Can Scott Walker Be Defeated?

Roger Bybee April 16, 2014

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has come up well short of his 250,000 jobs target, ignored the state's low wages and cut women's reproductive rights.

Three years ago, Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er first dropped what he called a bomb,” one that sud­den­ly and swift­ly dec­i­mat­ed the union rights of pub­lic employ­ees. Walker’s leg­is­la­tion, Act 10, ignit­ed out­rage from unions and their allies, fuel­ing a mas­sive effort to recall the gov­er­nor, which came to fruition with a recall vote in June 2012.

Walk­er pre­vailed in the recall, but the process left behind a resent­ful seg­ment of the pub­lic. Today, the fight against Walk­er and his anti-work­er poli­cies is pick­ing up steam with an elec­toral chal­lenge from Demo­c­ra­t­ic busi­ness­woman Mary Burke, and a labor cam­paign to sup­port Burke and high­light Wis­con­sin work­ers’ lag­ging wages.

Sur­pris­ing­ly, the rel­a­tive­ly unknown Burke — who oppos­es Walk­er on near­ly every issue — matched the incum­bent gov­er­nor 45 per­cent to 45 per­cent among like­ly vot­ers in a recent sur­vey by the right-lean­ing Ras­mussen polling group announced March 12. A March 26 Mar­quette Uni­ver­si­ty poll was not quite as encour­ag­ing, show­ing a 48 per­cent to 41 per­cent lead for Walk­er over Burke, though it under­scored that Burke has made inroads even before becom­ing well-known around the state (and releas­ing her eco­nom­ic pro­gram coun­ter­ing Walker’s). And giv­en Walker’s guber­na­to­r­i­al record, there will be plen­ty for Burke to crit­i­cize him on in the impend­ing cam­paign season.

Where Walk­er is vulnerable

Walker’s less-than-over­whelm­ing polling results may sig­ni­fy new vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties for the gov­er­nor head­ing into the guber­na­to­r­i­al race. Walker’s rumored inter­est in a run for the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion may sug­gest to vot­ers that he is los­ing inter­est in Wisconsin’s press­ing eco­nom­ic prob­lems. (Last month, for exam­ple, Walk­er trav­eled to Las Vegas with oth­er sus­pect­ed GOP pres­i­den­tial hope­fuls to woo bil­lion­aire donor Shel­don Adel­son who was stag­ing what some have called his one-man primary.”)

And from Walker’s appar­ent focus on mak­ing a move to the nation­al stage, his cam­paign is vul­ner­a­ble on the state’s stag­nant wages, unmet promis­es of job cre­ation, a high­ly con­tro­ver­sial min­ing project, and attacks on wom­en’s repro­duc­tive rights that exem­pli­fy the Repub­li­can war on women.”

But it is Walk­er’s evis­cer­a­tion of pub­lic-employ­ee unions that has stirred some of the strongest emo­tions. Walk­er con­scious­ly pushed Act 10, as he con­fid­ed to a bil­lion­aire backer, as a divide and con­quer” maneu­ver to split work­ing class vot­ers by focus­ing resent­ment against (sup­pos­ed­ly priv­i­leged) pub­lic-sec­tor work­ers. Despite its dam­ag­ing reper­cus­sions, Act 10 instead uni­fied both pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tor work­ers, with polls show­ing sup­port for pub­lic-sec­tor union rights at over 60%. The leg­is­la­tion trig­gered a vol­canic reac­tion that includ­ed six weeks of ral­lies in frigid weath­er that drew up to 150,000 peo­ple out­side the Capi­tol in Madi­son, attract­ing inter­na­tion­al atten­tion. The bil­l’s pas­sage spurred a recall dri­ve against Walk­er that gath­ered near­ly one mil­lion sig­na­tures, an extra­or­di­nary amount in a state of 5.7 mil­lion peo­ple. How­ev­er, lav­ish fund­ing from Walk­er’s bil­lion­aire donors like the Koch broth­ers and Shel­don Adel­son pro­vid­ed him with as much as $60 mil­lion, allow­ing him to dom­i­nate the air­waves and defeat his chal­lenger, Mil­wau­kee May­or Tom Bar­rett, by a 53 per­cent to 46 per­cent margin.

