A prominent business leader from state Sen. Rob Cowles' district was stunned when the veteran lawmaker explained why he voted in favor of Gov. Scott Walker's controversial budget-repair plan.
Cowles had contacted the business leader earlier this year to ask for the person's support in his upcoming recall election.
"He said, 'I didn't like this (bill) either. I didn't like being put in this position. I didn't like anything about the way it was done,' " the business leader quoted Cowles as saying. " 'But the governor's office told us if we didn't give them our support, they would run a tea party candidate against us.' "
The Green Bay-area business leader, who has not given campaign money to Democrats or Republicans, contacted No Quarter last week and spoke on background, meaning the paper knows the individual's identity. But the leader asked not to be identified by name in the Journal Sentinel because doing so would hurt the person's business and industry relationships.
Cowles did not return calls to his home or cellphone.
His campaign manager, Craig Summerfield, said Friday, "Rob doesn't recall making any such call."
As far as he knows, Summerfield said his boss has not told anyone that he voted for the budget-repair measure to avoid facing a right-wing Republican challenger. Summerfield said Walker's office never issued Cowles such a threat.
Cullen Werwie, a spokesman for the governor, offered a stronger response. Werwie said no one in Walker's office bullied the moderate Republican into voting for the governor's bill.
"Not true," Werwie said. "That's flat-out not true."
From the time that Walker introduced his budget-repair bill, Cowles - known for sometimes showing an independent streak - was targeted by both sides on the measure.
Club for Growth, a conservative group with strong links to the governor, ran TV and radio ads urging voters to tell lawmakers to support the bill and mentioning Cowles by name. Unions leaned on him in hopes that he would buck his party.
Yet, throughout the widespread protests and national fanfare, Cowles mostly stayed out of the spotlight, occasionally talking of the need to rein in labor costs but also voicing support for negotiations.
Republicans ended the standoff by stripping the financial items out of the budget-repair bill and approving the remaining provisions, which limit collective bargaining for most public employees and increases their payments for fringe benefits. Cowles joined his GOP colleagues in the Senate in voting for the bill.
The prominent business leader was contacted by Cowles shortly after the vote because Democrats and union officials had begun gathering signatures for a possible recall election in his district. He is one of nine senators facing a recall.
The two were able to have the frank conversation, the business leader said, because they had known each other for a decade and had a good working relationship.
"You know where he stands," the exec said, "even if you don't always agree with him."
A self-described "Republocrat" - conservative on fiscal issues but liberal on social ones - the business leader has been particularly impressed with Cowles' frequent talk about eliminating the state's structural deficit.
But the business leader didn't think the budget-repair bill was the solution to the state's troubled finances. The individual favored bringing all sides together to negotiate a deal.
In the phone conversation, the business official recalled telling the Allouez legislator that he should have voted his conscience and ignored the talk of a tea party challenger.
"I said, 'Rob, you're elected and that is your job. I can appreciate how that is concerning,' " said the business leader regarding the threat of a tea party opponent. "You've been in this job for longer than I've known you. You're very well-respected, and I think you should have stood on your own irregardless of what the governor said and what his threats were.' "
The exec said, of course, politics can be a contact sport, full of tough talk and rough play.
But it was disappointing to the business leader that Cowles caved.
"It did surprise me because I've always known Rob as a man of principle," the leader said. "I expect leadership from our leaders."
Democrats recently ripped state Sen. Sheila Harsdorf - a Republican facing a recall contest - for reversing her long-standing opposition to accepting campaign money from special-interest political action committees.
"Sheila is more interested in saving her political skin than keeping her word," said Democratic Party official Phil Walzak.
Well, time for a little turnabout.
Rep. Fred Clark, a Democrat challenging Sen. Luther Olsen in a recall race, also has said he would avoid the taint of PAC money.
"Fred answers to the people of the 42nd District, not the special interests, and not the party bosses," said a Clark flier from his 2010 re-election bid. "That's why his campaign accepts no PAC money."
But his most recent campaign filing shows Clark accepted $6,100 in PAC donations from teachers unions and other groups this year.
"It is extremely hypocritical of Clark to say one thing during one campaign and then do another during another campaign," said Jeff Weigand, campaign manager for Olsen, a Ripon Republican.
Clark's shop didn't deny that he has pulled a 180.
Instead, a spokesman for the Clark campaign said the rules give an unfair advantage to incumbents.
"Fred Clark never said he would run in this recall race with one arm tied behind his back," said Clark spokesman Josh Wolf.
Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald was the athlete in his family.
Just check his legislative bio:
"Representative Jeff Fitzgerald graduated from Hustisford High School in 1984 and originally attended the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay on a basketball scholarship before transferring to the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh after his sophomore year. He graduated from UW-O with a B.S. in Journalism in 1989."
A basketball scholarship to UW-Green Bay, a Division 1 school - impressive.
The Horicon Republican recently told a Journal Sentinel reporter that his hoops career ended because of a wrist injury.
But an astute reader points out that a 2009 Hustisford High graduate, Shyla Kuehl, has been described as the first athlete from the school - boy or girl - to earn a scholarship to a Division 1 university.
So which is it?
John Jagler, spokesman for Fitzgerald, said his boss' legislative biography was in error.
"Fitz didn't get a free ride," Jagler said today. "He walked on."
So who upgraded Fitzgerald's athletic accomplishments?
"You can blame the mistake on staff error," Jagler said. "The website bio has been updated accordingly."
The Phoenix posted a 4-24 record in Fitzgerald's only season there, prompting UW-Green Bay to hire Coach Dick Bennett to run its basketball program. UW-Green Bay became a Division 1 school in 1981.Wisconsin WaveWisconsin WaveWisconsin Wave