Recall election divides Wis. Senate district

Recall buttons
Buttons in support of efforts to recall state Sen. Sheila Harsdorf litter a registration table at an annual dinner Sunday, May 1, 2011, hosted in River Falls, Wis., by Pierce and St. Croix county Democrats.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

State Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, is one of nine senators fighting to retain their seat as part of a historic wave of recall efforts sweeping Wisconsin.

Harsdorf, a former dairy farmer, has served in the Wisconsin Legislature for more than 20 years. She has a reputation as a moderate, but her vote in favor of Gov. Scott Walker's budget bill has divided constituents in a typically red district.


The 10th Senate District hugs the western border of Wisconsin. From the north, it starts in the small town of Siren, stretches through the picturesque river city of Hudson, and ends in rural Hager City, just across the river from Red Wing.

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In Harsdorf's university town of River Falls, Democratic activists usually struggle to recruit folks to attend their meetings and social events. That wasn't the case on a recent Sunday afternoon, when about 200 people lined up for the buffet at the West Wind Supper Club for an annual dinner.

"I haven't been involved in politics in any way, aside from voting, my entire life," said Nan Lambert, who was among the new faces at the event. "What happened for me is March 9."

Nan and Mark Lambert
Nan (left) and Mark Lambert share a laugh at a dinner Sunday, May 1, 2011, at the West Wind Supper Club in River Falls, Wis. Nan Lambert said she decided to gather signatures for a petition to recall Wisconsin state Sen. Sheila Harsdorf after the lawmaker voted in support of a budget bill stripping public employees of many collective-bargaining rights.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

That was the night when Senate Republicans in Madison passed a bill restricting collective bargaining rights for public employees.

"And the next day, I went straight to the street — Main Street in River Falls — with petitions for the recall for Sen. Harsdorf, and I got 140 signatures," Lambert said. "People were looking for somewhere to sign the petition. They were upset, too."

Lambert said the issue has divided her town, and has strained friendships.

In all, 23,000 people signed the petition to recall Harsdorf, well above the 15,744 signatures required to trigger a recall election. Lambert, whose husband, Mark, is a maintenance mechanic for the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, said she wanted her senator to stand up for state employees. Lambert said Harsdorf was widely seen as an independent-minded moderate earlier in her career.

"I don't know what's changed, but she is not the representative she used to be, and that's got people really upset," said Lambert.

Tammy Tollefson
Democratic activist Tammy Tollefson of River Falls greets a table Sunday, May 1, 2011, at the annual "unity dinner" hosted by Pierce and St. Croix county Democrats. Tollefson is a volunteer involved with an effort to recall Republican state Sen. Sheila Harsdorf of Wisconsin from office.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Scott Herron collected many of those signatures with his wife in their town of New Richmond. The high-school social studies teacher, who said he identifies with no political party, said he couldn't just stand by as politicians blamed people like him for the state's fiscal crisis.

"It wasn't public workers who got us into this recession, and they were an easy target. That's why I'm angry," Herron said. "If we're going to take programs from the poor and the most vulnerable among us, and veterans, and we're going to give tax cuts to the corporations, I don't understand that, and I think a growing number of people don't."

Democrats are banking on grassroots unrest to unseat Harsdorf, who was first elected in 1988.

On Tuesday, Democrat Shelly Moore, a high school English teacher from River Falls, announced she'll challenge Harsdorf in a recall election.


Hardsorf's opponents say they've never seen the senator more vulnerable. Recall organizers raised more than $67,000 in the first month of the campaign, more than any other recall effort in the state in that time period. Most of the cash came from the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

"We know they're well-organized, well-funded," Sen. Harsdorf said.

Sen. Sheila Harsdorf
Wisconsin state Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls.
Submitted photo

Harsdorf said she was elected to find a fix to the state's financial crunch, and stands by her support for Walker's budget bill.

"There was clear message sent by the voters. They wanted us to get our fiscal house in order, without raiding funds or using the credit card," Harsdorf said. "What we're seeing now, are those working hard to maintain the status quo, which is frankly unsustainable for the taxpayers of our state."

As one of six Republicans facing a recall, Harsdorf is worried her opponents are using a process typically reserved for misconduct to try to undo an election.

"If we are going down the road where if someone doesn't agree with your vote you're going to get recalled, I think it jeopardizes the process and how we operate in government," she said.

In addition, petitions against three Democrats have been submitted to the Government Accountability Board. They're criticized for leaving the state in an attempt to stymie passage of the budget bill.

Among the Republicans, Harsdorf appears to be the least vulnerable, said University of Wisconsin political science professor Charles Franklin.

"The district has tilted more Republican in recent elections," Franklin said. "And her re-election margin in '08 of 56 percent was one of the more solid margins among those senators that were opposed."

Two other statistics bode well for Harsdorf: In 2008, voters in her district approved of candidate Walker by a higher margin than the rest of the state. And while Barack Obama received 50 percent of the vote in the district, that was about 7 points less than Obama received statewide.

But Franklin acknowledges this is no ordinary election year, given the budget showdown that put Madison in the national spotlight. Handicapping a race using the usual standards would be foolish, he said. Both Democrats and Republicans, Franklin said, will be energized for the recall elections, which could come as early as July.