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02.21.11

Wisconsin's Secret Weapon

As Gov. Walker escalates his budget showdown with unions, he's got help from the Fitzgerald family, which runs both houses of the legislature and, lately, the state troopers. Dirk Johnson reports.

To slap down the public unions, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker knew he would need unblinking Republican loyalty, especially from the bosses in the legislature: Scott Fitzgerald, the leader of the state senate; and Jeff Fitzgerald, the speaker of the state house.

The Wisconsin state troopers, as it happened, needed a new chief this month, and the Walker administration determined the ideal candidate for the job was Stephen Fitzgerald—the 68-year-old father of those very same Fitzgerald brothers, who is now sending his team into the field to hunt down wayward Democrats. The job pays nearly $107,000, and will mean a big boost in pension benefits.

In this state that gave birth to the Progressive Party, critics of the governor have called the state patrol appointment a case of cronyism. Interesting time for that charge to surface—especially given Gov. Walker’s full-on challenge to the public-sector union movement—which, after all, was designed in part to guard against bald patronage based more on connections than merit.

“It’s raised a lot of eyebrows, that’s for sure,” said Dennis Dresang, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “And it’s the sort of thing that people aren’t going to forget about Walker.”

The governor’s staff insists there was no favoritism at play in the appointment. They note that the elder Fitzgerald served 10 years as sheriff of rural Dodge County, about 50 miles northwest of Milwaukee, and later was appointed as U.S. Marshall for the Western District of Wisconsin, overseeing security in federal courts. In a bid to win back his job in Dodge County last year, he was defeated in the Republican primary by a 2-1 margin.

“It’s crazy,” said Graeme Zielinski, “when they’ve got to go ask their daddy to chase after the Democrats.”

The appointment of Fitzgerald, a Wisconsin State Journal editorial scolded, “doesn’t pass the smell test” and “looks like a goodwill offering from Gov. Scott Walker to the top two lawmakers Walker will need on board with his budget and policy agendas.”

As chief of the state patrol, Fitzgerald’s most visible role came when the governor dispatched him to find the Democratic state senators who fled the capitol to forestall a vote that would effectively gut collective-bargaining rights for most public unions.

The role of the younger Fitzgeralds in the process has been mocked by Democrats. “It’s crazy,” said Graeme Zielinski, “when they’ve got to go ask their daddy to chase after the Democrats.”

The Democrats are said to be in Illinois, beyond the jurisdiction of the Wisconsin State Patrol. Illinois Gov. Patrick Quinn, a Democrat with strong union bona fides, is unlikely to send out the posse to catch the fugitive Badgers.

For their part, the Fitzgerald legislators show no sign of backing down in the fight that has sent thousands of protesters into the street every day for the past week.

When Scott Fitzgerald was asked about the possibility of a compromise with Democrats on Monday, he replied: “Won’t happen, won’t happen, won’t happen.”

The state senate leader, who is 47, has been in the Wisconsin legislature since 1994, when he challenged incumbent Barbara Lorman in the Republican primary because he considered her too moderate. He has not lost an election since then.

The state house speaker, who is 44, came to politics later. He played basketball at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay until he was sidelined with injuries. After transferring to the state school in Oshkosh, where both brothers earned degrees, Jeff Fitzgerald moved to Illinois and worked at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. He returned to Wisconsin with his young family and won a seat on the city council in Beaver Dam in 2000. Later that year, he was elected as a state representative.

Some people who have known the Fitzgeralds, including staunch union supporters, say they have been surprised by their hard-line stands against organized labor. Colin Millard, an official with the ironworkers union in Dodge County, once competed against the Fitzgerald brothers in a pie-eating contest. He said he believes the Tea Party movement spooked the Fitzgeralds.

“Some people in the Assembly didn’t think Jeff was far enough to the right to be speaker,” said Millard. “And they’re being pushed by the governor. Walker’s got higher aspirations and he’s demanding that they go along with him.”

Political experts say they cannot recall any state where two brothers led each chamber of the legislature. While they consistently toe the party line, they have differed on some measures, such as ethanol standards.

Just a few months ago, the Fitzgeralds were little-known around the state. The Democrats controlled both houses, and they wielded little power as minority leaders.

The Fitzgeralds have relished the change in fortunes. When a reporter with the Isthmus newspaper in Madison recently asked Scott Fitzgerald about the complaints of a union leader, the Republican responded: “He doesn’t have the leverage anymore.”

Jeff Fitzgerald echoed the sentiment. “What goes around comes around,” he said.

The angry crowds do not bother him. “If you’re not willing to pick a fight,” he said, “you’re in the wrong business.”

Dirk Johnson is former Chicago bureau chief for Newsweek and The New York Times.