U.S. Senate candidate profile: Assembly speaker Jeff Fitzgerald

MADISON — Four Republican candidates are vying to take on Democratic candidate Tammy Baldwin for Wisconsin’s U.S. Senate seat. The GOP Senate primary is Tuesday, August 14th. FOX6 News is profiling the candidates for U.S. Senate. Next up — Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald.

Jeff Fitzgerald is one of the most well known figures in Wisconsin state politics because of the role he played in last year’s budget battle.

Fitzgerald is 45 years old, and was born in Chicago but reared in Hustisford, Wisconsin. He now lives in Horicon. Fitzgerald attended UW-Oshkosh and is married with a son and daughter. Fitzgerald is a practicing Roman Catholic with municipal and state government experience.

“Politics is always timing and I think I`m the right candidate for the time,” Fitzgerald said.

After Senator Herb Kohl announced his retirement, it was reported Fitzgerald and his brother, state Senator Scott Fitzgerald were both interested in the seat, but said they wouldn’t run against one another.

“A lot of people have been wondering about that.  They said did you flip a coin or was it arm wrestling?  It just came to be that it was better timing for me to run than my brother, and he is concentrated on the state Senate,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald is the youngest son in a competitive family. His father was a Chicago cop. When he was eight, the family moved to Hustisford, where his dad took a job as police chief.

“It was a town of about 1,000 people so, it was quite a difference,” Fitzgerald said.

The big city kid became a big fish in a small pond.

“I was the homecoming king, and got to wear that crown around all week, which was always a great deal,” Fitzgerald said.

At UW-Green Bay, Fitzgerald walked on the basketball team before transferring to UW-Oshkosh, where he studied journalism. That led to his first gig in politics which was a family affair, as his father ran for county sheriff.

“My first foray into politics was helping my dad — writing press releases,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald’s father’s bid for county sheriff was a successful campaign.

Later, Fitzgerald’s older brother Scott won a seat in Wisconsin’s state Senate. Jeff Fitzgerald then got the political itch, and ran for Beaver Dam City Council.

“Woke up one morning and heard on the radio the alderman was hanging it up at the time — wasn’t going to run again, so I went out and got my signatures and got on the ballot,” Fitzgerald said.

Shortly thereafter, the assemblyman from Fitzgerald’s district announced he was retiring, and Fitzgerald contemplated making a run.

Fitzgerald said he knew if he wanted it, he would have to work for it.

“I went out and knocked on a lot of doors and really outworked everybody and really had to prove myself,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald won, and never looked back. The Fitzgeralds had created something of a Dodge County dynasty. “Little Fitz,” as he is known at the Capitol, moved up in the ranks — holding various leadership positions — crafting the message and drafting the candidates that would lead to the “Republican Wave of 2010.”

“I was the guy who had to get us back into the majority and that was a big part of me becoming speaker,” Fitzgerald said.

The agenda could hardly have been more ambitious or controversial. Gov. Scott Walker’s collective bargaining reform plan churned a wave of protest.

“After we introduced this, somebody asked me what will happen at the Capitol and I said, ‘I think the roof will probably blow off,'” Fitzgerald said.

Throughout a month-long occupation of the Capitol, massive protests and national media attention, Fitzgerald was standing next to Gov. Walker the entire time.

“The governor needed us just as much as we needed him,” Fitzgerald said.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that if either Jeff or Scott Fitzgerald had wavered, the entire Gov. Walker revolution would have been over before it started.

“It was kind of the perfect storm. Without all three of us really being committed to seeing this through, it could have unraveled fairly quickly,” Fitzgerald said.

It was a political crisis. Fitzgerald faced hundreds of protesters outside his home, only to see 10,000 outside his Capitol office. As all of this was happening, Fitzgerald presided over an historic 61-hour debate — the longest in the history of the Wisconsin Assembly. Through hours and hours of sharp exchanges and heated rhetoric, Fitzgerald was largely quiet. It is one of the great ironies that the man with the title “Speaker” rarely speaks on the floor.

“I’m not a guy who gets up and speaks on the floor and speaks on every bill. There are guys who do that.  I’ve never felt that was the best way to do it. I always felt I would pick my spots to speak, and if I really had to make a point on a specific piece of legislation, I always thought that was the time I would do it,” Fitzgerald said.

Nearing the end of the historic debate, a frustrated Fitzgerald gave a speech that crystallized Republican resentment of the state’s Democrats. In the end, the legislation passed the Assembly, and soon after, the Senate.

“It was really about solidifying people and holding that team together to see it through to the end and I think that’s what people give me a lot of credit for doing,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald now looks back on a session in which he helped pass abortion restrictions, concealed carry and voter ID. He is perhaps the most successful Republican speaker in the state’s history, and he says the hard-fought budget reforms are his crowning achievement.

“I’m a battle tested conservative. I’m going to see it through.  They know what they get with me,” Fitzgerald said.

If politics is really a question of ‘what have you done for me lately?’ Fitzgerald certainly has an answer for the voters. What he doesn’t have is millions of dollars with which to persuade them. He also doesn’t have another job lined up.

“I’ve definitely got the most skin in the game. A lot of people still don’t know that that I gave up my Assembly seat, gave up being speaker to run for the United States Senate, but that’s kind of what I’ve been all about.  I didn’t get into politics to stay there forever.  I got in because I thought the state was headed in the wrong direction.  I think we have it going in the right direction now, but I think our country is facing the same thing but when you get too complacent in politics that’s usually when you get into trouble as a politician,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald was endorsed by the Republican Party at the state convention.

The Senate primary is August 14th.

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