The Battle of Wisconsin -- A View From the Ground

I know what happened in Wisconsin. I was there on the ground, doing campaign work that spanned over a year and led me to all 13 districts that recalled Senators, as well as to other populous regions on the governor's race. I was also a soldier last fall in the Battle of Ohio, a much simpler skirmish which resulted in the repeal by a landslide of a law that was quite similar to the Scott Walker legislative offering that offended so many Wisconsinites. And, in my opinion, Wisconsin needs to be viewed in the context of Ohio for real insight. The truth is, Scott Walker could just as easily be John Kasich today, and vice-versa.

The question is simple: What recourse do the citizens of a given state have to overturn an action by elected officials which they can't tolerate. In Ohio, the recourse is to petition for a ballot measure which takes the offending law to a swift public referendum on a regular election day. In Wisconsin, the recourse is to petition to recall one by one the lawmakers responsible for the offense (but only after they've been in office for over a year) in special elections whose date is determined by the date the petitions are filed. Are you getting the idea? The Wisconsin recalls were a lot more convoluted and a lot tougher to accomplish than the Ohio ballot measure.

The ballot measure to repeal SB-5 in Ohio, which had stripped public workers of their bargaining rights, won last November by a 62-38 percent margin, a landslide. That's because the people of Ohio were able to go right at the law itself. Governor John Kasich remains in office, but in a memorably contrite concession speech, he said he had "heard the voice of the people" and slunk off into the land of shamed right-wing loserdom. If Wisconsin had had the same recourse as Ohio last fall, I pose that one Scott Walker would have stuck his tail between his legs in precisely the same way as Kasich, the bargaining rights of public workers would have been restored in Wisconsin by a substantial margin, and Walker today would hardly be some sort of faux conservative "rock star," but rather a soon-to-be-forgotten over-reacher.

Let me say it more clearly and colloquially: Recalls stink. I know it from experience on the ground talking to swing voters, the soft apolitical middle that decides every big election these days. Too many people think recalls will be used endlessly to simply nullify election results one side, either side, doesn't like. I live in California, where a circus recalled a perfectly competent but personally drab governor who had suffered from Enron's energy manipulations, and replaced him with a completely unqualified movie star. This only yielded a further downturn in the state's fortunes. I don't think a further downward spiral would have been the case had the Governor's recall succeeded in Wisconsin, where the Walker agenda really has rent the fabric of the kind of cooperative problem-solving Wisconsinites treasure, and Tom Barrett would have at least restored a positive outlook. But just repealing the lousy law Scott Walker and his legislative cronies shoved down the people's throats would have been a lot easier, a lot quicker, and would have seemed like the same kind of huge win we had in Ohio.

Think about it. Ohio was a "win" and Wisconsin a "loss" most likely because of the contrasting processes alone. The people and the issues are barely different. Yes, Walker was somewhat successful in his "Divide and Conquer" strategy, ginning up workers' envy towards those with better pension plans. Walker was Machiavellian enough to exempt the firefighters and police from his assault, and Kasich was dumb enough not to. So maybe the 62-38 percent vote in Ohio to repeal would have been 58-42 percent or so in Wisconsin. That's about it. The majority of the public in both states still agreed that, with public workers making substantial concessions to a new fiscal reality, going on to strip them of their bargaining rights went too far.

But there were so many variables and twists and turns in the dragged-out Wisconsin process that by the time the governor's recall election took place, the Democratic Party campaign wasn't even running on that collective bargaining issue, the issue that ignited the firestorm in the first place! Tom Barrett was never a favorite of labor. Labor flatly opposed him in the Democratic primary. He was equivocal enough on restoring the bargaining rights that the party thought they couldn't even run on it, and instead the campaign centered on how Walker has divided the state, which is true but sidesteps the central point, and how Walker might be indicted for violations in his time as Milwaukee County Commissioner, which remains speculative. All kinds of variables, including the usual dumb high-school-election clash of personalities, had muddied a very simple question: Should public workers' bargaining rights themselves have been assaulted? How many political light years had passed since the massive protests at the Wisconsin Capitol in the freezing cold of 2011. How long and winding the path had become, how much volunteer fatigue had set in. And of course the $30 million plus Walker was allowed to raise out of state to defend himself didn't hurt. My goodness, it was so much easier in Ohio, to halt the agenda by being able to go straight at the law!

A clear examination of the data from Wisconsin keeps turning up the same major points. Something like 60 percent of the voters in last Tuesday's exit poll said they thought elected officials should only be recalled for some sort of gross malfeasance in office, not disagreements on policy, no matter how severe. Some data in a Marquette University Poll a week before the election caught my eye, and everyone else's: Marquette had Walker up by 7 over Tom Barrett, and President Obama up by 7 over Mitt Romney in the same sampling. Huh? Exit polls the next week corroborated that pre-election data: 17 percent of respondents who said they voted for Walker said they intend to vote for Obama. That's a big number, a number that probably ensured the Walker win. The swing vote in this election was an anti-recall sentiment that didn't even address the underlying ideological issues.

So, given the difficulty of the process, were the Wisconsin recalls worth it? The answer is still a resounding yes. This was the only recourse millions of irate Wisconsinites had to be heard, and the statement was made. Wisconsinites rejected Walker's recall, but that doesn't mean they embraced his agenda or ideology. They actually voted directly to halt his agenda by electing the elegant John Lehman in Racine and turning the State Senate blue. What a comfort to have Mark Miller of the famed Wisconsin 14 serving as Senate Majority Leader. And don't buy into the doomsayers who say we'll just lose it back in November. There are two projected close races for us. Jess King in Oshkosh/Fond du Lac will have students back unlike last summer when she won narrowly, and now she's the incumbent in a presidential year, a big edge. The testier one might be in the beautiful Northwoods, where it truly is a shame that the perfect Senator for that district, my moderate friend Jim Holperin, has decided to retire instead of running again. That's a real loss, but we won Holperin's recall last year by 10, so there may be a cushion there.

Most importantly, let's look at the big picture, the one where we progressives historically, over time, never lose. When the great day comes that a massive people's movement undoes Citizens United, gets the 1 percent's undue influence out of the system, beats back the plutocracy and returns America's strength to the capable hand of its middle class, history will write that that movement truly began in the bitter chill of a Madison winter when hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites on the Capitol's steps stood up for what they believed in. Of this, Wisconsinites should be deeply proud.