Weary, divided, Wisconsin set to decide recall

  • Article by: JIM RAGSDALE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 3, 2012 - 6:49 AM

Last-minute pitches on governor's fate are falling on deaf ears.

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A supporter of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, right, talks with a supporter of Democratic opponent Tom Barrett at a recall election rally Friday, June 1, 2012, in Milwaukee.

Photo: Jeffrey Phelps, Associated Press - Ap

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RIVER FALLS, WIS. - From the stools at Mel's Mid-Towner Sports Bar, located on the western edge of a state with a national rep for cheese, football, Harleys and beer, it sometimes looks like Wisconsin has gone a little wacky, politically speaking.

Weary Wisconsinites are unplugging phones to block the flood of pitches on who to vote for in Tuesday's historic recall. Families with opposing views have agreed not to speak about Gov. you-know-who's future. TV ads dominate the Wisconsin airwaves and are even leaking into the Twin Cities, though the number of Badger State voters undecided on the subject of Scott Walker appears to match the number of snowdrifts currently blocking I-94.

Mel's patron Fred Marnach, who leans Democratic and fears billionaires are buying his state, has lost count of the trips he's made to the polls for recall votes. Wisconsin, he says, is suffering from a serious case of "election fatigue."

One stool over, Scott Green, who leans the other way politically, believes the recall is a wasteful and harmful exercise for a governor barely 18 months into his term.

"He can't do his job," Green said, referring to Walker. "He has to campaign to save his job. It's too bad. Wisconsin needs to look at its law."

Since Walker took office in January 2010 and immediately unveiled a plan to greatly weaken most public employee unions as part of a budget-balancing plan, the state and its famed dairylands have become the backdrop for a nonstop, nationalized, $100 million campaign that may be a harbinger for a larger business vs. labor clash coming in November.

Then there's Wisconsin's recall statute itself. An artifact of the Progressive Era of the 1920s that's etched into the state's constitution, it allows angry citizens to force elected officials into a recall election for any reason, or for no reason at all, if the citizens can gather enough signatures. It is either a vibrant exercise in direct democracy or a recipe for the ultimate endless campaign.

Some factoids stick out:

Counting primaries and regular local and court races after the last general election in fall of 2010, a dedicated Wisconsin voter could have cast ballots eight times by Tuesday, before the regular 2012 primary and general elections, said state Rep. Robin Vos, who wants to limit the recall process.

Nine state senators faced recall elections last summer, provoking $44 million in campaign spending from labor, business and their allies, and two Republicans were unseated. Another four state senators, plus the governor and lieutenant governor, are on the ballot Tuesday. Spending has already shot past $60 million.

Walker, now a recall target, was a recall beneficiary in 2002. He ran for Milwaukee County executive during a successful recall petition drive. The object of that recall, Tom Ament, short-circuited the process by resigning, paving the way for a Walker victory.

If Democrats capture one or more state Senate seats on Tuesday, they "flip" the body to Democratic control. But the Legislature is out of session and is not scheduled to convene until after the November election, when the Senate could flip back to GOP control.

One state Senate district where a recall is underway, in Racine, is the first in the nation where voters have forced recall elections twice, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which calls it "a battleground within a battleground."

Tears, harsh words

Politics in normal times can divide families and friends, but the intensity of this period of concentrated political warfare is unprecedented, participants say.

Holding an anti-Walker sign in Hudson recently, Allan Hanson of River Falls described how his daughter, a state employee, was "brought to tears" by the changes the governor imposed, and he had it out with a brother "with words too vile to repeat."

A Marquette University Law School poll found that one-third of respondents said they had stopped talking politics with friends or family due to this intense division.

There have been scattered reports of sign-stealing, sign-burning and even a well-publicized marital imbroglio in Chippewa Falls, where a man tried to stop his wife from driving off to vote in the gubernatorial primary. Police said he was upset with her position on recall, tried to block her car -- even climbing on the hood -- and was injured when she drove away.

Among the oddities of the season is the fact that the term "fake Democrats," referring to candidates recruited by Republicans to run in Democratic legislative primaries, is now accepted political shorthand. And in normal times, the fact that Walker's former aides from Milwaukee County are facing a criminal investigation, causing the governor to set up his own criminal defense fund, would dominate the headlines.

So far, there is little sign that the warfare is abating. Democratic state Sen. Kathleen Vineout of Alma, who camped out in her sister's basement in Woodstock, Ill., last year when a cluster of Democrats fled the state to hold up a vote on Walker's collective bargaining bill, said, "If I hadn't gone to Illinois, I wouldn't have been doing my job." Dan Kapanke, a La Crosse Republican ousted from his state Senate seat in last year's round of recalls, is equally firm. "I took a tough vote and stand by my vote."

Vos, a Republican from Burlington, is leading the charge to amend the state's constitution so that recall would be reserved for politicians who commit misdeeds of some sort. Otherwise, he said, recall will become a "normal political tactic" and the Walker era's unending campaigns could become commonplace.

The crowd at Mel's would likely welcome a respite, even those who oppose Walker this time around. A "waste of money" is a common refrain and those robocalls are getting tiresome.

But these are mostly old friends and neighbors who respect one another's views -- however different -- and do not seem to expect life-altering change in any event.

Marnach, a truck driver who fears imminent unemployment, believes the influx of millions of dollars "has absolutely poisoned politics." Green said that as a contractor, "I don't have a union looking out for me" and is unsympathetic to teachers who may use their summers off to compete against him for work.

The final verdict comes Tuesday -- at least until the regular election cycle kicks in -- and the opinion at Mel's is that last-minute arguments won't sway many voters. "There are not many people sitting on the fence," said Marnach. "It's all 'yea' or 'nay.'"

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