GOP Pushes Conservative Social Agenda

Dec 13, 2011

We now continue “Project Milwaukee: State of Upheaval.” All week, we’re examining the divisive year Wisconsin has experienced politically, with perhaps economic worries at the core. Last fall, for the first time in over a decade voters put Republicans in control of state government. New Gov. Scott Walker insisted he had the formula to erase the state’s massive deficit and create jobs.

Milwaukee Police Sgt. Kevin Eyre instructs students how to safely handle a gun.

GOP leaders immediately tweaked the state’s business climate and later slashed public union rights and government spending. But, some were also eager to implement a conservative social agenda, and as WUWM’s Marti Mikkelson reports, they succeeded on some fronts.

About 50 people crammed into a tiny meeting room at the Wyndham Hotel near the airport. They listened to Milwaukee Police Sgt. Kevin Eyre explain fundamental rules of gun safety.

“Treat every gun as if it’s loaded all the time no matter what. Even if you’re certain it’s empty, it’s not,” Eyre says.

The concealed carry law the Legislature approved this year requires training in exchange for a permit. Jackie Lavigne traveled from Wisconsin Rapids to take the course. She intends to be armed when visiting the house she’s trying to sell in Milwaukee.

“The property I have is not in the best neighborhood, so I would feel safer having something when I’m pulling into the driveway at night and it is dark – especially since I’ve been robbed before,” Lavigne says.

Lavigne says she’s been waiting for the day she can legally carry a hidden gun for protection. Jim Fendry has been leading the crusade here since 1995. As head of the Wisconsin Pro-Gun Movement, he saw an opportunity that year to open the door, because the GOP had taken control of the Legislature and Republican Tommy Thompson was governor.

“The Republican Party always has as part of their platform a strong Second Amendment, pro-gun rights platform and even though many of the Democrats feel exactly the same about the issue, their party platform has always been anti-gun, ” Fendry says.

The state eventually approved an amendment guaranteeing the right to keep and bear arms. Afterwards, the gun lobby turned its sights toward passing concealed carry, but Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed the bill each time it reached his desk. Fendry says opportunity knocked again this year.

“The Republicans were in control, with both houses willing to look at the issues and a governor who was willing to sign them,” Fendry says.

While concealed carry had bipartisan support in the Legislature, other social issues long simmering on the GOP agenda did not. One is Photo ID – new rules for voting, including the need for certain government-issued identification cards. JR Ross, editor of the online political magazine, says legislators started punting around photo ID after the 2000 elections.

“But again you had a Democratic Senate and a Republican Assembly. In ’02 it flipped to being both run by Republicans but you had Jim Doyle as governor and Jim Doyle did not support voter ID and vetoed that several times as well. For Democrats he was the last line of defense for these GOP proposals,” Ross says.

The GOP majority finally succeeded this year, although opponents are challenging the photo ID law in court. Ross says Republicans campaigned in 2010 mostly on issues related to the economy and government spending, but stressed to core supporters that social issues would see their day.

“It wasn’t like Republicans hid these things from people. This was something the base was looking for. They’re the people who turn out, they write the campaign donation checks, they put up the yard signs, they staff the phone banks. They’re looking for signs that these guys are going to work on their pet issues,” Ross says.

Yet, according to Ross, partisan opposition and the potential of recall have slowed movement on other conservative priorities. For example, Republican Rep. Don Pridemore says the future looks uncertain for a bill he introduced in May designed to crackdown on illegal immigrants in Wisconsin. The plan is similar to Arizona’s new law that prompted a huge public outcry in that state. Pridemore’s bill has been sitting in committee for months and he admits he’s been reluctant to push the measure forward.

“Being a controversial issue I don’t want to put either a Republican or a Democrat in a tough position to explain themselves in a recall situation. If this bill is not going to get across the board support, it won’t go much further than a public hearing at this point,” Pridemore says.

Pridemore says also up in the air are Republican-sponsored bills restricting abortion and a proposal requiring school districts that provide sex education to emphasize abstinence while avoiding instruction on how to use contraceptives. He says none of his colleagues has mentioned a desire to pursue instituting a death penalty in Wisconsin.