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The June 5 recall election of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has huge implications for the country. After a year and a half of historic protests and unprecedented citizen activism, the recall is a referendum on whether grassroots, democratic action can overcome the power of money in the Citizens United era. “This is about the ability of the people of Wisconsin to control their own destiny versus money from millionaires outside the state,” says Lynn Freeman, executive director of United Wisconsin, the group that was formed to head up the recall effort.
Last year, Walker raised more than $12 million in campaign donations, shattering state records.
In fundraising letters, Walker portrays the recall fight as an epic battle to stop power-hungry unions. One such letter, featuring photographs of the same mass rallies at the capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, that so inspired progressives, is meant to scare out-of-state conservatives into contributing to Walker’s campaign.
“Big Labor Bosses know what they want, when they want it, and how they’re going to get it,” Walker writes. “Their naked power grab starts here in Wisconsin and then radiates across the country. Mark my words, if they barge and bully and get their way here, your state’s next.”
As anyone who was at the Wisconsin rallies can tell you, it was ordinary citizens, not “Big Labor protesters, many bused in from Chicago and Las Vegas,” as Walker puts it, who led the recall fight. In February and March of 2011, Wisconsinites organized the largest sustained mass rallies for public sector workers in the history of the United States and the biggest outpouring of labor activism since the 1930s.
After the unprecedented recalls of two Republican state senators last summer, an organic, grassroots movement sprang up to recall Walker with an astounding 30,000 volunteers throughout the state gathering more than one million signatures on recall petitions. These same volunteers are now actively engaged in a get-out-the-vote effort.
The whole country is waiting to see whether or not citizens can overcome the corporate takeover of government in Madison. Meanwhile, for Wisconsinites, it’s personal.
Walker has made the largest cuts to public education in the history of the state, eviscerating our top-tier public schools as well as a model university and technical college system. In the birthplace of the public employees’ union, AFSCME, he overturned public employees’ right to bargain collectively. He has moved to disempower the state legislature, do away with open meetings, and shred the robust regulatory apparatus that has made Wisconsin a model of good government, environmental protection, and progressive ideals.
Republican leaders are quite frank about their assault on progressivism.
As Representative Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who is the darling of budget cutters, put it at an Americans for Prosperity event in Milwaukee in March: “Progressivism was founded here in Wisconsin. The battle between conservatives and progressives is coming to a crescendo this year.”
As Wisconsin goes, so goes the nation. Take the “war on women.” Even as Republican attacks on women were making headlines around the country, Walker was quietly signing legislation to make it illegal for women to sue for compensatory or punitive damages when they’ve been discriminated against in the workplace. He rolled back accurate, age-appropriate sex education. He cut funding for preventive health care at Planned Parenthood clinics. He banned private health insurers from covering abortion in state health insurance exchanges starting in 2014 in almost all instances. And he required a woman who is seeking an abortion to have a one-on-one consultation with a doctor prior to the procedure. The doctor must ascertain whether she is being pressured to have an abortion, and any doctor who doesn’t do that can be prosecuted for a felony.
All of this in a legislative session that, the governor said, would be all about “jobs, jobs, jobs.”
Instead, the legislature focused on sex, sex, sex—plus those massive cuts to public education and an across-the-board attack on everything from labor rights to tenant rights, from health care for the poor to nursing home care for the elderly. Walker and the Republicans pushed through legislation endangering Wisconsin wetlands. Democrats and moderate Republicans in the state legislature, empowered by the summer round of recall elections that narrowed the Republican senate majority down to a single vote, turned back a mining bill drafted by a single out-of-state mine owner that would have jeopardized the watershed in northern Wisconsin, imperiled the wild rice beds of Native Americans, and rolled back environmental regulations and the public meetings process. Walker didn’t even pretend to care what citizens of the state or the legislature had to say. In a conference call with reporters, he explained why he wouldn’t bother considering a bipartisan, compromise bill: “Governor Scott Walker said he spoke with the president of the mining company Gogebic Taconite,” Shawn Johnson reported in BusinessNorth.com. “He says G-TAC told him it felt it had already compromised enough, and did not want to bend any more.”
Democratic state senator Bob Jauch, one of the authors of the compromise bill, commented dryly, “I thought the governor of the state of Wisconsin had the veto pen, not the owner of the Gogebic Taconite company.”
