Tax Fighter Wins Big over Wisconsin Senate Leader

Published November 1, 2004

When Wisconsin Assemblyman Glenn Grothman decided to challenge State Senate Majority Leader Mary Panzer in the September 14 Republican Party primary election, he felt confident despite the power of her incumbency.

Though he expected victory, he did not expect his fiscally conservative message to give him such a big win. Grothman won an astounding 79 percent of the vote against Panzer, whose support for more state spending and taxes became a central campaign issue.

“I felt I was running against a Democrat, even though she called herself a Republican, because she put together a coalition of people who wanted something from government,” said Grothman, an 11-year Wisconsin State Assemblyman who ended up running unopposed for state senate in the November 2 general election.

“She was put in more than 20 years ago by those interests,” he said. “This is a very strong Republican area. [Grothman’s district extends north from the northern Milwaukee suburbs to Sheboygan and Fond du Lac, in southeast Wisconsin.] Her strategy was always to be quietly telling spending interests ‘I’m your gal’ and publicly saying ‘I am conservative.’ The kiss of death for her was when it became apparent the teacher’s union would help her. People had to wonder what she really was.”

First-Ever Primary Defeat of Party Leader

Grothman said his victory marked the first time in Wisconsin history that an Assembly member challenged and defeated the same party’s leader in the Senate.

Grothman’s campaign and Milwaukee-area talk radio stations played up the differences between her rhetoric and her votes.

“Milwaukee talk radio did play a role,” Grothman said. “The big issue was, ‘Is she really Republican?’ She is not. She called herself a pragmatic Republican, but she was really a liberal.”

Grothman pointed out that in addition to receiving support from Wisconsin public school teachers, Panzer also was supported by Planned Parenthood, the Milwaukee police union, various senior citizens groups, and local organizations interested in more park land.

“These groups all wanted more from government,” Grothman said. “There was also a feeling she didn’t push the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) hard enough. Take her weakness on that, put it with the people she was surrounded by, and that’s all you needed to know about her.”

Strong Emphasis on Spending Controls

In his post-election report for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Steven Walters quoted Panzer as saying her style was to “govern from the center.” By that she meant a willingness to compromise with the state’s Democrat governor, Jim Doyle, and with groups such as teacher unions, which traditionally back Democrats.

“It’s important for the Republican Party to understand that, if you are going to be in a majority–if you’re going to govern, if you’re going to be able to sustain (conservative) principles for a long period of time–you have to listen to all people, and have to adopt those conservative principles in a way that you govern more from the center,” Panzer told Walters the night of her defeat. The article appeared September 15.

Walters also noted, “Grothman’s fellow Assembly Republicans did all they could to defeat Panzer, helping him with door-to-door campaigning.” Grothman said they did this because Assembly Republicans viewed Panzer “as an obstacle to their desire to dramatically–and quickly–act to control state and local spending.”

Grothman campaigned as a strong advocate of spending controls. He linked state spending to Wisconsin’s heavy tax burden. That argument received a boost in May when the Tax Foundation issued a report ranking Wisconsin as having the sixth-heaviest combined state and local tax burden in the nation.

Watered-Down TABOR an Embarrassment

Grothman said a tax revolt is brewing in Wisconsin, which made the TABOR a big issue.

The TABOR would be a state constitutional amendment to hold state spending increases to inflation plus population growth. Grothman said after it became apparent he was scoring points against Panzer because of his strong advocacy of TABOR, Panzer reluctantly endorsed it.

A watered-down version of TABOR passed a Senate Judiciary Committee July 27 but never came up for a full vote.

The Senate committee version was so weakened that Assemblyman Frank Lasee (R-Bellevue), who had worked six years for TABOR, ended up working against the bill.

Among other things, the committee-passed version would have allowed the state to cut local aid and local governments to raise taxes to make up the difference, according to Lasee. It also would have allowed the state to impose unfunded mandates on local governments and to move more than $4 billion of federal money off-budget without changing the state’s spending authority, effectively enabling it to spend another $4 billion per year.

Local governments also could have created new tax and fee districts, such as drainage districts and mosquito abatement districts. Spending could have been shifted to those new districts without lowering the spending authority of the local governments that created them. And the new tax and fee districts would not have been subject to the TABOR spending limits.

Grothman said when he, Lasee, and other legislators publicized the problems with the senate version of TABOR, Panzer’s Senate majority leader position cost her votes.

“I hope other legislators took note of this race,” Grothman said. “A 79 to 21 percent margin is huge, especially against an incumbent.” Running unopposed, Grothman will take office with the next legislative session.

Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is managing editor of Budget & Tax News.