By Geoff Davidian
SHEBOYGAN, Wis (Reuters) - The first-term mayor of a Wisconsin town, a self-described alcoholic who has come under pressure to step down, survived the first round of a recall election on Tuesday by getting more votes than any other candidate.
Sheboygan Mayor Bob Ryan, 48, took about 33 percent of the vote in the eight-way contest, the city's first mayoral recall election, and former state representative Terry Van Akkeren finished second with 26 percent, the city clerk's office said.
"I feel great. We took first place," Ryan said in an interview from his post-election party.
The Sheboygan election came on the same day as opponents of another Wisconsin politician -- Republican Governor Scott Walker -- filed petitions containing more than a million signatures to try to force the governor into a special election only a year after he took office.
Since no candidate received a majority of the votes cast in the Sheboygan election, where the contenders also included a high school student, the top two vote-getters move on to a run-off on February 21.
That vote will be essentially a rematch of the last election, in which Ryan defeated Van Akkeren to win the office in 2009.
More than 4,000 Sheboygan voters had signed petitions to force the recall after Ryan was caught on tape making sordid jokes about a sister-in-law and was photographed passed out in a tavern during a drinking binge last summer.
Ryan, a married father of three, admits he was a binge drinker and considers himself an alcoholic but said he has not had a drink for months.
"But I know the only way to put the character issue to rest is over time. I hope that by the election it will be behind me."
LOOKING FORWARD TO REMATCH
Ryan said he was looking forward to the rematch with Van Akkeren and hoped the result of Tuesday's vote would let the campaign focus on issues such as drawing business to Sheboygan, which rests on the western shore of Lake Michigan about midway between Milwaukee and Green Bay.
He said in a pre-election interview that the scandal had forced him to come to grips with his drinking. "Everyone knew me as a fun guy. But lately it had changed. I was not a happy drunk. I became cynical."
Interest in the election was so strong that the Sheboygan city clerk's computer servers were overwhelmed. More than 9,800 votes were cast for a turnout of about 34.5 percent.
Ryan was a city councilman before winning election to his first term as mayor in 2009. He defeated Wisconsin's first Latino mayor, Juan Perez, in a primary, and Van Akkeren in the general election.
Van Akkeren, 57, who served as a Sheboygan alderman from 1986 to 2003 and as a state representative from 2003 to 2010, saw the results differently.
"The mayor got 33 percent of the vote," Van Akkeren said in a telephone interview. "That means 67 percent of the people aren't happy with him."
As for the high school student? Asher Heimermann, 18, a senior at South High School, finished last with a handful of votes, but ahead of write-ins.
The recall election was a first for Sheboygan, but not the first time residents have attempted to recall a city leader. Opponents tried to recall Perez six years ago, but failed to gather enough support among voters to force an election.
(Reporting By Geoff Davidian; Editing by David Bailey, Paul Thomasch and Cynthia Johnston)