Exercise in direct democracy has been distracting and damaging.
Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, right, and Democratic challenger Tom Barrett get ready to participate in a televised debate Friday, May 25, 2012, in Milwaukee. Both candidates have been battling a numbers game for weeks, pointing to different statistics to make their points about the other candidate. How well they have done with the economy has been a major focus of the campaign and was expected to be highlighted during the debate as well. (AP Photo/Morry Gash) \
The Wisconsin farm country bordering Minnesota to the east is also Walker territory, where "We stand with Scott Walker" campaign signs backing the Republican governor in the historic June 5 recall election far outnumber those for his opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
It's a part of the state far removed from Madison -- the city that former Gov. Lee Dreyfus once described as "30 square miles surrounded by reality" -- where tens of thousands of protesters drew the nation's attention to the State Capitol in 2011 after Walker launched his full-scale assault on public-employee unions.
The New York Times was among the news outlets that dispatched reporters to chronicle the Madison revolt, but the spot national coverage failed to reflect the antitax, antiunion fervor elsewhere in the state that helped Walker defeat Barrett in their Round 1 matchup in fall 2010. The deep political divide in Wisconsin, much like the divisiveness in Minnesota, has been exacerbated by painful postrecession deleveraging in both the private and public sectors.
Walker, who inherited a $3.6 billion budget deficit, campaigned as a fiscal conservative, so it was no surprise that he sought concessions from teachers and other public workers. But the governor and GOP Legislature overplayed their hand -- and ignited the regrettable recall -- by stripping the majority of government workers of most of their collective-bargaining rights.
As we've stated previously on this page, Walker used the deficit as an excuse to take away the fundamental rights of public workers even though the unions had all but agreed to necessary salary and benefit givebacks. Walker went for organized labor's jugular, and his administration has been in survival mode ever since.
Although we disagree with Walker on bargaining rights and other issues, this is not an endorsement of either candidate in the Wisconsin race. Rather, it's a rejection of a recall system that should be used to remove corrupt officeholders -- not to protest legislation passed by elected representatives.
In Minnesota, recall can be considered only in documented, court-reviewed cases of "serious malfeasance or nonfeasance ... in the performance of the duties of the office, or conviction during the term of office of a serious crime." Wisconsin would do better with a similar stricture.
Under Wisconsin law, Walker's opponents needed 540,208 signatures to trigger the recall election -- just 25 percent of all the votes cast in the November 2010 election. The Democratic Party of Wisconsin said it collected more than 1 million; the state's Government Accountability Board put the official total at 931,042.
A Marquette University Law School poll conducted in January found that 72 percent of Republicans, 44 percent of independents and 17 percent of Democrats believe that recalls should be reserved for criminal wrongdoing. None is alleged in this election.
Instead, Wisconsin is a case study in direct democracy run amok over a single polarizing issue. For more than a year, the recall campaign has consumed the state. It undoubtedly adversely affected the Wisconsin Legislature, which debated abstinence-only sex education this year but failed to act on worthwhile legislation to help entrepreneurial companies grow.
It's been a destructive and expensive contest. Walker has raised $30 million since those January 2011 protests -- much of it from outside Wisconsin, while Barrett, who had to win a primary fight, has brought in $3.9 million since getting into the race March 30, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. And the state will spend an estimated $18 million to stage the election.
Walker, who promised to create 250,000 new private-sector jobs during his first term, has highlighted Milwaukee's crime and unemployment problems while attacking Barrett. Instead of promoting economic development throughout the state, Walker recently said that he didn't want Wisconsin to "become another Milwaukee." That's not much of a recruiting pitch for the state's largest city.
Democrats, of course, are quick to highlight an ongoing John Doe probe into Walker's tenure as Milwaukee County executive. Walker hasn't been implicated in the investigation, although three of his former aides face charges related to alleged financial improprieties.
Despite that backdrop, a Marquette poll released last week gave Walker a 52-45 lead over Barrett, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points. That same poll found that 50 percent of likely voters favored keeping Wisconsin's current law on collective bargaining, while 45 percent preferred the previous law.
It could well be that Wisconsin after the recall will look a lot like it did before June 5 -- a deeply divided Midwestern state in need of the kind of gubernatorial and legislative guidance that can create a reasonable level of political stability and promote economic growth. That kind of forward-looking leadership isn't nurtured by recall elections.
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