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Rep. Jennifer Shilling and Sen. Dan Kapanke

Rep. Jennifer Shilling's recall election win Tuesday over Sen. Dan Kapanke was touted as a victory for Democrats looking to signal a rebuke to the Republican leadership.

But it was bittersweet for University of Wisconsin-La Crosse leaders, who lose an ally in Kapanke, as well as Shilling's voice on a key committee.

"It might be like saying: ‘Which member of your family do you love best?'" said Chancellor Joe Gow. "They've been really great. Both of them."

Both are graduates of the university and ardent supporters of the school, as well as the UW system. Each played a role in backing Growth, Quality and Access, the university's plan to increase enrollment and hire nearly 130 new teachers and staff through tuition increases.

Both held key leadership positions in the Legislature, giving them influence on issues affecting the campus: Kapanke chaired the Senate's higher education committee; Shilling sat on the budget-crafting joint finance committee.

Now Kapanke is out, and as a freshman senator, Shilling will lose the finance assignment.

"A single legislator on the right committee can make a big difference," said Joe Heim, a UW-L professor of political science.

Heim pointed to occasions when each prevented - or minimized - cuts.

On joint finance, Shilling blocked a fund raid by then-Gov. Jim Doyle that saved UW-L about $2 million in losses. Kapanke also worked to pressure Democrats to oppose the raid. In 2007, when Assembly Republicans pushed for cuts to the UW system, Kapanke urged them to back off, preventing deeper cuts.

Gow says losing Kapanke was a blow to bipartisan support in an increasingly polarized political environment, and that development is troubling.

"When it came to what was good for this university he was always there and maybe willing to go against his own party at times," he said. "That shows where his loyalty was."

Brent Smith, vice president for the UW board of regents, said Kapanke used his position to advocate against splitting UW-Madison from the university system.

"Here's something that Gov. Walker wanted, where Sen. Kapanke was not at all afraid to stand up," Smith said. "That was key."

Smith said he will also miss having Shilling on the finance committee.

"That was an important position," Smith said. "We always felt that she was someone we could approach."

Though she doesn't yet know what committee assignments she will have in the Senate, Shilling said she would look for ways to work for the education system through "a broader lens."

"I'm going to continue to be a strong advocate for our schools - K12, higher ed, technical schools," she said. "Just because I'm not on Joint Finance, I'm not going to abandon the efforts or advocacy for health care or higher education."

Kapanke's votes for Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill meant university faculty and staff would lose collective bargaining rights, which hurt his standing in some eyes.

"I know people are not happy about that," Gow said. "Is that enough for them to go to the ballot box and say: ‘We want a new state senator?' I don't know."

One thing is certain, Gow said, Kapanke's exit means one less advocate for UW-L in Madison.

"Dan Kapanke was somebody that was very supportive and helpful to UW-L," Gow said. "That there can only be one winner is unfortunate."


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