A Tale of Taxes, Peeved Voters, and Hardball

Wisconsin state senator faces recall over stadium vote

A Wisconsin state senator is about to find out just how disgruntled voters can get.

Republican Sen. George Petak faces a recall election today, ostensibly over his 12th-hour decision to vote for a sales-tax increase - a flip-flop that angered many of his constituents.

Although the recall attempt is the first in Wisconsin's history, it is indicative of a growing mood of voter discontent - some would say pugnacious impatience - sweeping the country.

Today's recall attempt in Mr. Petak's southeast Wisconsin district dates to his controversial vote last October. It's a tale of politics, taxes, astute voters - and baseball.

Petak told his constituents he would not vote for legislation to fund a new ballpark for the Milwaukee Brewers if it included a sales tax increase for his district, which includes most of Racine County. But when the vote came up last fall, in the wee hours of the morning, and it looked as if the Brewers might pull up bases and leave the state, the senator changed his vote.

More is at stake in today's election than Petak's future. If voters oust him in favor of contender Kim Plache, a Democrat, the power balance in the state Senate will change.

Republicans control the Senate, for the first time in more than two decades, by a one-vote majority. GOP Gov. Tommy Thompson has used that razor-thin edge to push through his social-reform measures, including limits on welfare and abortion. If Petak loses and Democrats regain control of the Senate, the governor's programs may hit some snags.

"This is ultimately for all the marbles," says Ms. Plache, a state Assemblywoman. "But that's not what started it. Senator Petak's actions and the stadium bill started it."

For years the Milwaukee Brewers had been seeking financing for a new stadium, and Governor Thompson had been looking for ways to keep the major leaguers in the state. Last year, a state referendum asking voters to approve a sports lottery to fund a new ballpark "went down in blazes," Petak says. So Thompson initiated legislation calling for a sales-tax increase in three counties, including Milwaukee County, to fund a new stadium.

The formula calls for $160 million to come from the sales-tax increase and $90 million from the Brewers. Petak says he supported the measure from the beginning - so long as Racine County was not included in the tax hike. He notes that other US cities, including Cleveland, Baltimore, Phoenix, and Chicago, have built new stadiums either to keep or to attract a ball club and its economic benefits.

But when other senators succeeded in including Racine County in the legislation, Petak told constituents he would vote no on the bill. Three votes later, at 5 a.m. on Oct. 6, Petak changed his no to a yes. The legislation passed 17 to 16.

"I felt that if I or someone else didn't change their vote, then it would be likely the Milwaukee Brewers would make an announcement ... that they would have to go," says the senator, sitting in his campaign headquarters in a strip mall at the edge of town.

The switch caught everyone off guard, including the Journal Times, which published an erroneous banner headline proclaiming "Stadium plan killed." When news of Petak's flip-flop got out on the radio, Racine residents were enraged.

"This is a real old-fashioned community," says Elizabeth Erven, who spearheaded the grass-roots recall effort. "People live very ordinary lives, and they take their politicians seriously."

Ms. Erven and a friend conceived the recall election after discussing the vote over tea. Sitting in the dining room of her turn-of-the century home in Racine's historic district, she says they drew parallels between the Wisconsin tax and America's Revolutionary War.

"We have a man insisting on a nuisance tax to bail out a private corporation in the same way the Parliament tried to bail out the East Indian Tea Company 223 years ago," says the history teacher-turned-housewife. "[State government has] deprived us of our right to give input on a matter of taxation the same way people in the colonial days were deprived of their right to give input to Parliament."

She says the two decided to form a committee and "go get those boys."

They began holding meetings in laundromats, churches, wherever they could find room. Soon, hundreds of people were participating in the recall effort. The group needed 11,577 signatures to initiate the recall. They collected 15,050, despite having to obtain signatures in 29-degree-below-zero weather, with a little help from the state Democratic Party.

Erven says it's not appropriate for her to endorse a candidate and it's not that important to her who wins. "The purpose of a recall," she says, "is to give people the opportunity to reconsider who represents them, not tell them who to vote for."

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