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Scott and Jeff Fitzgerald: The right brothers
With Scott leading the Senate and Jeff the Assembly, the Fitzgeralds will set a conservative agenda for Wisconsin

Credit:Eric Tadsen

About an hour after being granted a sit-down interview with state Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, I happened to run into the then-incoming Republican majority leader by an elevator in the state Capitol.

Fitzgerald had been generous with his time earlier, though perhaps not as forthcoming as a curious reporter would like. These were, after all, those interesting days in December, when the lame-duck Legislature quacked its way to a decision to kill the state union contracts.

New Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the legislative Republicans led by Scott Fitzgerald and his younger brother, Jeff, the new Assembly speaker, wanted these contracts stopped in their tracks. That way they could team up to battle the public employee unions in negotiations handled by the new Republican administration.

Scott Fitzgerald didn't say it, but it was clear when we met at the elevator by chance that he didn't want to answer any more questions. He punched the elevator button, and after a few moments of congenial small talk, the door opened. But this elevator was headed in the opposite direction he was going. Fitzgerald let it continue, opening the way to a few more questions.

"Have you seen Marty Beil today?" I asked him.

Beil, who heads the state's chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, was seething over the delay on the vote to ratify the contracts. In a much-publicized news conference the day before, Beil essentially declared war on Walker and others not voting for the contracts' ratification. Later, in a brief private interview with me, he described the Fitzgerald brothers as "lightweights."

"They're spreading a lot of misinformation about the contracts," Beil said of the Fitzgeralds. "They're crybabies and whiners. They don't like pressure. They don't understand what bipartisanship is about."

Scott Fitzgerald hadn't seen Beil that morning. Nor, he added, did it matter: "He doesn't have the leverage anymore."

That evening, Fitzgerald's point got proven in dramatic fashion, when the Legislature's Democratic caucus unexpectedly buckled to the supposed wave of public sentiment represented by the newly empowered Republicans. Two Senate Democrats, Jeff Plale and Russ Decker, joined the GOP in killing the contracts, and Marty Beil was left sputtering.

A week later, in an interview with Jeff Fitzgerald in his new Capitol office, I asked again about this issue of leverage.

"The majority matters," Fitz the younger said. "The majority sets the agenda.

"But leverage is not what it used to be. Just two years ago, the Democrats had it all and were on cloud nine. The worst day I've had in the Legislature was that first day on the floor [in 2009] and being the newly elected minority leader. I knew no matter what I said or what I did, [the Democrats] had the votes. That was the wakeup call."

And being in that position of perceived powerlessness informs his view now that Republicans have total control.

"You still have to work with people," Jeff told me. "That leverage could be gone the next day. It's cyclical. What goes around comes around. Anything you do on the floor, it can come back around at you. You have to keep that in the back of your mind."

For now, though, there's no doubt where the leverage lies: With a pair of brothers named Scott and Jeff.

The Fitzgeralds' mission, which they've definitely chosen to accept, will be to get Walker's vision for the state through a Legislature that their party now dominates. The GOP has a 19-14 advantage in the Senate and a 60-38 spread (with one independent) in the Assembly.

Wisconsin has not seen a Legislature this one-sided since former Gov. Tony Earl worked with an overwhelming Democratic majority in both houses from 1983 to 1987. (In the 1986 election, Earl was defeated in his bid for reelection by Republican Tommy Thompson, even as the Legislature remained in Democratic control.)

The Fitzgeralds, who hail from the Republican stronghold of Dodge County, jumped on the Walker bandwagon early in the primary campaign last summer. Since the dramatic shift of the November election, they have provided the talking points for this new legislative session. The chief goal: crafting a bare-boned budget to weather the state's $3.3 billion deficit.

"Everything is on the table," Jeff said in early December, when the brothers were guest speakers at a luncheon at the Madison Club. "Everybody is going to have to pitch in this go-around."

"There is an opportunity to make some significant changes to state government," Scott echoed. "That has to happen before you figure out how the revenue is allocated."

Now that the state employees' contracts and the high-speed rail hookup are dead, the talking points have narrowed around a new theme - that Wisconsin is once again "open for business." Key to this is Walker's plan to give the executive branch power to oversee agency administrative rules.

At the luncheon, Scott Fitzgerald aimed reform arrows at the Department of Commerce, the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority and the Department of Workforce Development. Both he and Jeff agreed Wisconsin might be better served if it were a right-to-work state - meaning workers have a right not to pay union dues. Neither dismissed the possibility of trying to decertify the public employee unions, as Walker has suggested.

In some quarters, the Republican agenda is being viewed with alarm.

"Every indication is they are going to make dramatic cuts in every important program - K-12 education, the University of Wisconsin System, health care for low-income individuals," says Sen. Mark Miller (D-Monona), now the Senate minority leader. "It looks like [Walker] is trying to find scapegoats to blame other than him and his party for those [anticipated] cuts. But this is an impossible situation for them - end the budget deficit and reduce taxes. It can't be done."

Maybe, but the Fitzgerald brothers are determined to try, with the public's apparent blessing. Walker won 52% of the vote in his race against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Senate Republicans, who turned an 18-15 deficit into their new majority, earned more than 54% of the vote statewide. Assembly Republicans, who gained 14 seats compared to the last session, garnered 53% of the statewide vote.

