MADISON, Wis. — When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker needed help twisting arms to get his polarizing bill eliminating most public employees' union rights through the Legislature, he turned to Scott and Jeff Fitzgerald. The Irish Catholic brothers hold the top two legislative posts in the state, and they said their success was due to blood as much as political skill.
"If Jeff and I were not brothers, and if we didn't have the personal relationship that we have, I don't know if it would have worked or not," said Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who is known as "Big Fitz" even though he is shorter than his younger brother, the Assembly speaker. "We were all on the same page in just about everything we did," he added.
The two took over the leadership positions this year after Republicans won control of the Senate and Assembly in the 2010 midterm elections. They are a unique family dynasty. There are no known cases, either now or in the past, where brothers held the two highest positions at the same time in a state Legislature, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
They also have forged a close relationship with Walker. The three have a standing weekly meeting, and sometimes, as in the heat of the union fight, they meet daily. They say the struggle to get the law passed in the wake of a walkout by Democratic senators and protests that drew as many as 85,000 people to the Capitol only strengthened their relationship and resolve.
Critics say their actions have torn the state apart. Efforts to recall 16 senators are under way, and a recent state Supreme Court election that turned into a referendum on the law showed a nearly 50-50 split among voters.
One Democrat has gone to so far to say Wisconsin has turned into "Fitzwalkerstan," where minority opinions and political compromise are not allowed.
"It seemed we were becoming a third world junta," said Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison.
The Fitzgeralds, both in their mid-40s, can be brash and charming. During the union fight, the public mostly saw their combative side, with Scott Fitzgerald in particular using bare-knuckle politics in an attempt to pressure the Democratic senators to return so he'd have a quorum for a vote on the bill. Some of his threats were petty – such as taking away their parking spaces – and others were serious, such as arrest.
Scott Fitzgerald also orchestrated a move to remove spending items from the bill so it could pass without the Democrats present and a surprise maneuver to get a nonpartisan legislative agency to publish the new law, which he argued put it in effect. A court has disagreed and put the law on hold while a lawsuit is pending.
Jeff Fitzgerald, meanwhile, kept the support of Republicans in the Assembly with less strong-arm tactics. As protesters circled outside the Capitol, he made a case for the bill during a closed meeting of Republican representatives. When one said his family had deep union ties and he couldn't vote for the bill, more conservative party members were livid. Jeff Fitzgerald just let the dissenter off the bill and plowed ahead with his appeal to the others.
"Not once did Jeff Fitzgerald come in and say, 'You have to vote for this bill,'" said Rep. Robin Vos, R-Caledonia. "That is a style I wish was emulated by every leader."
Ultimately, almost all the Republicans in the Legislature voted for the bill.
The brothers have taken some knocks from the public. A sign saying "Fitzgerald lies!" remained propped up along a busy Madison street for weeks, and an opponent stood on the street during the protests, shouting: "I am the Senate majority leader and I am czar! You will do as I say! I am above the law!"
Sitting in his brother's office adorned with a couple beer taps and a huge painting of former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, Scott Fitzgerald took it in stride.
"Being vilified by people who are obviously irate is just kind of a strange thing. . . . Sometimes it's almost comical," said the former newspaper owner and retired lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve.
Jeff Fitzgerald, a former stockbroker, said the public's feelings about what happened won't be clear until the 2012 legislative elections.
"We're not going to be judged right now, we're going to be judged two years from now if we've turned the state around," he said. "I think you have to make some bold decisions early on to get to that point."
The brothers insist their goal was not to bust up the unions but to balance the state's budget, which is projected to be $3.6 billion short by mid-2013. Walker's proposal takes away nearly all collective bargaining rights for most state workers, but also forces them to pay more for pensions and health care to save the state $330 million.
"People think we've been scheming and waiting to go after public employees for our whole legislative career, that's just not true," Jeff Fitzgerald said.
But it's notable that the bill exempts police and firefighters – including the Wisconsin State Patrol. Walker got strong support from those unions during his bid for election, and three days before he introduced the bill, he appointed the brothers' father, Stephen Fitzgerald, as patrol superintendent.
Walker has defended the appointment by saying the elder Fitzgerald was clearly the most qualified candidate.
The brothers got their love of politics from their dad. A former Chicago cop, Stephen Fitzgerald served as the sheriff in the conservative county where the brothers live until 2002, when President George W. Bush named him a U.S. marshal.
Scott Fitzgerald won election to the Senate in 1994, and his brother was elected to the Assembly six years later. Both rose through the ranks to attain the top spots this year, and despite the drama, they've kept their party united.
Sen. Robert Cowles of Green Bay, one of eight Republican senators targeted for recall after voting for the union bill, said he believes the changes were needed to deal with the state's financial problems and he doesn't hold Scott Fitzgerald responsible for the angry blowback.
"I felt he's done a good job representing our caucus, during one heck of a challenging period," said Cowles, a 24-year member of the Senate. "I really don't have any criticism."