MADISON — The 25 newly elected Republicans in the state Assembly make up a conservative group that includes a tea party leader with a checkered past and a former recreational vehicle salesman who likened state bureaucrats to cocaine addicts.
They come to Madison with the wind at their backs, saying voters gave them a mandate to rein in government spending, cut programs and reduce taxes. But they also have strong anti-abortion views, dislike domestic partner benefits and are eager to try to repeal other key parts of Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s legacy.
They also will have a strong voice, making up more than 40 percent of the new 60-member Republican majority that will work to shape the political agenda for the next two years along with a GOP-controlled Senate and Republican Gov.-elect Scott Walker.
How willing the Assembly freshmen are to work with more-established Republican leaders and stick to the party’s stated priority of working on fixing the economy and balancing the budget may determine how many of them return in two years.
“We understand that we’ve got the power in numbers but we also understand we have to work with the powers that be and cooperate,” said Roger Rivard of Rice Lake, one of the 25 freshmen. “We’re not going to go down there and push everybody around. That would be foolishness. But we are going to hold everyone’s feet to the fire and control government spending.”
The class is so large, they could dictate the Republican agenda over the next two years, said University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee political scientist Mordecai Lee, a former Democratic state legislator.
“I wonder if they realize how much power they have,” Lee said. “The question is who will fold first.”
Republicans hold a 60-38-1 majority in the Assembly and 19-14 in the Senate. With Walker as governor, Democrats are powerless to stop the Republican agenda for at least the next two years.
For now at least, the new members and the Republican leadership, at least publicly, are on the same page talking about how jobs and the economy are the priority.
Even on economic issues, it likely will be tough to corral newly elected representatives, such as Rivard.
“You put money in the hands of a bureaucrat or a politician, they’re going to piss it away,” Rivard said at a September campaign event in a recording made available by liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now. “They’re like cocaine addicts. You hand a little snort of cocaine to a cocaine addict, what are they going to do with it? They’re going to snort it.”
Rivard said in an interview Wednesday that his comments were “probably an exaggeration,” but that he believes that government spending is out of control.
“You look at history, anytime you lay money in front of a politician, they’re going to spend it,” said the 58-year-old real estate broker and former RV salesman. “Money and power buys votes and that’s the way it’s been done. Politicians don’t seem to have any control over that. When you lay the money in front of them they’re going to spend it.”
Voters sent a clear mandate that they want people in office who will address the problems facing the state, namely the economy, said incoming state Rep. Jim Steineke, of Kaukauna.
Organizer of the Fox Valley Initiative tea party group, Steineke is one of the most conservative members of the new lawmakers. He supports time limits for recipients of health care benefits under the BadgerCare program, delaying implementation of all environmental laws and regulations for three years, and eliminating all corporate income taxes.
Steineke won election even though his criminal past was made the subject of an attack ad. Steineke was arrested in 1990 for driving on a revoked license. In 1991, he was convicted of resisting arrest and hit and run. In 1993 he was convicted again for driving on a revoked license. His most recent arrest was in 2003, when he was convicted of drunken driving.
Lawmakers with legal troubles are nothing new. Independent Rep. Jeff Wood, who decided not to see re-election, was censured by his colleagues earlier this year after being arrested three times for drunken driving.
Steineke, 39, said voters were turned off when his criminal record was made an issue in the race. All of his arrests, including the drunken driving conviction, happened before he was elected as Vandenbroek town chairman and an Outagamie County Board supervisor, he said.
Steineke said voters were more interested in his conservative fiscal message than they were in what he called “the politics of personal destruction.”