As for Walker’s “jobs” agenda, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that Wisconsin had the single worst record in the nation for job losses from January 2011 to January 2012. While the nation experienced a mild recovery, adding jobs overall last year, Wisconsin was one of only five states to actually lose jobs. Wisconsin’s 12,500 lost jobs was three times worse than the next-worst state on the list, Missouri.
Still, in deeply divided Wisconsin, the outcome of the recall election is up in the air, with early polls showing Walker with a slight edge.
Wisconsin has only 350,000 union members out of 5,700,000 state residents. The union membership rate for the working population stands at 13.3 percent—above the national average of 11.8 percent but still not at a towering level. And Walker’s divisive rhetoric has succeeded in driving a wedge between many nonunion working people, who have low wages and paltry benefits, and their unionized neighbors, who enjoy decent wages and generous benefits.
Shortly after taking office, Walker delivered a cynically titled “fireside chat,” in which he told state residents about his brother-in-law, a caterer, who had to pay $800 a month for insurance and retirement benefits. Why, he asked, if private sector workers are struggling, should unionized public employees get cushy benefits? This argument—pretty much the polar opposite of the “solidarity” message on signs carried by teachers and snowplow drivers and firefighters and police officers and parents and grandparents and active community members who came to the rallies from all over the state—resonates with many economically insecure private-sector workers.
That divide, between solidarity and invidiousness, between fighting for a just society for everyone or settling for a race-to-the-bottom mentality, was on display at the Americans for Prosperity rally in Milwaukee. Anne Winrick, an unemployed pharmacy technician, and her fiancé, Dave Ford, a registered nurse from Madison, like many other tea partiers in attendance, were contemptuous of both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, whom they described as “bought by Wall Street.” They were Rick Santorum fans, suspicious of “big government” and “the corporations,” and they said the biggest problem the nation faces is Obamacare.
What about covering the uninsured?
“People might need a little help from the government if they are uninsured,” Winrick conceded, “but not something that makes them dependent.”
As an unemployed person, Winrick said she opposed Obama’s extension of unemployment benefits. “I’ve been unemployed before,” she said. “Let me tell you, when your unemployment is about to run out, it really gets you off your butt to find a job.”
But does she have confidence that the jobs are out there? “Well, that’s a different question,” Winrick said, sounding suddenly more somber. The jobs picture in Wisconsin is grim, she acknowledged. “People have to be willing to take a pay cut. I took a huge pay cut. They have to realize they’re not going to be a CEO.”
Mike McCabe, head of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, thinks Democrats and unions need to pay closer attention to the feelings of conservative, economically vulnerable voters like Winrick.
“There has to be a sense of solidarity with people who are not union,” he says. “If solidarity is just something you feel with 350,000 people out of five million, there are going to be a lot of people who don’t feel they have a dog in your fight.”
If Walker succeeds in persuading the majority of nonunion voters that the recall election is just a battle between big labor and big corporations, or worse, between big labor and fiscal conservatism, then he very well may pull off a victory.
But so far, all signs point to a very energized, grassroots recall movement.
“People are pretty fired up,” says Freeman of United Wisconsin. “They’re chomping at the bit.”
Mark Miller, who was one of the fourteen state senators who fled to Illinois to delay passage of Walker’s union-busting budget repair bill, says Wisconsinites are wide awake. “No longer is there any voter in Wisconsin who’s going to be apathetic,” he says. “People realize what’s at stake.”
“A lot of people recognize the political system has been overtaken by a corporate elite,” Miller adds. “But others just feel a basic sense of unfairness and injustice and loss of Wisconsin’s political history. Women’s rights, workers’ rights, the environment, our investment in our educational system—in a blink of an eye it was all thrown in the trash heap.”
Meanwhile, the rightwing moneymen are backing Walker to the hilt.
David Koch, in an echo of the notorious phony call, admitted he’s going to bat for Walker.
“We’re helping him, as we should,” he told the Palm Beach Post in February. “We’ve spent a lot of money in Wisconsin. We’re going to spend more.”
The Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity spent at least $700,000 on a series of pro-Walker commercials during the winter, which helped turn Walker’s numbers around.
“What Scott Walker is doing with the public unions in Wisconsin is critically important. He’s an impressive guy and he’s very courageous,” Koch said. “If the unions win the recall, there will be no stopping union power.”
David Koch is not alone.
