Two weeks ago, Jeff Fitzgerald announced that he would give up a relatively safe and quite successful position as Speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly to run for the Senate. Despite a field of formidable opponents, Fitzgerald believes that he has the “compelling story” and the right credentials to make it work.
“I’m not going to lie to you, being Speaker of the State Assembly is the best job I’ve ever had in my entire career,” Fitzgerald told The Daily Caller in a phone interview. “But you know, I got into politics ‘cause I wanted to make a difference, and I was always raised that one person could make a difference.”
Fitzgerald presided over the State Assembly that passed Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s reform package that included controversial cuts to public employee benefits and curbed unions’ collective bargaining rights.
“I think people are fed up with politicians that say one thing on the campaign trail to get elected and then either vote or do something or kick the can down the road and do something else,” Fitzgerald said. “And I think the one thing I have to show is I’m battle-tested and been on the front lines of really putting reform in place that changed the state of Wisconsin. And I just want to take that out to Washington, DC to do the same thing.”
But Fitzgerald faces stiff opposition just to make it through the primary, particularly in the form of Tommy Thompson, the legendary four-term Wisconsin governor. Thompson is incredibly popular and boasts high name recognition straight out of the gates. 63 percent of Wisconsin Republicans hold a favorable view of him, according to a Public Policy Polling poll of the race, and just 23 percent have an unfavorable opinion.
“In the past, you would have expected Thompson entering a race to clear the field,” said University of Madison, Wisconsin political science professor Charles Franklin, who marveled that this time around, there is “no indication that other Republicans are scared of him.”
Another Republican contender, Mark Neumann, is also fairly well known, as a former congressman who made an unsuccessful run for governor against Scott Walker last cycle. (RELATED: Thompson leads in Wisc. Senate primary, but could have trouble)
But Fitzgerald was undeterred, and perhaps he shouldn’t be: the State Assembly speaker polls well among those who know him, and Thompson’s current lead is not decisive. Among voters who know Fitzgerald, he leads Thompson 56-34.
“I have a lot of respect for Governor Thompson, know him well — know him personally, as well as Mark Neumann in this race. But I just think politics has changed,” Fitzgerald said.
“I think we live in a society of you know, ‘what have you done lately? What are your accomplishments? What is your record?’ And I can show that that we’ve achieved some very significant pieces of legislation that turned the state around,” Fitzgerald said.
The ‘what have you done lately’ comment likely alludes to the fact that Thompson has been out of politics for the past eleven years, and Neumann, other than his unsuccessful 2010 gubernatorial bid, has not been in politics since 1999.
“I just think I have a story to tell right now that is very compelling to the people of Wisconsin, and I just think that the time is right for me — politics is always timing. And that is a big part of why I want to run for the U.S. Senate,” Fitzgerald said. “I think I have a great story to tell right now, and that’s probably what I’ll do out on the campaign trail.”
Fitzgerald has experienced partisan gridlock up close when Democratic state senators fled the state to prevent voting on Walker’s bill. Asked about the slightly less melodramatic gridlock in the United States Congress, Fitzgerald said both sides needed to take some “political risks.”
“Both sides have to stick their necks out,” he said. “We need politicians that aren’t worried about their next election, but are worried about the direction this country and the next generation.”
“I think you have to take political risks on both side of the aisle. Democrats might have to look at different avenues, as well as Republicans, to get to an answer,” he said.
“I’m not opposed to working across the aisle, but I just won’t differ from my principles on that of what I think it takes to move either the state, or, in this case, the country in the right direction. So I think there could be good ideas from both sides of the aisle,” he said.
Fitzgerald said the real problem was the political pressure that legislators on both sides felt from interest groups.
“I think the real problem we’ve seen is that nobody offers up any ideas anymore because there’s so much special interest that will come in and knock those down and distort the truth that a lot of people have become fearful of even putting out ideas,” he said. “You know … Paul Ryan, he puts out an idea, a plan for reform, and the next week a commercial is running of him pushing an elderly person off a cliff.”
“These adult conversations have to be had, and that’s what I think we’re starved for,” he said.
“A lot of politicians talk about the grandchildren’s future or the children’s future. I think our future is now. I think if we don’t get this country turned around, we’re really going be in a mess here real soon,” he said.