By M.D. Kittle Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Dale Schultz says he woke up Wednesday morning, brushed his teeth and saw the same guy in the mirror he saw before he went to bed the night before.
He was the same tall, middle-aged man with the receding hairline — the guy who could stand to lose 20 pounds, the dad whose family urges him to confine his singing to the shower.
Nothing had changed about him between recall Tuesday and Wednesday morning, Schultz said.
Particularly his politics.
So Schultz, a Republican who has represented the 17th Senate District for 20 years, found it curious that so many people have been talking about his politics of late.
Political rumors ran rampant Wednesday that the Richland Center senator, who has butted heads with Gov. Scott Walker and other top GOP leaders, was considering bailing on his party.
Worries were that Schultz would don the “independent” tag, or switch parties altogether — a troubling possibility for Republicans who, after Tuesday’s recall elections, may hold a majority as thin as 17-16 in the state Senate.
A defector could hurt.
Schultz tells Wisconsin Reporter no one need worry. He’s not going anywhere.
“I have no intention of declaring as an independent,” he said. “I’ve been an unrepentant Republican for 45 years, and I don’t plan to change that. I may be a different Republican than some of my colleagues around me, but I think that can be a good thing.”
In Wisconsin’s sweeping conservative sea change, Schultz is a different Republican.
The lawmaker, who has represented fiercely independent portions of Southwest Wisconsin for nearly 30 years including time spent in the Assembly, has long been seen as one of the more moderate Republicans on the block.
It’s an accusation Schultz dismisses.
“I prefer to refer to myself as a fiery pragmatist,” he said. “My constituents — the majority are neither Republicans or Democrats — they’re independents.”
Voters in the 17th spread their allegiance equally between Republican Ron Johnson and Democrat Russ Feingold in the 2010 U.S. Senate race. The district has voted for Barack Obama, and George W. Bush.
But Schultz has had his disagreements with GOP top dogs.
He was the only Republican to vote against Walker’s controversial budget-repair bill, which eliminated most collective-bargaining rights for public employees.
Schultz escaped recall, facing some angry constituents on both sides of the political aisle. The senator proposed an amendment that would have restored collective bargaining rights.
He says he’s the only politician who was threatened for recall by Republicans and Democrats.
He’s worked closely with Dems on a host of bills over his career, just as his mentor the late state and former state Rep. Steve Freese, a longtime Dodgeville Republican so often did.
On Tuesday, during Wisconsin’s divisive recall elections, Schultz toured Beloit and Janesville with his fellow senator and friend Tim Cullen, a Janesville Democrat. “The Common Ground Tour,” as the two lawmakers bill their stops in their Senate districts, is designed to bring some bipartisan good will to a legislative body that has seen its share of partisan squabbles and rancor in recent months.
Schultz said cooperation builds better laws, and better lawmakers.
“We have to do as my friend Tommy (Thompson) told me: We’re Wisconsin. We’re better than this,” said Schultz.
But cooperation and setting a more civil tone in Madison doesn’t mean Schultz is changing his party label.
The Republican Party of Wisconsin wasn’t worried about a defection, said party spokeswoman Katie McCallum.
“We were confident that it wasn’t going to happen,” she told Wisconsin Reporter. “We never really thought it was going to be something that would happen.”
McCallum said the talk about Schultz leaving the GOP was a non-issue from the start, nothing more than a rumor started Tuesday night “to get people talking.”
People were talking.
Schultz said he spent much of the day on the phone setting the record straight.
Barry Burden, professor of political science at University of Wisconsin-Madison, said both parties are right to focus on Schultz, who may have the power to affect a lot of legislation in the session ahead.
“I think you get more moderate legislation as a result,” Burden said. “Even if Schultz ends up voting with the Republicans on everything, I still think you affect the political calculations of legislative leaders and alter what they are doing.”
How that influences the conservatives’ agenda, particularly their economic and tax reforms, remains to be seen.
Beyond party affiliations and political tags, Schultz said his constituents demand that he do what’s best for the state and his district.
“I try to do that, to represent them to the best of my ability,” the senator said.