Why Wisconsin's Recall Clusterf#@k Matters

Next month's election will say a lot about who controls American democracy -- regular voters or deep-pocketed ideologues

wisconsin recall
Mark Hirsch/Getty Images
Spectators cheer as recall volunteers deliver boxes containing signatures to recall Gov. Scott Walker in Madison, Wisconsin.
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GREEN LAKE, WISCONSIN – I'll never forget the day the Badger State made me cry. It was last year, on a lovely Saturday in February, and I was in Madison to witness the triumphant return to the state capitol of fourteen Democratic Wisconsin state senators. They'd fled the state 22 days before to deny GOP Gov. Scott Walker the quorum he needed to ram through a bill stripping public workers of their collective bargaining rights. (It passed anyway.) I’d stopped en route for a bathroom break at a packed cafe where ordinary folks looking just like the media's idea of "real Americans" – dudes in John Deere caps and non-ironic flannels and beards who looked like they'd just climbed down from the duck blind; hefty salt-of-the-earth ladies who probably never met plate of arugula in their lives – were making a pitstop before heading back out to vent their anger at the governor. They were practicing something I'd never seen before in my life: potty triage. No parallel queues – a short one to the Men's Room and a long one for the Women's – but just a mass of folks yielding equal-opportunity toilet access to whosoever had to go to the bathroom the worst. 

This, I thought, is what democracy looks like.

The cause of their wrath, Gov. Walker, had ridden the Tea Party wave to a six-point victory the previous November on a vague platform of budget-balancing and job creation. Once in office, he immediately turned around and began whipping his Republican legislative majority to passage of the collective-bargaining bill, and this in the state that, in 1932, first invented the idea of the public employee's union. The measure was called the "Scott Walker Budget Repair Bill." But the public workers had already agreed to concessions in their pension contributions that would have closed the budget shortfall – leaving nobody in doubt that Walker was really out to break the unions. Wisconsinites rose up – all sorts of Wisconsinites. Even public safety workers – police officers and fire fighters – whose unions had endorsed Walker joined the tens of thousands massing at the state capitol day after day, even though Walker had specifically exempted them from his law’s collective-bargaining provisions. The crowds – bigger even than those that gathered at the height of the Vietnam War – marched, sang, partied, exulted. The day I was there, in a solidarity hard hat graciously loaned me by my pal Pipe Fitter Bill, the signs were as funny as anything Jon Stewart's writers could have come up with: "WALKER, DOES YOUR WIFE KNOW YOU'RE SCREWING MINE?"; "WAL-MART CAN RUN SCHOOLS REEL CHEEP."

The protesters were Middle Americans, and they were loaded for bear. Already, activists that sunny February day were busy gathering petitions to recall Walker and his Republican colleagues in the legislature. They made a strong case. In going after unions' bargaining rights, Walker had pulled a similar bait-and-switch trick to the one George W. Bush tried after his reelection, in 2004, when he proposed privatizing Social Security, claiming his election victory as a phantom "mandate" for an extremist idea he had never even broached on the campaign trail. What’s more, Walker pursued his goal with a secrecy that was deeply offensive to the Wisconsin’s traditions of aboveboard government. The stakes were high, not just for public workers and union members, but for anyone who believed in good government at all. Last July, Racine County took advantage of a provision of the new law's eliminating "union-only" public job classifications and began using prison inmates to do their landscaping, painting, and maintenance work.

When signature-gathering to recall Republican state legislators got off to a strong start last spring, and as the months wore on the news kept getting worse for Gov. Walker. His boast of being a job-creator was crushed when it was announced in October that the state had added only 5,500 non-farm jobs in the previous twelve months. His claim to be a budget balancer was undone by the $1.6 billion in corporate tax breaks he had championed that left the state budget $117 million deeper in arrears. He bent regulations to allow a mine to be built by some sensitive Lake Superior wetlands – no small political blunder in a state where hunting and fishing is religion. By the end of the year, polls found 58 percent of Wisconsin voters favoring his recall – including 24 percent of Republicans, up from only 7 percent in spring. In January this year, the recall election was scheduled for June 5 after an astonishing million voters' signatures were submitted, way more than they needed. In March, a federal judge said Walker's law violated the First Amendment because it maintained collective bargaining rights for the police and fire unions that endorsed him while stripping them from the unions that didn't. In April, the federal courts struck down a strict voter I.D. law designed to make it harder for Democratic constituencies to vote and counted upon by Republicans to help Walker pull through. Then Walker found himself reeling further with the announcement that during the month of March state had lost 4,500 jobs.

