson and Steineke were among 27 new Assembly Republicans elected in 2010; Ballweg has seniority on both because she was first elected in 2004.

Assuming Suder's new job comes through, expect the 59 remaining Assembly Republicans to meet and name his successor before Labor Day weekend.

Which brings us to Sen. Schultz's dilemma.

A former Senate majority leader and 3rd Congressional District GOP candidate, Schultz is the target of GOP conservatives for voting against Gov. Scott Walker's Act 10 changes to collective bargaining in 2011, for voting against Republicans' pro-mining bills in 2012, for voting this year against the GOP's 2013-15 state budget, and for aligning with Cullen and Jauch.

Hard-right GOP conservatives encouraged two-term Republican Rep. Howard Marklein of Spring Green to run against Schultz, forcing the incumbent to either wage a bitter primary fight against Marklein next year or retire.

On his official website, Schultz claims a “reputation as a consensus builder who can reach across party lines to get results.”

But Schultz also has bluntly criticized Walker, his party's leader.

For example, Schultz said this of the budget as reshaped by Walker vetoes: “This is not the Wisconsin agenda I've fought for over 30 years, and it's not the Wisconsin agenda I hear from people as I travel around my district and across the state.”

Although even Schultz's biggest fans expect him to retire next year, he said last week he won't decide until he meets with family members later this year.

As for the brash, outspoken Ellis? Having spent 60 percent of his life in the Legislature, he can't imagine life without it. But supporters must convince him to not underestimate Bernard Schaber. Ellis has never faced an opponent like her.

Update: The Wisconsin Supreme Court canceled Oct. 23 oral arguments in two unions' lawsuit against Act 10, the 2011 limits to collective bargaining. The Oct. 23 date was mentioned in last week's column. No new date for oral arguments was set.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. This column reflects his personal perspective. Email stevenscwalters@gmail.com.



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