A rookie governor, voter outrage and a clash between workers and union-busting billionaires have transformed placid, historically progressive Wisconsin into one of the fiercest American political battlefields in decades. Last month, those seeking to oust Republican governor Scott Walker – just one year into his first term – presented 1.9 million signatures to force a recall election that could take place as early as this spring.
Wisconsin is set to preview the forces and issues that will dominate the national conversation in this year’s bruising presidential election. “Wisconsin is ground zero for the two visions of what government ought to be doing, and how we get out of the economic and fiscal trouble we’re in,” said University of Wisconsin political science professor Barry Burden.
Walker was elected in 2010, as Tea Party fervor swept the nation, and debate about deficits and debt consumed all else. He won on a platform of creating jobs and balancing the budget, without raising taxes. But his agenda quickly became more confrontational. One of his first legislative acts — in league with a new Republican majority in the legislature — was to attack the collective bargaining rights of public labor unions. Walker’s opening salvo was driven by the state’s arcane budget rules. Wisconsin operates on two-year budgets, meaning Walker and legislative Republicans would have to wait until 2012 to craft their own budget. But with the goal of erasing a $137 million budget shortfall, waiting was not an enticing option. Governor Walker sought instead to pass a “budget repair” bill, a fairly routine amendment to a previously adopted budget.
What was far from routine was the scope of this repair bill, its name soon recognized in all corners of the state: Act 10. The bill stripped public employees of their right to collectively bargain over anything but wages; previously, public sector unions had been permitted to negotiate hours, working conditions and benefits, as well. The bill also banned wage increases greater than the rate of inflation.
Act 10 did not stop there. It also forbade public sector labor unions from automatically deducting dues from members’ paychecks — a common practice among many unions, public and private. The bill also required public sector unions to hold yearly certification elections to retain their members. The budget repair bill “comes close to making public sector unions not viable,” said Craig Gilbert ’80, the Washington bureau chief of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
When the bill was introduced in early February of 2010, Walker wanted it passed within days and without the usual hearings that accompany such legislative moves. P ublic outrage was nearly instantaneous – but the attempt to roll back 52 years of collective bargaining rights was not the only source of anger for many.
“It wasn’t just the policy, it was the way he undertook the policy,” said Graeme Zielinski, communications director for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. “He was very secretive, he was very deceptive … He was exposed as someone who wasn’t trustworthy.”
While Walker has since said he wishes he had moved more slowly and worked to build greater consensus, striving for broad legislative accomplishments early in one’s term is nothing new in politics. “If you’re going to be ambitious, you want to do it when you first get in there,” said national political commentator Dick Polman.
Some see an external impetus for Walker’s move, with roots beyond state borders. In the era of Super PACs, with the growing influence of organized money, the billionaire Koch brothers played an important role in financing Walker’s rise to power and bankrolling his agenda. David and Charles Koch made their fortunes in the Texas oil industry, and they are known for championing conservative candidates and crusading against labor unions. Between 1997 and 2008, the Koch brothers gave more than $17 million to anti-union groups, such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute, according to a report by National Public Radio.
Many attribute Walker’s swift action against the public unions to the Koch brothers’ influence. “He knew who he owed,” said Polman, a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and a Writer-in-Residence at the University of Pennsylvania. “He knew who put him there.” At the same time labor unions remain some of Democrats’ biggest donors, both nationally and in a labor-heavy state like Wisconsin.
Republican leaders defended the move as common-sense reform to curtail government spending and trim the public workforce, as well as provide for job growth. “He [Walker] believes that state government, taxes and regulation inhibit job growth…Benefits to state employees are part of that,” said Professor Burden.
To protest Walker’s efforts, masses of state workers began assembling outside the Madison capitol almost as soon as the legislation was proposed, and it became strikingly clear that there was to be no room for debate in the legislature. Madison, a liberal university town, proved an ideal location for the rapid rallying of public employees from around the state. Crowds grew as large as 100,000. Peacefully protesting both outside and within the capitol, the demonstrators rapidly attracted national media attention to their cause and to Walker’s intransigence. Wisconsin state senators only needed a simple majority to pass Act 10. Seeing the futility in the math, 14 Senate Democrats, quickly dubbed the Fab Fourteen, fled the state to Illinois, preventing the Republicans from marshaling the needed quorum to bring the measure up for a vote. Ratcheting up the heat from the other side, Walker began making national media appearances, publishing an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal and appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to discuss the issues at hand and defend his stance. Act 10 was eventually passed and signed in mid-March, as the Republicans made use of a procedural maneuver to vote the bill through without a quorum, bringing the Democrats’ three-week absence to an end.
But the movement that had sprung up in opposition only grew more robust. Months earlier, before tumult swept the state, Walker declared in his inaugural address: “I took a solemn oath to defend our Constitution, which rests right here. Our Constitution is a document of, by and for the people. It is bigger than any government, any Legislature, or any Governor.”
The people of Wisconsin took him at his word, though perhaps not as he had envisioned. Tucked within that Constitution is one Article 13, Section 12, entitled the “Recall of Elective Officers.” Added to the state Constitution in 1926, in an era of progressive reforms, the section provides for recall elections to take place before the end of the official’s term if enough signatures are gathered — the number is set at 25 percent of the voters in the last election. All signatures must be collected within 60 days.
Democrats and Republicans scrambled into action, and nine state senators — of 33 in the chamber — ended up facing recall elections last year. Three Democrats and six Republicans faced the voters. $35 million was poured into the race, with the first election taking place in July and the rest following in August. All three Democrats retained their seats (the narrowest margin of victory was 10 percentage points), while two of the six Republicans were recalled. That cut the Republican majority in the state senate to a tenuous 17-16. The GOP declared victory, as Republicans maintained control. The process only brought Wisconsin further into the national spotlight. “The explosion of recalls last summer,” said Mr. Gilbert ’80, “was a totally unprecedented event in U.S. history.”