Could Recall Fight Open New Progressive Era in Wisconsin?

Roger Bybee

Robert "Fighting Bob" LaFollette symbolizes the golden era of Wisconsin Progressivism. (Wikimedia Commons)

Some veteran labor activists in the state are thinking big

MILWAUKEE — Wisconsin State Firefighters President Mahlon Mitchell, a newly-declared Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, has been firing up audiences around the state with this line: One hundred years ago, the guys running the state were called robber barons.’ Now they’re doing the same ripoffs, but they are called job creators.’ “

A century back, the robber barons found themselves lined up against the immensely popular and fiery populist Governor Robert Fighting Bob” LaFollette. With strong public support, LaFollette broke the barons’ stranglehold over Wisconsin politics and their command of resources. Like a relentless force of nature, the formidable LaFollette won passage of campaign finance laws, regulation of the railroads, controls over timber barons” depleting Wisconsin’s hardwood forests, and anti-monopoly legislation.

Now, with enormous public momentum behind the recall election that will pit Republican Gov. Scott Walker against a Democrat on June 5 (the Democratic primary election will be on May 8), some veteran Wisconsin labor activists are contemplating how to both defeat Walker and convert the vote into a pivotal, LaFollette-like moment in Wisconsin politics.

Already-declared Democratic gubernatorial candidates include: former Madison County Executive Kathleen Falk, backed by AFSCME, the Wisocnsin Education Association and the Wisocnsin Federation of Teachers; Secretary of State Doug LaFollette (a distant descendant of LaFollette; and State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout. 

Millwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who was defeated by Walker in 2010, is also considering a run for governor following what should be an easy re-election race April 3. Tom and his advisors just aren’t done with the decisionmaking process yet,” one veteran City Hall observer told me.


But some leftist laborites like the Service Employees International Union’s Bruce Colburn and union attorney Ed Garvey are concerned not just with candidates, but also carving out a progressive path to power. Colburn is vice president of the Service Employees’ HealthCare Wisconsin unit, and also a key figure in the labor-led coalition We Are Wisconsin.

For Garvey, one key element is the rejection of large contributions to demonstrate that anti-Walker candidates are independent of big money, in sharp contrast to Walker. Walker has already raised $12 million in big donations from corporate and conservative sources, and spent $10 million mostly on TV ads.

Garvey is urging the anti-Walker candidates to take a Tin Cup pledge” and reject funding from corporations, political action committees, and even unions. We are asking all who run in November to refuse Super PAC, union and corporate money,” he argued recently on his blog Fight​ing​Bob​.com. Only in-state individual contributions should be accepted. There is no question that this is a gamble, but the idea of the Democratic nominee raising millions of dollars in three months is not a gamble. It leads to almost certain defeat.”

Further, Garvey said, the Democrats also need to develop a program focused on the needs of working families that will actually represent a blueprint for a new era of governance aimed at serving workers and farmers, and small businesspeople. For too long, the Democrats have shared the Republicans’ preoccupation with continually cutting corporate taxes even while these corporate job creators” were relocating jobs out of state or out of country, he said.

The Democrats have been entirely fixated on raising money, and not at all on coming up with a new platform that would mean something and that people could count upon,” Garvey said.


Colburn stressed the importance of an explicit program calling for full collective bargaining rights, healthcare reform, and renewed funding for education at all levels to make up for the massive cuts imposed by Walker.

We believe in supporting candidates who can champion our issues,” he said. We need to be creating a mandate on our issues, framing everything around the divide between the top 1% and the bottom 99%,” Colburn said. That means worker rights, no cuts in health and education, and the wealthy paying their fair share. That’s the second key ingredient.”

Third, labor and progressives need to build their own organization that can both collaborate with and act independently of the Democrats. The day is gone when labor can go it alone, or when we can simply depend on someone else.”

By building coalitions with community groups of environmentalists, parents upset with education cuts for their children, and poor people hit with tax increases, labor can expand its base of supporters and approach the Democrats from a position of greater leverage. This broad alliance will allow labor to strategically choose the best times for aligning with the Democrats and the proper moments to pursue an independent course.

All of these things are important, and they are also difficult,” Colburn admitted.

A fourth element he proposes is a new proactive strategy for jobs that does not center on handing out incentives” to private corporations who may or may not create family-sustaining jobs.

We need to be setting standards for good jobs, fighting for prevailing wages on construction projects, for living wages on projects whenever public money is involved. We also need large-scale public programs to get everyone in the workforce.

We need a vast expansion of the transportation system, ” said Colburn, ” the exact opposite of what Scott Walker has done.” As Milwaukee County executive, Walker cut funding for routes that opened up potential jobs for more than 40,000 inner-city residents.

As governor, Walker turned down an $810 million federal grant for high-speed rail covering the 80 miles between Milwaukee and Madison that would have also funded the upgrading of the increasingly popular Milwaukee-Chicago route. That project would have created thousands of jobs in building mass-transit cars, laying and maintaining track and operating the system.

Wisconsin has clearly suffered because of Scott Walker. But we won’t be able to create fundamental change unless we start creating a mandate while the fight is going on,” Colburn said emphatically. You can’t build a mandate afterward.”

Some recent Wisconsin political news bodes well for foes of Walker’s agenda:

1) Right-wing Supreme Court Justice David Prosser, a key Scott Walker ally who barely survived a controversial re-election contest last year clouded by the conduct of a Republican county clerk, has been charged with three ethics violations by the Wisocnsin Judicial Commission for, among other counts, wrapping his hands around the neck of fellow Justice Ann Walsh Bradley following an argument over the legality of Gov. Walker’s bill crippling public-employee union representation. 

Prosser was part of the conservative majority that voted 4-3 to uphold the bill’s legitimacy despite flagrant violations of Wisconsin’s Open Meeting laws by Republican legislators. Although he managed to avoid criminal charges for choking Bradley, Prosser now faces potentially serious action from the Judicial Commission, including his removal from the Supreme Court. Whatever the final outcome, Prosser’s legitimacy has been severely weakened.

2) The State Senate now has equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, due to the resignation of Republican Pam Galloway. Galloway, a target in a recall election this spring, attributed her decision to family health issues. With two Republicans unseated in recall elections last summer, the Senate has thus switched from a 19-14 edge a year ago to the new 16-16 split, and Republican moderate Dale Schultz is increasingly voting with Democrats on key issues.

3) A special panel of judges on March 22 struck downsecretively-contrived Republican-imposed redistricting” plan that would have unfairly exaggerated Republican electoral strength and violated the Voting Rights Act by diluting the strength of Latino voters in newly-structured districts.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education.Roger’s work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus.More of his work can be found at zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
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