Three ex-GOP speakers now lobby for school choice
Several former Assembly speakers looked on Jan. 7 as the 75th speaker, Republican Rep. Robin Vos, was elected to lead that half of the Legislature.
But some of them looked on with more than senior-statesmen pride. They looked on either as a lobbyist or knew they would soon be registering as a for-hire Capitol influence-peddler.
The 2011-12 speaker, Republican Jeff Fitzgerald, congratulated Vos for succeeding him on Jan. 7, after Fitzgerald’s eight years in the Assembly ended.
Two days later, Fitzgerald registered as a lobbyist. Government Accountability Board records list two of Fitzgerald’s clients as School Choice Wisconsin and American Traffic Solutions.
Another former Republican speaker, John Gard, is also a lobbyist for School Choice Wisconsin. Gard, who spent four years as speaker, registered as a lobbyist Jan. 7.
Gard also lobbies for Local 139 of the Operating Engineers Union and Marquette University. He’s not the only ex-Republican advocating for a union; former Republican Rep. Tim Hoven lobbies for AFSCME Council 11.
Records show that a third former speaker, Republican Scott R. Jensen, Gard’s predecessor and speaker for about six years, is also pushing school choice.
Jensen, who registered as lobbyist Jan. 11, works for the American Federation for Children. Its website says the group exists “to elect candidates in states across the country who will work to enact, expand, and strengthen educational choice for America’s children.”
Having three Republican ex-speakers and former senior Fitzgerald aide Jim Bender pushing for alternatives to public schools may already be paying off.
In his State of the State speech, Republican Gov. Scott Walker made it clear he wants to expand choice beyond Milwaukee and Racine:
“We continue to expand the number of choices for families in Wisconsin—be it a traditional, a charter, a voucher, a virtual, or a home school environment. Moving forward, we want to continue to dramatically improve existing schools and give parents the opportunity to choose legitimate alternatives to failing schools.”
But choice is not the only cause being lobbied by two ex-speakers.
Gard and former Democratic Speaker Walter Kunicki lobby for a major utility, Wisconsin Energy Corp. State records identify Kunicki, speaker for four years in the 1990s, as the utility’s senior vice president for state public affairs. Jim Villa, chief of staff to Walker when he was Milwaukee County executive, is also lobbying for the utility.
More than 25 ex-legislators had registered as lobbyists last week, and more were signing up every day. Also lobbying are a former cabinet secretary, former state budget director, and dozens of ex-aides to governors and legislators.
The list of legislative leaders turned lobbyists is impressive: Four of the eight Assembly speakers since 1991; former Assembly Majority Leader Steve Foti (1997-2002), a Republican; former Senate majority leaders Mary Panzer (2003-04), a Republican, and Joe Strohl (1987-90), a Democrat; former Senate President Brian Rude (1994-’95 and ’97), a Republican.
When they leave the Legislature, legislators become lobbyists for many reasons:
They can be paid several times the $49,943 annual salary of legislators. Leaders know legislators, most of whom get re-elected, so well that their calls for future meetings on behalf of clients will be returned. Leaders, when they recruit and raise money for their candidates, are used to being the contacts for organizations and their leaders statewide. Having been lobbied repeatedly, legislators know both the issues and how lobbyists work.
There’s also a partisan pendulum to lobbying.
Ex-Republican legislators and aides are in demand when that party controls the Capitol, as it has since 2011. In the 2009-10 session, Democrats held the levers of power, so special-interest groups scrambled to find lobbyists with those connections.
Two lobbyists and first-term Assembly Democrats from Milwaukee are fathers and sons.
Rep. Dan Riemer is the son of former state budget director David Riemer, a lobbyist for an advocacy group for the poor, Community Advocates Inc. And Milwaukee Rep. Evan Goyke is the son of former state Sen. Gary Goyke, who lobbies for transit systems and the Council for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
Former Republican Sen. Ted Kanavas said he registered as a lobbyist, even though he’s not being paid to push his personal cause—early childhood reading. “Got to get kids reading at grade level entering Grade 4,” he said in an email.
Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. This column reflects his personal perspective. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.