Thursday, June 11, 2009

Sullivan doesn't merit a recall

My column in today's Waukesha Freeman:

Sullivan recall not best option

Ousting official over smoking ban misuses voters’ choice

Belly up to the bar and sign a petition. At least that’s what some bar owners and the Citizens for Responsible Government Network are hoping. On Tuesday, they launched an effort to recall state Sen. Jim Sullivan, D-Wauwatosa. They only need 18,000 signatures, a number well within reach.

I wish the law had been changed in Wisconsin to require recall organizers to state the reason for the recall when they’re collecting petition signatures. The reason given on these petitions would be really interesting.

The press release from CRG states, “We will not tolerate one more tax, one more anti-business policy and most of all; we will not lose one more freedom to special interest groups with a hidden agenda.” The freedom, unmentioned in the press release, is the ability to smoke tobacco products in restaurants and bars.

I’m sympathetic to the argument. I don’t like the idea of a statewide smoking ban, either. It is one more needless intrusion of government into the lives of the citizens of our state, kind of like Waukesha’s ban on outdoor fire pits after midnight.

Sullivan voted for the statewide smoking ban that finally passed this year. Sullivan’s vote is hardly a surprise to his district. He is a supporter of the smoking ban, of which his constituents were aware when they voted him into office.

The municipality that takes up the largest portion of Sullivan’s district, Wauwatosa, has had a smoking ban already in place for nearly three years. No elected officials in city government faced a recall for their support of the smoking ban. Hardly a surprise when their representative in Madison also supports a smoking ban.

Much of the opposition to the smoking ban this year dissipated when it appeared likely the ban would be included in the state budget. Lawmakers moved to pass separate legislation instead, allowing for the exemptions for places like Nice Ash in Waukesha, and to delay implementation until July 5, 2010.

The law was inevitable, and Sullivan’s vote was hardly decisive. It passed the Senate 25-8.

Unfortunately for Sullivan, at least one tavern owner, Bill Savage, didn’t like Sullivan’s vote, and that tavern owner happens to be staff for a Republican Assembly member, Don Pridemore.

Sullivan also has the misfortune of being at the top of the list of Democrats targeted by the state Republican Party. The Democrats hold an 18-15 majority in the state senate. A two-seat switch would give Republicans a majority in that chamber, putting an end to oneparty rule in Madison. Sullivan’s district is considered to be Republican-leaning, and Sullivan is a vulnerable rookie.

As you can see, if the recall organizers had to give a real reason for the recall, it would be a little harder to explain than “voted for the smoking ban.”

If the recall petition drive is successful in the next 58 days, a special election would be called and Sullivan would have to defend his seat.

Among the possible Republican candidates is State Rep. Leah Vukmir. Vukmir is a conservative and an energetic politician. She’s a reformer who started in politics because of education issues, and takes a hard line on taxes. She would make a great state senator.

In a normal election Vukmir would give Sullivan a tough fight. In a special election, with the attention of the entire state on the race, she would be the odds-on favorite to win. It would also be a “free shot” for her because she would not have to give up her Assembly seat to run, unlike in the general election in 2010.

But as much as I love the idea of “state Sen. Leah Vukmir” I loathe recalling a politician just because of one vote on one issue. Recalls should be when there is demonstrable misconduct in office. In this case, Sullivan has not committed any misconduct, nor can his opponents point to any.

This is a policy difference, not an incident that puts into doubt our trust of our public representatives. The recall effort should make us uncomfortable with its partisan origins and opportunism. Sullivan’s constituents can wait until 2010 to vote him out of office, an effort I will wholeheartedly support.

(James Wigderson is a blogger publishing at and a Waukesha resident. His column runs Thursdays in The Freeman.)