Wisconsin's Walker at heart of emotional workers' rights battle

  • Article by: JIM RAGSDALE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 20, 2011 - 11:25 AM

MADISON, WIS. -- Veterans of Wisconsin's year of political turmoil and recall like to say that this is what democracy looks like.

In the Capitol rotunda one day last week, Chris Reeder stamped out a beat with his sandaled feet and led a rousing chorus of "Roll Out the Recall," while joyful demonstrators danced polka turns under the majestic dome.

In his office a few dozen steps away, the object of this daily singalong trained his intense focus on his agenda to curb union power and lure job-creating businesses. "People want leadership,'' said Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a steadfast and polarizing Republican who is only in his eleventh month in office and who expects to face a recall election next year.

What democracy looks like here is not always pretty. It is emotional, raucous, sharply divided and characterized by unending campaigns. In a state where laws from the progressive era of the 1920s allow angry voters to throw out "bums" they disagree with, the national battle over limiting government vs. protecting the middle class has created a state of political siege.

On Tuesday, Walker foes marched to the Government Accountability Board to file papers to recall the governor. "The day has come, the time is now,'' said Democrat Kathleen Falk, a former county executive who may run against Walker if the recall succeeds. The filing starts the clock on a 60-day period in which recall organizers must gather 540,208 signatures from eligible Wisconsin voters.

On Monday night Walker foes counted down the hours at "midnight madness'' events at union halls and recall offices. They dispatched post-midnight petition-gatherers in pajamas and held drive-through signings for Wisconsin drivers heading home from work or from the deer stand. In the first 48 hours recall officials said they collected 50,000 signatures.

Julie Wells, 52, a grandmother from nearby Fort Atkinson who works as a non-union employee in an aluminum can plant, was selected to file the papers. She saw the possibility of defeat in stark terms.

"There won't be a middle class -- we'll all end up poor,'' she said. "If he breaks those unions, he's going to come after me next.''

The man inspiring such statewide energy is a preacher's son and former Eagle Scout who left Marquette University without a degree and found his calling in conservative politics. A former state assemblyman and an elected Milwaukee County executive, Walker led a 2010 Republican sweep in Wisconsin that gave the GOP a lock on power, including both bodies of the Legislature.

Once elected, Walker, 44, hit the ground sprinting. Before even taking office, he lobbied to block $810 million in federal rail funds. Walker's February bill aimed at fixing the state's immediate budget problems and essentially did away with the need for unions representing teachers and state and local workers; organizations that are part of the Democratic Party's bedrock.

The bill called for higher pension and health care contributions and prohibited these unions (but not those representing police and firefighters) from negotiating for pensions, health care costs or work rules. It capped annual wage hikes, required annual union recertification votes and banned payroll deductions for union dues.

"As soon as the unions saw them,'' UW-Madison political science professor Charles Franklin said of the bill's provisions, "it was clear they were looking at their death sentence.''

Tens of thousands marched on the Capitol, with some crowds measuring beyond 100,000. Democratic senators fled the 33-member chamber and hid out in Illinois, in a vain effort to block the bill. Walker was pranked into a taped phone call with a deep-voiced poser he believed to be conservative benefactor David Koch.

Walker never budged and the bill passed as he proposed it. A nasty state Supreme Court race and nine Senate recalls dominated the spring and summer. Interest groups made Wisconsin their proxy battleground to the tune of $44 million in campaign expenditures.

By that time, Lynn Freeman and Ray Yunker had their eyes on the big prize.

Veterans of the mass demonstrations, they gravitated to United Wisconsin, which dedicated itself in February to the sole task of recalling Walker.

"At some point it becomes obvious that marching in a circle feels good, but isn't going to get anything accomplished,'' said Freeman, a Madison career counselor and a board member of the organization.

Yunker, also a board member, lost a job in real estate and now works for a school bus company. He began to feel part of something much bigger. "I think it may have started in Egypt, moved to Madison and is now spreading throughout the country,'' he said.

Activists have also filed recall petitions against Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and four Republican senators, including Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald. If these elections take place, most likely in the spring, Wisconsin will conduct an unheard-of 13 legislative recalls and the Walker-Kleefisch recalls in less than a year's time. That could not happen in Minnesota, where state law limits recall to officials who have committed misdeeds in office.

In an interview in his office, where a sign proclaims "Wisconsin is Open for Business,'' Walker was focused and determined but said the weeks of demonstrations were "pretty intense.'' He continues to deal with bullhorns aimed at his office windows, but he neither backs down on his policies nor criticizes public workers personally.

He points out differences between benefit packages for public and private workers and blames national unions seeking to reclaim their dues for the opposition. He objects strenuously to the most persistent criticism of him -- that his "original sin," as foes call it, was in not disclosing during the campaign that he planned radical changes in public employee bargaining.

"For eight years as a county executive I talked repeatedly about the problem of collective bargaining and arbitration,'' Walker said. He said he has dealt with an inherited $3.6 billion deficit the way he said he would. "We clearly said we're going to do it without raising taxes, we're going to do it in a way that creates more jobs in the private sector, we're going to do it by protecting core services -- and that's what we've done,'' Walker said.

He'll fight for his job

Freed from campaign limits during the recall period, and expecting the petition drive to succeed, Walker said he will fight vigorously for his job and will argue that early returns from property tax bills and school negotiations show his plan is working. Only two U.S. governors, Gray Davis of California in 2003 and Lynn Frazier of North Dakota in 1921, have been removed from office via recall.

"I still think the overwhelming majority of voters in the state have just kind of had it with year-round elections,'' Walker said. "They just want us to move forward.''

"Forward" is Wisconsin's motto, but for many Walker foes, the state's 7.7 percent unemployment rate belies his promise to create a boom in new jobs. Economic concerns lie beneath the surface of many recall supporters, as do Walker's cuts to address the deficit, which opponents say are weakening the state's pillar of public education.

Stephan Thompson, executive director of the state Republican Party, said Walker had to take on union power to deal with the state's ruinous structural budget problems. He said Walker challenged "labor unions that basically got away with whatever they wanted from the Democratic leadership." The result, Thompson said, is a fiscally stronger state that will be more attractive to businesses.

Polls show the recall effort poses the same existential threat to the governor that he represented to the unions. In the Tenney Park neighborhood of this very liberal city, volunteer Randy Wagner drew a quick signature from resident Erin Moonlight.

"I'd bake you brownies if I had time,'' she told Wagner. "You want blood? I'll give blood."

The determination of those wanting a recall was on display again Saturday, when an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 people gathered under a cold drizzle in Capitol Square to promote the recall campaign.

Back in the rotunda earlier in the week, a cartoonish sign above the singers showed one robed judge grabbing another, a reference to a physical altercation between two Supreme Court justices over (what else?) Walker's budget bill. A counter-protester carried a sign accusing the singers of violence and a cutout image showed Walker clad in a "pink slip," signifying his hoped-for departure.

What democracy looks like, mostly, is hard work, summed up by a banner draped above the demonstration. "Struggle for the Soul of Wisconsin,'' it reads -- a message both sides would agree with.

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042

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