© 2023 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Recall Fever: Historic Recalls in Wisconsin

More than 1/3 of Wisconsin’s state senators could be fighting for their political future because of voter outrage over the governor’s budget repair bill.

A number of recall attempts have been launched against the Democrats who’ve left the state to delay a vote, as well as Republicans who support Gov. Walker’s divisive proposal.The state has never faced so many recalls at one time. There have been a few high-profile cases, however, in which voters have worked to unseat elected officials. Ann-Elise Henzl has the first story in our series on recall fever.

The state constitution gives voters the right to try to force lawmakers into a recall election.

That’s what Racine County residents did in 1996 when they ousted Republican state Sen. George Petak. Public sentiment turned against Petak after he voted for Racine County to be included in a special tax to build Miller Park.

His vote became the driving force for a recall effort and the subject of news coverage on the topic. Petak recently shared his recollection of that time.

“Well, it was difficult. I wouldn’t encourage anyone to go through a recall election if they could possibly avoid it,” Petak says.

Petak is convinced there was more to his recall than just the future of the Brewers’ stadium. At the time, the Senate had what Petak calls a “fragile” Republican majority of just one vote. So he says Democrats were looking for a way to take control by flipping his district. It’s one that’s gone back and forth between the two major parties.

“My political opponents were looking for that one issue that they could use as the springboard or the fodder to become the rallying point against my continued service in the public setting,” Petak says.

Petak was the first state legislator in the Wisconsin’s history to have been voted out in a recall election. The only one since then was Milwaukee Sen. Gary George.

Recall fever hit Milwaukee County in a major way in 2002. That’s when it became widely known that the county government had approved very generous pension payments for county workers.

Orville Seymer was one of the outraged voters who moved to recall County Executive Tom Ament, who many blamed for the so-called “pension scandal.” Within 60 days, Seymer says the group collected more than twice the number of signatures required to force a recall election.

“It just kind of all came together very quickly. Thirteen people got together in a guy’s living room in Glendale, WI on a Sunday afternoon. And within three days we had a rally scheduled, we had volunteers in virtually every community in Milwaukee County,” Seymer says.

Because of the pressure, Tom Ament stepped down rather than face a recall. When he announced his decision the longtime county official said it was clear he couldn’t effectively do his job and fight the recall effort.

“I will truly miss this place. For the past 34 years I’ve worked in these chambers,” Ament said.

A special election was held to find a new county executive. Then-state lawmaker Scott Walker won the election and held onto the post until he was elected governor.

Orville Seymer and the others involved in the Ament recall went on to form the group Citizens for Responsible Government. It helped defeat seven Milwaukee County Board members who voted for the pension package.

“People around the state started actually contacting us, (saying) ‘we got this problem here, our mayor or our alderman our school board member, they said they won’t listen to us, what did you guys do, can you help us?’ and actually groups around the country started contacting us, because of our notoriety, I guess you’d say,” Seymer says.

Citizens for Responsible Government has been involved in a number of other recall attempts over the years, including several underway now, involving Wisconsin state senators.

There’s another particularly noteworthy recall in the state’s history, according to Kevin Kennedy, director of the Government Accountability Board. It involved a Dane County judge in 1977.

“People often remember Archie Simonson. He was successfully recalled for remarks he made in sentencing in a juvenile matter. There was a high school student who was the victim of a sexual assault and he made references to the fact that maybe ‘she was asking for it,’ by the way she dressed. And there happened to be a reporter covering this matter, and she reported the story, and it went viral -- back in the days when you didn’t ‘go viral,’” Kennedy says.

Kennedy says Simonson was the only judge in the state to lose a recall election.

Kennedy says the state could face another “first” this year, if enough valid signatures are collected to force numerous state senators into recall elections. The sheer number would put a strain on election officials and could result in a huge wave of campaign spending.

We’ll explore that topic Tuesday as our series on recalls continues.

Ann-Elise Henzl became News Director in September 2017.