Bob Perry, the Houston mogul who financed the “Swift Boat” attack on John Kerry, was Walker’s single biggest contributor from July 1 of last year to January 17 of this year, giving Walker $500,000.
Two executives from a private roofing company in Joplin, Missouri, combined to give Walker $500,000 in the same period. (David Humphreys and Sara Atkins, brother and sister, run TAMKO Building Products.) Oddly, another Missouri contractor, Stanley Herzog, also ponied up $250,000. Foster Friess, who underwrote the Santorum campaign, threw in $100,000. As did Dallas oilman Trevor Rees-Jones. And Bruce Kovner, hedge fund owner and former head of the American Enterprise Institute, also tossed in a hundred grand.
Against these fat cats stand the activists who have put themselves on the line over the last sixteen months.
Jenna Pope, a twenty-one-year-old who has been arrested almost a dozen times in anti-Walker protests, worries about what a Walker win would mean.
“If we don’t recall Scott Walker and take control of our legislature in Wisconsin, it’s our rights at stake,” says Pope, who has been part of the core group of young people engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience against Walker. “Our right to organize in the workplace and to have safe working conditions and to have living wages and good benefits that make it possible to raise a family. Our right to affordable health care so our kids can have checkups and make sure they’re healthy. Walker has been demolishing our First Amendment rights. And women’s rights are also at stake: the ability for women to take control over their bodies and make their own decisions.”
Both the reality and the image of Wisconsin as a progressive state would be shattered.
“I am not a Wisconsin native,” says Chris Reeder, who has led the Solidarity Sing Along in the capitol, which has been going on continuously every workday since February 2011. “I’ve been in Wisconsin for ten years, and I’ve grown very fond of Wisconsin. And the people I’ve met at the capitol have taught me about the Wisconsin they believe in. It’s a fair Wisconsin. A just Wisconsin. A clean, beautiful Wisconsin. A Wisconsin that values the rights of workers. A Wisconsin where students and teachers are our most valuable resources. A Wisconsin where voting is a right, not a privilege. A Wisconsin that protects the most vulnerable among us. A Wisconsin that values health over profit. A Wisconsin that values people over corporations. That’s the Wisconsin they taught me about. And that’s what’s at stake in the upcoming elections.”
Nationally, the consequences of a Walker victory would also be grave.
“The strategy is, if you can take down Wisconsin on this, you can take down any other state,” says Freeman of United Wisconsin. “All the other states will fall.”
“The nation is at stake with this recall,” says Callen Harty, fifty-four, who has protested at the capitol almost every day for the past fourteen months. “If Walker wins, it emboldens governors and legislators across the country to do more of what he’s done to push a rightwing agenda. Not just an anti-union agenda. It’s an anti-people agenda.”
It would send a signal to rightwing Republican governors around the country to keep shoving it to workers and the poor, to keep privatizing everything in sight, to assail public education and social programs. It would be open season on progressive policies on every front.
Governors from Arizona to Indiana, from New Jersey to Michigan and Maine, would accelerate their own drives to outdo Walker in implementing the fantasies of ALEC and the Koch Brothers.
The Republican Party also sees the Walker campaign as setting the stage for a November election.
“Anything Scott Walker needs from the RNC, Scott Walker’s going to get from the RNC,” said Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee and former chair of the Republican Party in Wisconsin.
A Walker victory “would mark a potential turning point in national politics—giving momentum to those who would move the country to a lower standard of living and encourage further erosion of workers’ and women’s rights,” says Frank Emspak, labor historian and founder of Workers Independent News.
Gallingly for Wisconsinites who have battled Walker every step of the way, he would become the darling of the Republican right. He’d be coronated each night on Fox News, and his star would keep rising. His five o’clock shadow would become the face of Republican triumphalism.
“It would be a pretty significant loss for us,” says Jenna Pope. “A lot of people have been sacrificing so much to combat Scott Walker so I’m sure people would be very, very, very disappointed, but I think it would make people fight even harder, at least the people I’ve grown close to over the last year. They’re not the people who are likely to give up. Even if he were to win, we wouldn’t go away.”
But Freeman of United Wisconsin believes it won’t come to that. “If we have honest elections, I have no doubt that people are going to win out over money,” she says. “If people go to the polls, we win.”
Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive and Matthew Rothschild is the editor. Thanks to Allen Ruff for providing research on Walker’s donors.