And let's not forget what the Cheeseheads call "Walkergate." Before he was governor, Walker was the commissioner of Milwaukee County, whose office the district attorney has spent the last two years investigating as a fetid cesspool of corruption. Here's the nub of it: Walker has one of those "longtime close associates" newspapers refer to when they really mean "crony," a fellow by the name of Tim Russell, whom Walker had placed in eight jobs over eight years even though he was fired by the state in 1993 for gross misuse of public funds. One of his jobs for Walker was running the county's veterans affairs, including taking over a fund for wounded Iraq veterans that had been run successfully by the American Legion, but which Walker decided the county should take over. Russell has been charged with embezzling $25,000 earmarked for a veterans picnic from the fund, which he’s alleged to have spent on Hawaiian and Caribbean vacations, perhaps with his domestic partner. Oh, and that domestic partner is an alleged child molester, which would be neither here nor there, except for the fact that this is politics, where, it is said, the surest way to earn voters' disfavor is to be found in bed with a dead girl or a live boy.  Russell is also apparently responsible for putting together a top-secret email system for Walker aides that may violate Wisconsin's strict open records laws. The ongoing probe is a "John Doe" investigation, its targets unnamed, but the governor seems to fears one of those targets includes himself. He has recently lawyered up, and established a legal defense fund deploying three words not usually sounded together in the Badger State: the "Scott Walker Trust."

When it comes to Wisconsin Republicans, it seems to be corruption all the way down. In February the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that GOP lawmakers signed legal agreements not to discuss the crooked gerrymandered maps they were constructing in 2011 to create 59 Republican-leaning assembly districts to 40 for Democrats, even though Wisconsin voted Democrat in the last five presidential races by an average of 53.4 percent, because if they did so they might be called as witnesses in court cases. "Public comments on this map may be different than what you hear in this room," one related document reported in the Journal Sentinel instructed legislators. "Ignore the public comments."

So, hey, given all that, Scott Walker must be toast, right? Not so fast. Here's the hurdle: a primary election, today, to decide which Democratic candidate will face Walker next month. There are no less than four candidates vying for the nomination, which would be bad enough; but of the two top competitors, one is the same uninspiring personage, Tom Barrett, who lost to Walker by six points in 2010, and who entered the campaign a little more than a month ago – the same Tom Barrett, moreover, who as Milwaukee mayor proved conflicted enough about the very anti-union law that inspired the recall. But thanks to his name recognition and endorsements from the Democratic establishment, he's running ahead of a former county executive from Madison named Kathleen Falk, who has the backing of most of the unions who started the uprising in the first place, and who favors a much more effective and hard-nosed strategy to repeal the anti-union law. But Falk is no winner, either: she lost two statewide races in a decade, for attorney general in 2006 and for the gubernatorial nomination in 2002.

The two potentially inspiring candidates, meanwhile, Jon Erpenbach, media star of the Fab 14 (the state senators who skipped town to block Walker's law), and Russ Feingold, the beloved former three-term U.S. senator, declined to jump into the race, leaving Republicans gleeful. "They set up this World Series event, and they didn't get the people they wanted to run," a smug Reince Preibus, head of the Republican National Commission said recently. "And so what they have are a couple of people who have perfected the art of running for statewide elections and losing." The recently retired congressional liberal lion David Obey, who’s endorsed Barrett, has been even harsher: He calls the close primary race a "suicide pact." Although that might be overstating things – the latest polls show a tightening race – Walker is still the presumptive favorite.

OK, but why should anyone outside of Wisconsin care about this? Here's why: the voting in Wisconsin this spring "will be the first national test of the possibility of democracy in the Citizens United era," writes Ruth Conniff of the Madison-based magazine The Progressive, referring to the historic Supreme Court ruling that allowed unlimited spending on polticial campaigns. If conservatives succeed in breaking public unions in Wisconsin, they will try the same thing everywhere, with mind-blowing seriousness. Already by this February, Walker, taking advantage of a loophole that allows donors to recall targets to blow through the state's $10,000 contribution cap, had raised an astonishing $12.2 million dollars; then, by April, he had added $13.2 million more.

That's about twenty-five bucks for every Wisconsinite who casts a vote for a Republican in a typical off-year election – although, of course, most of that money does not come from Wisconsinites but from corporate titans and movement conservatives for whom, as per usual on the right, Walker's law-skirting brazenness has made him a hero, not a pariah. For over a year now he's been touring the nation, seeing their favors, explaining his plans to "make big, fundamental, permanent structural changes" to the shape of governing in America. Bob Perry, chief funder of "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” (you can read about Perry's Top 40 donors, all of whom have given more than $100,000, here) Amway's Rich Devos, and my BFF Sheldon Adelson, have all given $250,000. And though the Koch family have kept their fingerprints off the effort by not donating any money to Walker directly, attendees at their annual summits where they steer donors to their favorite right-wing causes have given $1.3 million. (Hilariously, Walker last year thanked a prank caller pretending to be David Koch for his support in "getting our freedoms back"). Forty-two percent of Walker’s donations have been plowed right back into direct-mail pieces imploring humble citizens to help Walker out in his fight against the "big labor bosses" and their "unstoppable" national juggernaut.

In actual fact, those would be the big labor bosses whose candidate was abandoned by the Wisconsin Democratic establishment. And also in actual fact the entire Democratic field have together raised $2 million in the last three months in direct contributions to Scott Walker's $13.2 million.

So, $25 per vote from reactionary out-of-state donors versus three bucks and one million petition signatures from regular old Wisconsinites: which one of them will prevail in June will tell us what American democracy will look like – if it will look like democracy at all. It's like one of those posters I saw in Madison last year said. It quoted the Gettysburg Address: "Now we are engaged in a great civil war testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived or so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war." The picket sign added: "MADISON is that battlefield."