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Charlie Sykes: Sykes Writes

RISING CONSERVATIVE STARS PART I

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 My picks from the new issue of Wisconsin Interest.

State Rep. Michelle Litjens (R-Oshkosh): She brings a passionate outsider’s perspective to the Legislature.

Last year would have been a good one for Michelle Litjens even if she hadn’t been elected to her first term in the state Assembly.

Litjens was there at the beginning of Ron Johnson’s improbable bid for the United States Senate, long before it was on anyone’s political radar. A longtime Johnson friend, it was Litjens who invited him to speak at a Tea Party rally in Oshkosh and, early in 2010, began introducing the long-shot conservative to party activists and opinion makers (including the author of this article). At the state party convention that unexpectedly endorsed Johnson, Litjens placed his name in nomination.

A former third vice chair of the state GOP, Litjens, 38, is no newcomer to politics, but she brings a passionate outsider’s perspective to the Legislature. She describes herself as an “activist who grew up with parents who were doers,” and admits to being impatient with the pace of the Legislature and “frustrated at business as usual.”

One of the most outspoken conservatives in a conservative Legislature, Litjens is pushing hard to pass Right-to-Work legislation, rein in public employee unions, and repeal the prevailing-wage mandate on local governments.

Like Ron Johnson, Litjens describes the country as at “a crossroads.”

“We’ve got two directions we can go in,” she told a local newspaper. “The one with more government, more taxes, or the other path of less government, less taxes and more freedom. I think I need to do something about it.”

Says a business lobbyist: Litjens is “very hardworking and very thoughtful. She’s going places.”

Says a staffer: “She’s is in it to make a difference.”

Says a Republican operative: “She is definitely ready to hit the ground running.”
The only concern is Litjens’ impatience. “She wants quicker and bolder,” says a lobbyist. “She’s impressive in front of small and large groups. She can wow them. I’d hate to see her fall victim to impatience.”

State Rep. John Klenke (R-Green Bay): He’s a retired businessman who speaks for the taxpayers.

Observers are quick to cite John Klenke’s “dynamic private-sector background,” but that hardly captures how unusual it is for someone with Klenke’s corporate experience to be sitting in the Assembly.

A CPA with a master’s degree in taxation, Klenke, 52, served successively as head of Schneider National’s tax department, president of its finance branch, vice president of corporate development (which included acquisitions in both China and the United States) and finally as treasurer of the company.

A notorious workaholic, Klenke retired so he could enjoy life. For a time, Klenke spent time every week with his 85-year-old father helping him write a book “to his eight children and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

But like other members of the Class of 2010, Klenke was drawn into politics by developments at the state and national level. “The government needs to serve the taxpayer,” says Klenke, “not the other way around. We need more dollars in the private sector and less in the government.”

“He never thought he’d go this route,” says a friend. “He was caught up in the movement that was happening.”

Says a business lobbyist: “He’s a top executive at a huge company, and he took on an incumbent who was Jim Doyle’s hat carrier on global warming...took out an incumbent in paper country. This was one of our biggest breakthroughs ever in Green Bay.”

A legislative insider describes Klenke as “a guy who got into the Legislature for all the right reasons...he wants to make a difference, and his background leads us to believe he could.”

But one friend is concerned about his transition from the private to the public sector. “I worry he won’t have as strong of an impact as he could.... He’s not an aggressive political guy.”

But Klenke is getting positive early reviews.

“He gets it,” says a legislative insider. “He’s one of the guys who get the whole picture.” Another staffer describes Klenke as “very deliberate. He will be a strong voice [in the GOP caucus]. But he will be a strong voice late. He won’t make a move until he has all the chess pieces in place.”

State Rep. Erik Severson (R-Star Prairie): He’s a phenomenal catch for the GOP caucus.

“He blew us away in caucus on tort reform,” a legislative staffer says of Erik Severson’s legislative debut. “He doesn’t look like a freshman; he looks like he’s been doing this before. With his medical background, he’s going to be a leader on health care reform.”

One of two practicing doctors on this list, Severson (who received his medical degree at the Mayo Medical School in Rochester, Minn.) has been an emergency room doctor at the Osceola Medical Center.

Health care reform drew this unconventional candidate into politics. Severson, 37, believes that Obamacare is unconstitutional and describes it as “trampling on freedom.”

“As soon as the government steps in and says you have to buy a service or a good, that’s a trampling on our liberties,” he explained in a campaign video. “I don’t believe the government will be able to run health care much better. In fact, I think they would do much worse than right now.”

Like other freshmen members, Severson emphasizes fiscal issues, pledging to “restore the confidence of Wisconsin’s private sector and create jobs, thereby improving Wisconsin’s economy.”

A trade group representative calls Severson a “phenomenal catch for the Legislature.” But he adds: “You wonder how many of them will come out for a second term, because they get burned out by the games they play in Madison.”

Says another insider, “He will walk the walk; he ...is not interested in being a career politician. He views this strictly as a part-time venture.”

Severson has made a strong first impression. “He gets it intellectually — the theory of being a conservative as well as the need for boots-on-the ground organization,” says a conservative activist.

Severson, he adds, could be destined for higher office.

 

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