Steven Walters: Even GOP speaker in Wisconsin gets attacked from Right
No Republican speaker of the state Assembly has had a primary challenge in more than 50 years, according to Legislative Reference Bureau records.
Democratic speakers of the 99-member Assembly were challenged by fellow Democrats in the 1970s and in 1992, records show. One Democrat, former Speaker Norman Anderson, lost to challenger Peter Bear in 1976.
So there is no precedent in modern Wisconsin politics for the primary challenge to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos by Bryn Biemeck, a first-time candidate from Mt. Pleasant in Racine County.
Biemeck is starting her political career by targeting one of the Capitol’s most powerful leaders.
Assembly speakers almost single-handedly decide what the Legislature takes up—and passes. They also recruit candidates, sign off on staffing and travel decisions, raise money for their candidates and control how that money is spent.
“I represent a more conservative wing of the Republican Party,” Biemeck, a Johnson Bank employee, said in an interview. She listed her campaign themes as freedom, liberty and smaller government. She added, “Too often, our public servants are behaving like our masters.”
A Milwaukee native, Biemeck called challenging Vos “part of the (political) process.”
“No one has contacted me,” she added. “I’m not being paid by Democrats, or Robin Vos himself to make him look more moderate.”
Vos, 45, of Burlington represents the 63rd Assembly District. He was elected to the Assembly in 2004, and fellow Republicans named him speaker eight years later, after he co-chaired the Joint Finance Committee in the protest-filled 2011-12 session that passed Act 10. It all but eliminated collective bargaining by most public employees.
Although party leaders often stay out of primary fights, Republican Party officials praise Vos. For example, State Republican Party Vice Chairman Brian Schimming said:
“If you would have asked me a couple years ago whether we’d be able to eliminate the deficit, stop the fund raids, cut taxes by $2 billion, expand School Choice, add over 100,000 jobs and expand health care for low-income people, I would have said that’s a tall order.
“More than anyone else in the Legislature, I think it’s fair to say that Robin has provided the leadership during some of the most challenging times we’ve ever seen. Results count, and he has gotten results.”
Schimming also said it’s unfair of Biemeck to blame Vos for the Legislature’s failure to kill educational Common Core standards being phased in across Wisconsin.
“On Common Core, (Vos) proposed the task force so we could get a much closer look at this issue, but there were some in the Senate who didn’t go along,” Schimming added.
Besides criticizing Vos on Common Core standards, Bimeck said the speaker hasn’t stressed the constitutional right that Wisconsin and all states have—if they feel they have no other options—to secede from the union.
“It’s not about seceding from the United States,” Biemeck said. “It’s about sending a direct message to the federal government.”
In a WisconsinEye interview last week, Vos said he was “very surprised” to be challenged by Biemeck, who has lived in the district for five years.
“The positions that she is taking (are) out of the mainstream, at least on secession,” Vos said of Biemeck.
“I do not support the right of Wisconsin to secede,” Vos added. “I like Social Security. I like using the dollar.”
Vos also noted that he created a task force of legislators to review Common Core standards being taught school children.
“We had the votes in this (Assembly) to make some changes,” Vos said of the Common Core controversy. “The Senate couldn’t take it up.”
Maybe, Vos added, Biemeck should run for the Senate, “if that’s what she’s concerned about.”
Voters in Senate District 21, which includes Vos’ Assembly district, will elect a new senator in the Nov. 4 election. The current senator, Democrat John Lehman, is running for lieutenant governor, and two Republicans have registered to run.
To get on the Aug. 12 primary ballot, Biemeck and Vos face a 5 p.m. June 2 deadline to submit signatures from 63rd Assembly District residents.
Biemeck plans to start collecting those signatures soon. “I will most definitely stay in the race. I have a very thick skin.”
Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.