This time around, how­ev­er, Walker’s record leaves him vul­ner­a­ble to chal­lenge on a host of working-people’s issues. While work­ers across the nation have seen medi­an house­hold income tum­ble from $55,438 in 2007 to $51,404 in 2013, Wis­con­sin’s work­force has felt the pain even more acute­ly, with pri­vate-sec­tor state wages at 15 per­cent below the US aver­age. Worse, a recent report shows Wis­con­sin rank­ing just 35th in annu­al wage increas­es nation­al­ly since 2009. And, as in oth­er states, the vast major­i­ty of new jobs that are being cre­at­ed in Wis­con­sin are low-wage ser­vice sec­tor jobs for which even old­er and well-edu­cat­ed work­ers find them­selves competing.

And Walk­er has hard­ly begun to meet his promise of pro­mot­ing the cre­ation of 250,000 jobs — the cen­ter­piece of his cam­paign in 2010. In fact, Wis­con­sin ranks 35th in the rate of new job growth from Sep­tem­ber 2012 to Sep­tem­ber 2013, accord­ing to the Bureau of Labor Sta­tis­tics. Wis­con­sin lost more of its man­u­fac­tur­ing base in the last year, while gain­ing jobs in the pri­mar­i­ly low-pay­ing food-ser­vice sector.

Worse still, one of the Wis­con­sin Repub­li­cans’ pri­ma­ry job cre­ation” strate­gies is to dereg­u­late min­ing with the hope of open­ing the doors for a major new iron-ore mine sought by Goge­bic Taconite near the Bad Riv­er water­shed and Lake Supe­ri­or at Wis­con­sin’s north­ern tip. As with most extrac­tive projects, only a lim­it­ed num­ber of short-term jobs would be cre­at­ed. But Walk­er and his allies are will­ing to risk griev­ous long-term dam­age to the ground (asbestos and sul­fide have been found on the site already), the water­shed and the air, all while steam­rolling oppo­si­tion from local elect­ed offi­cials and a coali­tion of Chippe­wa Indi­an peo­ples. (The Koch-fund­ed Amer­i­cans for Pros­per­i­ty has just begun inter­ven­ing in sup­port of the min­ing project in local elec­tions, brand­ing the Mer­cer Cham­ber of Com­merce pres­i­dent as an anti-min­ing rad­i­cal” for ques­tion­ing the min­ing project.)

Walker’s pro­pos­als on tax­es and oth­er bud­getary issues serve to hard­en the per­cep­tion that he is deeply com­mit­ted to enrich cor­po­ra­tions with tax breaks while giv­ing only token tax relief to those out­side the top 1%. Tax breaks to cor­po­ra­tions and the wealthy are sub­stan­tial, while part of the reduc­tion in work­ers’ tax­es sim­ply comes from deduct­ing less per pay­check, mean­ing a small­er tax-return check at the end of the year.

In the state’s cur­rent bud­get pro­pos­al, Walk­er’s leg­isla­tive pri­or­i­ties not only includ­ed the eco­nom­ic pri­or­i­ties of the top 1%, but a social agen­da tar­get­ing wom­en’s repro­duc­tive rights. Ignor­ing state­ments by the Wis­con­sin Med­ical Soci­ety, the Wis­con­sin Hos­pi­tal Asso­ci­a­tion and oth­er major med­ical groups in Wis­con­sin, Walk­er signed into law a manda­to­ry ultra-sound mea­sure that is one of the nation’s most intru­sive anti-abor­tion laws. The Pro­gres­sive reported:

Oppo­nents said the require­ment for visu­al­iz­ing the fetal heart­beat was tan­ta­mount to requir­ing women in their first trimester of preg­nan­cy to sub­mit them­selves to an inva­sive trans-vagi­nal pro­ce­dure since a fetal heart­beat is not nec­es­sar­i­ly detectable that ear­ly by means of an abdom­i­nal ultrasound.

While these dra­con­ian abor­tion laws are being held up by a rul­ing issued last Decem­ber by a fed­er­al appeals court, the new Repub­li­can mea­sures are pre­cise­ly the kind of poli­cies which stirred a strong back­lash of women in Vir­ginia against state Repub­li­cans who hoped to pass sim­i­lar leg­is­la­tion but were defeat­ed by fierce resis­tance from pro-choice Vir­gini­ans. Planned Par­ent­hood — which endured cuts of $1 mil­lion per year in state aid under Walk­er’s cur­rent bud­get — projects that a new anti-abor­tion pro­vi­sion requir­ing abor­tion clin­ics to have admit­ting priv­i­leges at hos­pi­tals with­in 30 miles will mean the clos­ing of at least one of the ever-shrink­ing num­ber of clinics.

