When speaking to a Tea Party gathering at Madison's Esquire Club this summer, Rebecca Kleefisch took a moment to compliment the crowd before launching into her stump speech for lieutenant governor.
"This is the first tea party organization that I have spoken to that prays before the beginning of the meeting, so God bless you guys for doing that and putting Jesus first," said Kleefisch. "Because if we don't stay Christ-centered, then who are we to say we should lead?"
During the same presentation Kleefisch offered her criteria for being governor: "My qualifications for a governor are a Christian man who can actually right our financial ship instead of just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic like our last administration has done for the last eight years."
Meet Wisconsin's new lieutenant governor, who pledged in a campaign flier that, if elected, she would make decisions in her official capacity the way she always has — by "relying on the wisdom and faith she has in Jesus." In the same flier, Kleefisch, who attends a nondenominational evangelical church in Oconomowoc and is married to state Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, tied her opposition to abortion and gay marriage to her religious underpinnings. She recently drew national attention, much of it derisive, when she likened gay marriage to someone marrying a table, a clock or a dog.
Should Gov.-elect Scott Walker not finish his four-year term for any reason, Kleefisch would become governor. The odds of that happening are not that long, if recent history is any guide. As the Appleton Post Crescent pointed out in its Oct. 31 endorsement of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett, two of Wisconsin's past five elected governors have been replaced by their lieutenants mid-term. And as Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton notes, five U.S. governors did not finish their terms in 2009.
"This is serious stuff," says Lawton. "We know very little about Rebecca because she has chosen not to debate her opponent," she adds. "The person who stands in line to succeed the governor is someone we should know."
This past weekend Lawton provided her own take on the role of religion in politics in a videotaped welcome to members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, who were attending their national conference in Madison. She said that her grandfathers, both Protestant ministers, appreciated that government did not encroach on their ministries, and she expressed frustration with leaders who fail to understand or honor the constitutional separation of church and state.
"I maintain that my faith — or not — as an elected official is not a topic for debate. Politics is really about the dignity of daily life, about the government's necessary role in ensuring the essential civil and human rights that define a free people," she said. "Government exists to provide the framework for ethical behavior."
John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron who studies religion and politics, says it is not unusual for political candidates to talk about their faith, but it is rare to see candidates make it central to their campaign. Those who do are generally not successful, losing in the primary or general election, Green says.
But if they do make it into office, he adds, they tend to de-emphasize their faith "because officeholders have to deal with a multiplicity of issues."
Lawton says when she took her oath of office in January 2003 that she felt a "palpable weight of responsibility" settle on her shoulders. "How that will impact (Kleefisch), no one can predict," Lawton says. "We don't know her well enough."
Kleefisch is largely an unknown quantity. A former reporter for WISN-TV Channel 12 in Milwaukee with no prior political experience, she entered the race and handily beat four more seasoned opponents in the Republican primary, including Rep. Brett Davis, R-Oregon, and Superior Mayor Dave Ross.
A tea party favorite, Kleefisch refused to debate the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, Tom Nelson, and she and Walker rarely campaigned together. Bill Kraus, a moderate Republican and press secretary to former Gov. Lee Dreyfus, says the one thing known about Kleefisch is that "Charlie Sykes and Mark Belling love her," referring to the popular conservative Milwaukee radio talk show hosts. Kleefisch won the primary, Kraus says, primarily because of the "influence that talk radio has over Republican voters."
As for Kleefisch's potential influence once in office, Kraus predicts that "unless something untoward happens to Walker you'll never see her again." Given the office's lack of institutional powers, no Wisconsin lieutenant governor has ever played a significant role in state government, says Kraus. "She'll be whatever (Walker) wants her to be, otherwise she won't be anything."
Green puts it a bit more delicately. "The power of lieutenant governors varies a lot from state to state. In most states the lieutenant governor has as much authority as the governor wants to give them. A lot depends on the relationship the lieutenant governor has with the governor and the symbolic role is more typical."
During his acceptance speech Tuesday night, Walker waited to introduce Kleefisch until he had recognized the many members of his own family and his wife's family in the crowd. She and her family stood off to the side of the podium, out of range of the television cameras, while Walker launched into his speech, which began: "First I want to thank God. Not for this victory, but for his abundant grace."
During the campaign, Kleefisch talked up her friendship with Walker and said she would see their respective roles, if elected, as CEO and VP of marketing for Wisconsin. Walker gave some indication of how Kleefisch might participate in his administration when, in his acceptance speech, he briefly thanked her and said: "You're going to be a great ambassador pushing small businesses forward."
But some advocates are concerned about what kind of role, symbolic or otherwise, Kleefisch might play on social issues given her promises to base her decisions in office on her faith. Both Kleefisch and Walker, for instance, are opposed to the state's domestic partner registry and recently instituted policy of offering health care coverage to the domestic partners of state employees.
"Both the governor and lieutenant governor have the ability to impact the lives of LGBT youth and people regardless of whether it's through legislation or through leadership to create a more inclusive state," says Katie Belanger, executive director of Fair Wisconsin, a gay rights advocacy group.
But it can also work the other way, she adds, "especially when you have a leader like Rebecca Kleefisch who is unafraid to speak out in ways that are offensive to LGBT people. It feeds into the bullying environment that LGBT people live in in Wisconsin and it creates an environment where it's OK to discriminate."