Wisconsin Recall Divisiveness Affecting Personal Relationships

Wisconsin Recall Affecting People's Personal Relationships

MILWAUKEE -- The Wisconsin recall elections are being called an "epic battle," a "civil war" and even an "un-civil war."

While no one is firing upon each other with muskets and cannons, neighbors are being pit against neighbors and relationships between family members are becoming strained over competing visions for the future of the state.

In May, a man jumped in front of his wife's car to prevent her from voting against Gov. Scott Walker (R) in the state's Republican primary. He injured his head, neck and back.

And while most incidents aren't quite that extreme, it seems like almost everyone has a story about how their personal lives have been affected by the recalls.

"I have a sister who is a Tea Party member and a staunch supporter [of Walker], and that has definitely strained our relationship. In fact, we're pretty much estranged at this moment, because of the recall and politics," said Diane Flanagan, a lifelong Wisconsinite from Waukesha County. Flanagan is backing Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (D) in the gubernatorial recall election on Tuesday and turned out last week to hear President Bill Clinton rally Democrats in downtown Milwaukee.

"I've never seen a state torn apart in such a short time," said Pat Nolan-Burger, another lifelong Badger State resident who attended the Clinton event. "This happened within months of Gov. Walker taking office."

The divisive atmosphere is a central theme of Barrett's campaign. He consistently brings it up in his speeches, promising to restore a spirit of cooperation to Wisconsin if elected.

Barrett told The Huffington Post that he sees "people's heads go up and down" when he talks about how Walker has torn the state asunder.

"Probably one [story] that is most memorable to me is a woman came up to me and said, 'Don't forget wedding receptions. I was at three wedding receptions last year, and every one of them resulted in an argument,'" said Barrett.

The disagreements have even carried over into the workplace. Milwaukee resident and lifelong Wisconsinite Bob Peterson is a teacher. And while teachers have been some Barrett's strongest supporters, due to Walker's cuts to education funding and his restriction of public employees' collective bargaining rights, Peterson said that a few of his colleagues nevertheless support the governor.

"It is true though that amongst our colleagues -- even amongst some teachers -- there's a small percentage who support Scott Walker, and it's really damaged the people's ability to work together in schools, because there's such a divisive attitude and atmosphere in this state. It's made it very difficult," Peterson said.

"What President Clinton said is absolutely the case," he added. "There's always going to be conflict, and if you take it to the extreme and just my way or no way, it destroys all possibility of moving forward. That happens at the state level, but it also happens at the family level or the local school or local neighborhood level. It's a real problem."

In perhaps a sign of how divided people are, the two sides can't even agree on the level of divisiveness.

At a rally hosted by the Racine Tea Party on Saturday in Caledonia, Wis., there was widespread agreement that the atmosphere is better under Walker than it would be under Barrett. It was the union members who protested Walker's collective bargaining law who were responsible for the divisiveness that has pervaded his term, attendees argued.

Robert Utecht, who attended the rally, is a lifelong resident of Wisconsin who currently lives in a small conservative town north of Milwaukee. Utecht is also a member of the Teamsters -- a union that opposes Walker's changes to collective bargaining rights.

Utecht says his political views are well-known to his colleagues, since he appeared in a pro-Walker ad. But he hasn't had any problems with his fellow Teamsters.

"We get along," he said.

Both sides said that they simply avoid talking about politics when in mixed company. And when they do get the chance to engage, they end up getting frustrated by the other side's tactics.

Joe Dobogai, a lifelong Wisconsinite and resident of New Berlin, was also at the Tea Party rally. And for him, the issue hit extraordinarily close to home, since his wife is a Democrat.

"My wife is of the liberal persuasion. That's her only fault, I find," he said. "Otherwise, she's a great person."

When asked whether he tries to convince his wife to change her views, Dobogai replied, "Oh sure. But it doesn't work. That's fine. She's entitled to her own opinion. It's an incorrect opinion, but that's okay. She's a great person."

Richard Lorenz, a Waukesha County resident, said that when he canvassed on behalf of Barrett, he met a woman who signed a recall petition -- but didn't want her husband, a Walker supporter, to know what she had done.

Kurt Trampel, a Walker supporter from Hales Corners, said he finds Barrett supporters simply try to change the subject when politics come up. "They don't really want to talk about it," he said.

"The problem with most of ... the liberal Democrats is they won't stand and engage in a political discussion if you come equipped with the truth," said Pat McGarland, a conservative living in downtown Milwaukee. "Because their message is a distortion of the facts. And then they tend to heap assertions on you to try to discredit you as an individual. They're very weak in that sense."

He said that any discord the recalls might be causing in his family is just a public "manifestation" of the disdain his liberal relatives have held for years.

One thing Democrats and Republicans do agree on, however, is that the other side's unwillingness to debate is preventing any possibility of progress.

Amy Burger, a Barrett supporter who lives in Brookfield, said conservatives "don't really want to engage."

"It's, 'I stand with Scott Walker, but I don't really explain why,'" she said. "At least with the people I talk to. It's sort of a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, ignorance is bliss. They don't really get down to the day-to-day things like cutting people from BadgerCare -- the day-to-day effects that this administration has had. It's more of a general, philosophical argument when I talk to people. It's very abstract, with freedom, liberty and things like that."

But while the recall may have driven Democrats and Republicans apart, it's also brought together individuals of the same persuasion.

Waukesha County, where Flanagan lives, tends to be more conservative. Yet the Recall Scott Walker sign she put up in her window this past winter led to an unexpected moment of friendship.

"We had one brave soul that came to our door, knocked timidly, and said, 'We just want to let you know you're not alone in the neighborhood,'" she said. "They lived in our neighborhood, but we didn't have a relationship before."

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