The challenger

Burke has tak­en some impor­tant steps to posi­tion her­self as an oppo­nent of Walker’s most unpop­u­lar poli­cies. Burke firm­ly oppos­es Walk­er on Act 10 and has declared that the gov­er­nor has actu­al­ly pur­sued an agen­da that has divert­ed from real job cre­ation. I’ve seen eighth-grade term papers that frankly have more work put into them,” said Burke, in ref­er­ence to Walker’s job plan from 2010.With wages in Wis­con­sin gen­er­al­ly low and new jobs offer­ing sub-par pay and ben­e­fits — Burke was an ear­ly and strong sup­port­er of a new nation­al min­i­mum wage of $10.10 an hour, which helped win her the endorse­ment of the Wis­con­sin State AFL-CIO, point­ed out Bruce Col­burn, vice pres­i­dent of the Health­care Wis­con­sin unit of the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union.

How­ev­er, as was evi­dent in her recent inter­view on All In With Chris Hayes” on MSNBC, Burke has room to grow in sway­ing vot­ers with her charis­ma. She was prone to bland, abstract state­ments seem­ing­ly geared more to reas­sur­ing cor­po­rate lead­ers rather than excit­ing work­ing peo­ple. Typ­i­cal of her approach: I have a 30-year track record as an exec­u­tive in the pri­vate sec­tor. I put prob­lem solv­ing ahead of the politics.”

Though Burke is clear­ly intel­li­gent, it’s not exact­ly the stuff to moti­vate voters.

In the mean­time, labor is pro­mot­ing a large-scale inde­pen­dent cam­paign to raise wages, said the SEIU’s Col­burn. The labor cam­paign will include sup­port for more pro­pos­als like Mil­wau­kee County’s just-passed liv­ing wage ordi­nance, which stip­u­lates that all coun­ty employ­ees and coun­ty con­trac­tors are paid a min­i­mum of $11.32 an hour. Unions are tar­get­ing Mil­wau­kee, Madi­son, and the Fox Val­ley for min­i­mum-wage bal­lot mea­sures, said Col­burn, with the hope of expand­ing the issue cam­paign to oth­er city coun­cils and coun­ty boards. Ref­er­en­dum mea­sures have proven to be a very effec­tive means of both win­ning tan­gi­ble improve­ments in low-wage work­ers’ lives and in stim­u­lat­ing a much high­er Demo­c­ra­t­ic turnout in states like Mis­souri dur­ing the 2006 elec­tion, with the high­er wage pro­pos­als win­ning and the larg­er turnout pro­vid­ing a cru­cial mar­gin to Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates. As MSNBC host Rachel Mad­dow has not­ed, When Democ­rats push for eco­nom­i­cal­ly pop­ulist ideas, when they push for things that eco­nom­i­cal­ly ben­e­fit work­ing peo­ple, it is the clos­est thing there is to elec­toral mag­ic for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party.”

Per­haps mind­ful of this, Repub­li­can leg­is­la­tors have been work­ing on a bill to block local city and coun­ty gov­ern­ments from enact­ing min­i­mum wages high­er than the cur­rent $7.25 lev­el, but it appears unlike­ly to pass before this leg­isla­tive ses­sion expires.

The SEIU’s Col­burn believes that Burke’s abil­i­ty to put forth a cred­i­ble cam­paign to lift wages, com­ple­ment­ed by labor’s inde­pen­dent effort, will deter­mine the out­come of the elec­tion. Who­ev­er wins the eco­nom­ic issue in Wis­con­sin, wins the elec­tion,” he said.

What Walk­er has going for him

Despite Burke’s sell­ing points, labor’s par­al­lel cam­paign on wages, and Walk­er’s evi­dent weak­ness­es, the 2014 cam­paign will be fraught with challenges.

