Rebecca Kleefisch has big plans for Wisconsin. She’d like to bring more jobs to the Badger State and drive down the unemployment rate, especially among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. She wants to help those currently unemployed with job training, so they will be eligible for the tens of thousands of jobs that Wisconsin employers can’t find qualified applicants to fill. And, in view of the graying demographics of Wisconsin residents, Kleefisch has started studying how to make the state attractive to younger workers.
But Rebecca Kleefisch has one big hurdle before she can implement any of her ideas: surviving the recall election.
Kleefisch, the lieutenant governor of Wisconsin, is quick to say how important it is that Scott Walker remain in office. “Our governor is doing a bang-up job,” she says. “He is a national hero, and well he should be.” But she is also concerned about her own race, which is getting less media attention than Walker’s. (Thanks to a peculiarity in Wisconsin law, Walker and Kleefisch are not on the same ticket in the recall, though they were elected on the same ticket in 2010.) Kleefisch’s likely Democratic opponent is Mahlon Mitchell, who heads the Wisconsin firefighters’ union.
The election of a “union boss,” Kleefisch warns, would hurt Walker’s efforts even if he remains in office. In that scenario, “our governor will no longer have his best partner working in the office beneath him,” but “will instead have an antagonist, someone who seeks to undermine and harass him.”
Actually, that’s not likely to happen. Whichever way the recall goes, it will probably go the same way for Kleefisch and Walker. Popular Wisconsin conservative radio host Charlie Sykes says he has a “hard time imagining” people at the ballot box “voting for Scott Walker and then turning around and voting for Mahlon Mitchell.”
The challenge is the same for Kleefisch as for Walker: making the case for the politically controversial reforms implemented last year, which required many of the state’s public employees to start contributing about 6 percent of the money that goes into their pension funds and about 12 percent of their health-insurance premiums.
To Kleefisch, the argument is simple: The money saved by the reforms is being used on other valuable projects. “We’ve saved $848 million and counting,” she says. “That is money that allows more patrol cars to stay on the roads and keep our families safe. That is money that ensures that more women can get breast- and cervical-cancer screenings.” Cancer screening is an issue near to her heart, as she herself is a colon-cancer survivor.
Kleefisch, whose two daughters attend public schools, also highlights how the reforms have boosted the state’s schools. She points out that, relative to other years, there have been fewer class-size increases, teacher layoffs, and cuts in extracurricular activities.
For Kleefisch, the struggle isn’t to make the case for the reforms’ success; it’s to stop herself from being counterproductively aggressive in making it. “She’s really the attack dog of the administration,” says Christian Schneider, a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. “They have to work to keep her on a leash.”
Kleefisch is a political newbie, having run for the first time in 2010. She had worked as a TV anchor, and then started a business focused on media and marketing. She left reporting in order to spend more time with her daughters; paradoxically, they’re also the reason she chose to enter politics.