And, at least for now, the Democrats can do little except sit back and hope public sentiment returns to their side.

"When you control the whole thing, you can reflect your will," says Miller of the Republicans' advantage. "We do not have the power to stop that, except through public opinion. If the Republicans overreach, and they are giving every indication they will, then the only limitation is public opinion."

Perhaps that is why all that Republican leverage leads to a warning from Jeff Fitzgerald. "The political lesson is that people are beyond frustrated," he says. "I think people are scared. You can't pay them lip service anymore."

The brothers got their introduction to politics from their father, Stephen, a former Chicago policeman who in 1973 moved his family to Hustisford, Wis., to become the village's one-man police force. Fifteen years later, Stephen Fitzgerald was elected Dodge County sheriff on the Republican ticket, and in 2002, he was appointed U.S. marshal for the Western District of Wisconsin by the Bush administration. When he was replaced last spring by the Obama administration, Stephen once again ran for Dodge County sheriff, only to lose in the September primary.

Scott, now 47, and Jeff, 44, were both in grade school when the family moved from the far west side of Chicago. They lived in a heavily Catholic enclave near Oak Park.

"It seemed like every other house was either a cop or a fireman, Irish or Italian," Scott recalls. "It was an area where what parish you grew up in mattered more than what neighborhood you came from."

While you could take the boys out of Chicago, it was hard to take the Irish-Catholic Chicago out of the boys. "It was a typical Irish family," Scott remembers. "A very conservative family. Very Catholic. Very pro-life. Jeff and I served on the altar together."

And yes, the brothers, like all brothers, did fight.

"Things could get hot and heated very quickly," recalls Scott. "You never apologized for what you said. But everything was always forgiven, and you moved on."

Both worked on their father's campaign in 1988. By 1992, Scott was chairman of the Dodge County Republican Party. When the 13th Senate seat was redrawn for the 1994 election, he challenged incumbent Barbara Lorman, the first women elected to the state Senate, in the Republican primary because he viewed Lorman as being "too moderate" for the district. He won that three-candidate race and has never looked back.

Jeff took a more roundabout route to Madison. His basketball career at UW-Green Bay was sidetracked by a serious wrist injury. He eventually graduated from UW-Oshkosh, where his brother also received a degree. After school, he moved to the Chicago area and worked at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Worn down by the daily competitive grind, he returned to Wisconsin to raise his young family.

Jeff's first foray into electoral politics came in 2000, when he was elected to an open seat on the Beaver Dam city council. That same year, he was elected to the state Assembly and has been reelected since.

"I like politics," Jeff says. "Getting into politics, you get those competitive juices going. I've always been very competitive. It feeds that need."

The two have become something of a spectacle, not just here but around the nation. It is believed to be the first time that brothers have occupied such seats of power in a state legislature. They've taken some good-natured ribbing over a flattering feature that ran in The New York Times shortly after the November election.

"It's not even delivered in Dodge County," quipped Scott Fitzgerald at the Madison Club. His point about the liberal Times' relevance to his district was clear even if he underestimated the scope of its circulation.

And when asked the inevitable Smothers Brothers question - which one of them did mom like best - Jeff has a ready zinger.

"We both live in the same congressional district," he says, "and if we both decide to run, Mom says she's voting for me."

Both Fitzgeralds see the state's dire finances as an opportunity.

Says Scott: "There is no better time to come in and make some real changes and reforms in government than when you're in a crisis, and that's where we are now. So if [Walker] can make those changes, shake up state government and fine-tune some other things, I think the people will be responsive."

Jeff couldn't agree more.

"We're at the point where the credit card is maxed out, there's no cash in the savings and we can't go to the bank and borrow anymore," he warns. "So what do you do? You have to cut back on your spending. It's the only thing we can do. There are no tricks or gimmicks left to solve the budget crisis. You are going to have to cut spending."

And while efforts to do so will surely set off a war of words, the Democrats just don't have the leverage to counteract the majority. Scott Fitzgerald relishes the battle.

"If you're not willing to pick a fight with somebody anytime you come in this building, I think you're in the wrong business," he says. "Most of the drama you are going to see is created to drive home a political point. The reason you want to do that is to show the electorate there is a different viewpoint, a different direction. You saw how quickly that shifted in Wisconsin."

The voters made that clear in November. But voters can be a fickle lot, especially those with as much of an independent streak as we've seen over the years in Wisconsin.

On a national scale, the Newt Gingrich-led Republican revolt in 1994 withered over the next 10 years. And Barack Obama rode a mandate of change into Washington only to see that support disappear in last November's midterm elections.

"I think it's pretty clear," says Scott Fitzgerald of the lessons to be learned from those examples. "You have to tackle the issues that are of concern to the electorate. I've had that discussion with [Walker]. We need to figure out how bold we need to be so we can accomplish what we need."

It's the same message Jeff Fitzgerald says he's delivered in the crowded Republican Assembly Caucus room, which features 25 new faces.

"This is going to be the toughest session they'll ever be in," he reflects. "But I've also told them it's going to be the most significant."

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