On the day of Gov. Scott Walker’s March 1 budget address, I hung out in the office of state Sen. Dale Schultz, trading stories with the senator and his staff about the last Progressive Party member to be elected to the state’s top job. It happens that Orland Loomis, who won the governorship in a stunning 1942 landslide, once served in the state Senate as a representative of the region Schultz now serves.
Loomis was once a Republican state senator. But in 1934 he left the Grand Old Party with many other moderate and liberal Republicans to form the Progressive Party with liberal Democrats and Milwaukee Socialists, who believed Wisconsin could break the grip of what Wisconsin Progressives referred to as “the old parties” and guide the nation toward a new citizen-based politics. While most Wisconsinites know that the Progressive Party was led by Sen. Robert M. La Follette Jr. and Gov. Phil La Follette, it was actually Loomis who renewed the party and secured its last big statewide win with his defeat of reactionary Republican Gov. Julius Heil.
Loomis was a pragmatic rural moderate who believed in clean government, protecting the rights of workers and farmers and maintaining strong rural schools and local services. And anyone who knows Dale Schultz will tell you he has more in common with Loomis than with the current crop of reactionary Republicans.
Now that Democratic recall-election victories have given the opposition party two more seats, Schultz is being referred to as the most powerful legislator in the Capitol. That’s because the Democrats have 16 Senate seats, while the Republicans who voted in March to advance Walker’s anti-labor legislation have 16 seats. Schultz, who broke with his caucus and voted against the governor’s anti-labor agenda (after decrying it as “classic overreach”), is in a position to tip the balance in debates over collective bargaining, labor rights, public education and local services.
Partisans of both major parties have imagined this might mean Schultz would switch from Republican to Democrat. That’s not likely. Schultz, who just seven years ago served as GOP majority leader in a much more functional Senate, is an old-school Wisconsin Republican who has seen the party through more than a few political and ideological turnings. He’ll keep the R after his name, and he’ll take some conservative stands on social issues and tax policy.
But Schultz will also continue to work well and closely with moderate Democrats, especially Janesville Sen. Tim Cullen. And that prospect has veteran statehouse observers suggesting, as one did Friday, that “history could well record that the recall elections changed everything in the Capitol.”
The final two recall elections, which take place Tuesday, will determine if this is the case. If Democratic Sens. Jim Holperin and Bob Wirch retain their seats, then Wisconsin’s recall summer will have placed Democrats in a position to work with Schultz to temper Walker’s extremes. Should this occur, then Wisconsin’s recall summer will have eased the state away from the abyss into which the governor was pushing it. That won’t solve all of Wisconsin’s problems, but will surely qualify the recalls as a significant success.