Most people probably don’t remember what they were doing on Oct. 5, 1995, but George Petak does. As he told the Waunakee Rotary Club at their June 20 meeting, early that morning, as the state senator representing most of Racine, he cast the deciding vote to build Miller Park.
Petak said that issue had been brewing in the state Capitol for many years. Bud Selig was the baseball commissioner at the time and had asked then Gov. Tommy Thompson to devise a funding mechanism to build a new Miller Park.
Petak said early in the 1990s, he knew something had to be done to keep the Brewers in Milwaukee. In April of 1995, a statewide referendum for a sports lottery was on the ballot but failed. It did have support in Racine, Waukesha, Milwaukee, Ozaukee and Washington counties.
A couple of iterations of the package to build the stadium were floated. One included public funding in the four counties but not Racine.
“That went down in committee,” Petak said.
A number of his colleagues believed Racine should be included, and threatened to withdraw their support unless Racine County was in. The next iteration included all five.
Petak explained that Mike Ellis was the Senate Majority Leader at the time and was responsible for moving legislation through.
“He despised public assistance for a private enterprise,” Petak said, adding that he had animosity for Bud Selig.
The package had to pass the state Legislature but had only a 17-16 majority without the leader.
Another public opponent, Democrat Chuck Chvala, saw an opportunity during the whole process, Petak said.
“He played the game better than everybody,” Petak said.
Petak said he tried to remove Racine County from the package, but without its inclusion, the bill lacked support. Several Democrats were expected to vote in favor, but only three actually did.
The debate began at 11 a.m. Oct. 4 and continued into the wee hours of Oct. 5.
“By the time it got to the final product…Chvala had succeeded in keeping his colleagues off of the bill,” Petak said.
Twice there was a vote for reconsideration, and finally, Petak changed his vote to one in favor and it passed.
The tax kicked in on Jan. 1, 1996.
The process unfolded, and Petak was the first legislator recalled in June of 1996.
One would think, he said, that a reason for a recall would be some moral issue or lack of integrity, not just based on public opinion.
“When elections are held, typically people are elected to a full term,” Petak said. “Recalls wipe out the process.”
He lost the recall election by 51-49 percent, and said it was a difficult time in his life.
“There were so many political shenanigans that were being planned both in public and in private,” Petak said.
Still, he stands by his vote on Miller Park.
“I knew it was a very difficult, very partisan, highly charged circumstance. I knew it was the right thing to do,” he added.
Had the park not been built, the Brewers would not be here, Petak said. The result today is high attendance at the games and a good team.