Last February, newly-elected state Sen. Terry Moulton was inundated with thousands of emails, letters and phone calls to his office.
The state Capitol had erupted into protests that went on for the better part of a month, as Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators pushed legislation to strip many public employees unions of most collective bargaining rights.
Moulton, a Republican from Chippewa Falls, supported the legislation and is now facing a recall effort from Eau Claire Democrat Kristen Dexter to remove him from his 23rd Senate District seat.
During the Capitol occupation and for some time after, Moulton was confronted with backlash from union supporters.
“We got thousands of emails daily, and we had to try to sort through them to respond,” he said of his office staff. “Many were from out of state.”
The intense public divide not only impacted Moulton as a politician but also as a person and a business owner. Protests took place at his sporting goods store, he and his family were threatened, and he has lost friends and customers.
While the debates raged, constituent outreach was rocky. Moulton recalls the high emotions during local listening sessions in Lake Hallie and Bloomer. For Lake Hallie’s meeting, the question-and-answer format broke down into volatile comments and accusations. Moulton nearly walked out after about 50 minutes.
“It was kind of difficult … but we made it through,” he said.
The volume of emails, letters and phone calls has calmed down substantially since last spring, and Moulton has heard more positive comments and support from constituents.
But he is not the only politician facing public criticism. Dexter said she has also been subjected to rude comments and personal attacks while out campaigning.
“When I get those comments made to me, I say there is no need for that,” Dexter said. “I’m here as a real person for a real reason. You don’t have to vote for me, but you don’t have to say those things to me.”
Dexter said most of her campaigning has remained positive, and those who aren’t supporting her are generally polite.
The accelerated timeline of recall elections has left little time for either candidate to spend on campaigning.
Not that either is a stranger to voters. Moulton served two two-year terms in the Assembly before being elected to the Senate, and Dexter is a one-term state representative. That election came against Moulton in an extremely close race, so this is the second time they have faced off.
Between the familiarity of the candidates and the issue at the core of the recall, there isn’t the level of indecision that is often found with general elections.
“About 98 percent have their mind made up already,” Moulton said, noting that polls have showed very few independent voters. “The key to this election is getting voters out to the polls.”
Dexter said she has been surprised to find some voters unaware of who she or Moulton are. She has been contacting people who were previously contacted by volunteers and said they were undecided.
While not all of them say they will vote for her, Dexter likes to make the gesture.
“Even if they don’t completely agree, they appreciate the effort,” she said. “It still comes down to personal contact.”
The candidates have appeared together in one forum so far, at the Eau Claire Chamber of Commerce, but none that have been open to the public.
Moulton is one of 13 state senators to have faced recall elections in the past year, including three others next month. Also facing recalls on June 5 are Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.
Last year’s recall wave left a one-seat Republican majority for the state Senate. When Sen. Pam Galloway (R-Wausau), who was also facing a recall, resigned in March, leaving the majority up for grabs on June 5.
Moulton said in 2011 he heard rumors that he would be targeted for recall, but did not expect it to become a reality.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “There was no malfeasance, I didn’t do anything criminal.”
Given the many recall efforts launched over the past year, Moulton thinks the state should refine recall criteria to focus on misconduct rather than a difference of opinion.
Dexter disagreed, saying recalls are an important tool to protect citizens against corporate influence and abuse of power. She also does not think this will lead to more recalls.
“I see this as being a period of turmoil, and I do believe the turmoil is lessening,” she said.
Dexter decided to run against Moulton in January after a few points were resolved. The first was that more than enough petition signatures were collected to force a recall election.
“If (volunteers) just barely get enough signatures, it’s not a strong statement,” she said. “But when about 21,000 were collected, I realized I could do it.”
Her decision also hinged on whether the current 23rd Senate District lines would be in place for the recall election. The new redistricting maps passed by the Legislature last year (and set to take effect this November) put Dexter’s residence in the 31st Senate District. So if she is elected next month, she would have to move to run for re-election in the same district in 2014.
Dexter does not see a single term as the 23rd District state senator as a negative, equating it to that of a two-year state Assembly term.
If Moulton holds onto his Senate seat, he said he will keep his focus on the work set forth by Republicans in getting the state back on track fiscally.
“Give us a chance to allow the reforms to take effect,” he said.
If defeated by Dexter on June 5, Moulton said he would go back to running his two businesses — Mouldy’s Archery and Tackle store in Lake Hallie, and his manufacturing company Mouldy’s Tackle. He would also spend more time with his family and out on his fishing boat.
He is unsure if he would run again for political office.
“Something I would have to think about,” Moulton said. “One of the things I’ve always thought was never say never.”