‘FitzWalkerstan’: The Republican Brothers And The Wisconsin Showdown

March 12, 2011 7:45 a.m.

Before last year, it had been more than 70 years since a political party in Wisconsin took over both the State Senate and the State Assembly in the same election. That rare event produced an even rarer one: siblings at the helm of both chambers.

“I’m ready for it,” Wisconsin State Sen. Scott Fitzgerald (R) told The New York Times in November, shortly after he and his younger brother, State Rep. Jeff Fitzgerald (R), were chosen to be State Senate Majority Leader and State Assembly Speaker, respectively. “If we don’t ruffle feathers this time, I think people are going to say we’re not doing what we said we would do.”

By that measure, Fitzgerald can rest easy. Gov. Scott Walker (R) has pushed through his controversial measure to strip most state employees of their collective bargaining rights, and feathers have been ruffled. Thousands have protested. Democratic State Senators left the state. Madison was compared to Cairo, and Capitol security to palace guards. And the Fitzgeralds have been at the center of all of it.

“Welcome to FitzWalkerstan,” State Rep. Mark Pocan (D) wrote on his blog on Thursday.Early Days

Scott and Jeff Fitzgerald were born three years apart in 1960s Chicago, where their father Stephen Fitzgerald — more on him in a bit — was a police officer. In January, Scott described the Fitzgeralds to a reporter as a “typical Irish family.”

“A very conservative family. Very Catholic. Very pro-life. Jeff and I served on the altar together,” Scott told The Isthmus Daily Page.

In 1973, the family moved to Hustisford, Wisc., a village about an hour drive northeast of Madison, where Stephen Fitzgerald took a job as police chief. Both brothers then graduated from Hustisford High School, and went on to receive degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. (Though Jeff Fitzgerald began his college career at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, where he played basketball.) According to the Daily Page, the brothers worked on their father’s successful 1988 campaign for Dodge County sheriff.

Despite that campaign, both brothers dabbled in different careers before running for public office.

Scott enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve in 1981, the same year he graduated from high school, and was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Armor Branch in 1985, the year after he graduated from college. In 1990, Scott purchased the Dodge County Independent News in Juneau, Wisc., which he ran until 1996, when he sold it. In the meantime, he apparently developed a taste for politics. In 1992, he became chairman of the Dodge County Republican Party. And when the 13th state Senate district was redrawn in 1994, he challenged incumbent Republican Barbara Lorman from the right — and won.

After graduating from UW-Oshkosh in 1989 with a B.S. in journalism, Jeff Fitzgerald undertook what he describes on his website as a “brief venture into the newspaper industry.” He then moved to Chicago and worked for eight years at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, where he “traded the yield curve on Eurodollars in the futures pit.” But he eventually tired of the work, and returned to Wisconsin where, in 2000, he was elected to both the Beaver Dam City Council and the State Assembly.

Big Fitz

Since being elected to the State Senate, Scott Fitzgerald’s rise has been steady. Before becoming Majority Leader, he served as Minority Leader, Co-Chairman of the Joint Committee on Finance and Chairman of the Senate Corrections Committee. And while he waited until August to make an endorsement in the gubernatorial primary last year, by the time Walker was elected, Scott’s public statement’s were unequivocal.

“What I really hope for is that we can tuck ourselves under the governor’s wing and really start working with this governor,” he told The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in November.

As the Times profile suggested, Scott — or “Big Fitz” as he’s known around the Capitol — seems to have come into his new job ready for a fight.

“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 told The Isthmus Daily Page in January.

During the recent showdown, Scott certainly seemed willing to live up to those words. He was a visible and combative presence in the media, and he tried to coax the runaway Democratics back to Wisconsin through a variety of public threats and quieter maneuvers.

“I’ve just about exhausted everything that’s available to me to try to compel them to come back,” Fitzgerald told WisPolitics on Wednesday, just hours before he and other Senate Republicans stripped the anti-union parts of the budget bill out and passed them without the Democrats there.

Little Fitz

“I like politics,” Jeff Fitzgerald told the Daily Page in January. “Getting into politics, you get those competitive juices going. I’ve always been very competitive. It feeds that need.”

Since his election in 2000, Jeff has served as chairman of the Committee on State Affairs and vice-chairman of the Financial Institutions Committee, as well as Assistant Majority Leader, Majority Leader and, in the term before the current one, Minority Leader.

The New York Times described Jeff as the more “laid back” brother, but he has been on the same page of the game plan.

“Over the past couple of years a lot of money has sat on the sidelines as a lot of people were afraid to invest,” Jeff told a reporter in December. “We’re hoping to put some things in place probably through tax cuts and regulatory reform to show that Wisconsin is open for business again.”

And when the Democrats originally managed to cripple the Senate by fleeing the state, the Assembly was where the Republican agenda kept moving. Indeed it was in the Assembly that one of the most dramatic moments of the standoff transpired: a surprise vote in the middle of the night met by Democratic representatives with cries of “shame, shame, shame!” On Thursday, Minority Leader Peter Barca offered a motion to have Jeff removed from his post, and accused him of violating the law.

And Papa Fitz

Finally, there is the original Fitzgerald of Wisconsin politics. Stephen Fitzgerald, 68, served as Dodge County sheriff until 2002, when he was appointed U.S. Marshal for western Wisconsin. When his term expired last year, Stephen ran unsuccessfully for his old Sheriff job. Enter Gov. Scott Walker. Earlier this year, Walker tapped Stephen to be superintendent of the Wisconsin State Patrol. The Fond Du Lac Reporter pointed out that Stephen was the only finalist for the job from outside the Wisconsin State Patrol ranks, and The Wisconsin State Journal said the “eye-rolling appointment” didn’t “pass the smell test.”

TPM readers may remember that the appointment came up early in the budget bill fight, after Scott Fitzgerald said the State Patrol could be called to round up the runaway Democrats — which would have involved him putting in a call to, well, his dad.

In Wisconsin politics today, it’s all in the family.

The TPM Journalism Fund: A New Way To Support TPM
We're launching the TPM Journalism Fund as an additional way for readers and members to support TPM. Every dollar contributed goes toward:
  • -Hiring More Journalists
  • -Providing free memberships to those who cannot afford them
  • -Supporting independent, non-corporate journalism
Are you experiencing financial hardship?
Apply for a free community-supported membership
Masthead Masthead
Founder & Editor-in-Chief:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Senior Editor:
Special Projects Editor:
Editor at Large:
General Counsel:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Publishing Associate:
Front-End Developer:
Senior Designer: