Last month, in the midst of the failed recall of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, in an area carried overwhelmingly by Walker, GOP Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch and the local Republican candidate for an open Wisconsin State Senate seat, there was one particularly dramatic and unexpected victory for progressives. It was something we hoped for and worked for. But it was, frankly, a victory not many thought possible.
On June 5, the voters of Weston, Wisconsin, a suburb of Wausau, overrode the decision of the local governing Board — which had previously terminated the funding for public transit — and voted to fully restore funding for buses and other public transit to the community.
This vote was all the more striking because the ballots were cast at the same time as the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall, in which Weston provided Gov. Walker and his anti-tax, anti-public service policies with a 21-point, 60 – 39 percent margin over Democratic candidate Tom Barrett. These same voters who provided these strong GOP margins at the top (and everywhere else) on the recall ballot — then turned around and dramatically delivered a resounding 28-point (64−36 percent) margin in favor of restoring public transit services.
The massive spread between the anti-Walker vote and the vote to restore public transit funding strongly suggests that public transit is an issue that it wouldn’t hurt Democrats or even the Obama campaign to take a closer look at. Indeed, the dramatic results here and in several other widely disparate locations in the country indicate that public transit may be a much more powerful issue for progressive forces in the country than has been generally recognized.
What was particularly interesting about this outcome was that the strong margin of victory to restore this public service came overwhelmingly from voters who did not regularly use public transit themselves. In our pre-vote polls testing voters’ perceptions and response to various themes regarding public transit issues, many pro-Walker, Republican voters indicated strong agreement with messages stressing that it was “only right that all members of the community had access to public transit” and that “a community without public transportation for those who needed it was not really a true and complete community at all.” That this was not a hollow, sentimental expression of feeling, but something that was seen in the actual votes expressed at the ballot box.
So, the news from Wisconsin was not all bad. Perhaps, as Mark Twain wryly commented upon hearing reports of his own passing, the conclusion of so many pundits that community concern was dead in Wisconsin — and, perhaps, throughout America as well — may, hopefully, be a bit premature.
Larry Hanley is the International President of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU). He began driving a bus in 1978, at age 21, in Brooklyn, NY, and attended his first union meeting that September.