To counter Burke’s mes­sage, Walk­er allies have already begun attack­ing his chal­lenger with a series of smear TV ads. The ads have claimed (false­ly) that the state’s Com­merce Depart­ment was scan­dal-plagued while she served as com­merce sec­re­tary under Demo­c­ra­t­ic Gov. James Doyle. This attack, which tries to inflate cus­tom­ary bureau­crat­ic prob­lems into a scan­dal, appears designed to deflect atten­tion from the fact that six Walk­er aides and asso­ciates have been con­vict­ed on a vari­ety of charges — includ­ing steal­ing mon­ey from a veteran’s orga­ni­za­tion — and that his cam­paigns have been the tar­get of two John Doe” inves­ti­ga­tions, the sec­ond of which is ongo­ing. The eth­i­cal clouds sur­round­ing Walk­er are a major poten­tial lia­bil­i­ty, but his exten­sive nation­al fundrais­ing net­work will have plen­ty of funds to car­pet-bomb Wis­con­sin with TV ads. One pro-Walk­er ad even attacks Burke from the left, charg­ing that while she served as CEO of Trek Bicy­cle, the firm off-shored jobs to China.

The real­i­ty is that all low-end bicy­cles made with U.S. labels are now made in Chi­na, while Trek has kept all high-end bike pro­duc­tion in Wis­con­sin,” coun­tered Michael Rosen, a left-wing econ­o­mist who has been a harsh crit­ic of cor­po­rate glob­al­iza­tion, and the pres­i­dent of the Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers Local 212 at Mil­wau­kee Tech­ni­cal Col­lege. (And for Walker’s part, he has declined to chal­lenge the Man­i­towoc Com­pa­ny as they move jobs from Wis­con­sin to Mex­i­co and poten­tial­ly China.)

The pas­sage of Act 10 did more than turn Wis­con­sin into a right-to-work state; it weak­ened unions’ orga­ni­za­tion­al net­works and their abil­i­ty to have an impact on their mem­bers, fam­i­lies, friends and most impor­tant­ly in Burke’s case, elec­tions. For Rosen, the leg­is­la­tion was sig­nif­i­cant because it reduced labor’s mem­ber­ship and our abil­i­ty to reach our peo­ple and put boots on the ground for polit­i­cal cam­paigns.” The statewide teach­ers union the Wis­con­sin Edu­ca­tion­al Asso­ci­a­tion Coun­cil has already lost about half of its 98,000 mem­bers since Act 10 was passed. The Wis­con­sin State Employ­ees Union’s mem­ber­ship has plum­met­ed from 22,000 state work­ers to rough­ly 9,00010,000 mem­bers. The WSEU and three oth­er AFSCME coun­cils have seen their com­bined rev­enues fall by 45 per­cent in 2012, with dues slid­ing by 40 per­cent.

Despite the strong vic­to­ries of Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma and strong pro­gres­sive Sen­ate can­di­date Tam­my Bald­win, the shrink­age of the union vote will force labor to reach beyond its ranks. Though Democ­rats had a good show­ing in the 2012 elec­tions, accord­ing to the Mil­wau­kee Jour­nal Sen­tinel, union house­holds rep­re­sent­ed the small­est share of the Wis­con­sin vote in at least 20 years.”

For Rosen, that means labor will be com­pelled to devel­op an inclu­sive mes­sage and cul­ti­vate new allies in order to have an elec­toral impact. Labor will have to reach out much fur­ther to new con­stituen­cies in this elec­tion,” Rosen stressed. Par­tic­u­lar­ly cru­cial will be effec­tive out­reach to African-Amer­i­can women, Rosen argues, who have been the most impor­tant group to drop out of elec­toral par­tic­i­pa­tion in mid-term elec­tions after vot­ing in pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. The empha­sis by labor and its allies on rais­ing low wages and wom­en’s repro­duc­tive rights dove­tails with the effort to reach black women.

While Walk­er’s fail­ure to mea­sure up to his 250,000 jobs pledge may be viewed by the major media as his biggest fail­ing — unless the sec­ond John Doe probe pro­duces explo­sive rev­e­la­tions before the elec­tion — the most crit­i­cal issues in the upcom­ing elec­tions will like­ly be Walker’s neglect of Wisconsin’s low wages and his attacks on women’s repro­duc­tive rights.

For labor, the threat to work­ers’ liv­ing stan­dards will be cen­tral in their 2014 efforts and beyond.

The wage issue is cru­cial, and it will be a long-term fight,” Col­burn says.

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.
Limited Time: