MILWAUKEE, WIS. — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker began his reign one year, and soon began trying to transform his state.
Walker first launched a legislative war against public-employee union rights, triggering massive protests attracting world-wide attention. He then followed up by imposing new restrictions on voting rights, slashing public education funding, attacking environmental regulations, and rewarding his major donors by reducing corporate and investor taxes over the next decade by $1.6 billion.
But now labor and Democratic opponents have sent the governor retreating with a fast-growing campaign for a recall election that will put both Walker and four Republican state senators up against Democratic challengers. The campaign gathered more than 500,000 of the needed 720,229 signatures in the first month of petitioning, and its strength is reflected in rural as well as urban areas. In primarily rural Douglas County, the number of anti-Walker signatures totals 128 percent of the 2010 Walker vote, Daily Kos noted Dec. 15.
The defeat of Walker and even one of the GOP senators would create immense momentum for repeal of Walker’s law revoking virtually all meaningful union rights for public employees (excepting police office officers and firefighters).
But labor, progressives, and Democrats must first develop a consensus behind a candidate who can not only defeat Walker, but work closely with labor and other forces to repeal Walker’s rightist legislative achievements and enact a progressive agenda for large-scale job creation, expanded healthcare coverage, environmental protection, fair taxation (e.g., more than 60 percent of Wisconsin corporations with $100 million or more in revenues pay no corporate income taxes to the state.)
At this point, there are three Democratic figures seen as signficant contenders. Igniting little excitement among progressives has been State Sen. Timothy Cullen of Janesville, a moderate Democrat and former Blue Cross insurance executive. Some Democratic Party leaders are promoting Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, but Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council and Marty Beil, director of the Wisocnsin State Employees Union, reportedly met with him recently to discourage him from running. Barrett, while compiling a strongly liberal record while in Congress, has shown little progressive imagination as mayor, siding with corporate leaders against labor on issues like paid sick leave.
At this point, labor support seems to be coalescing around Kathleen Falk, a longtime environmental attorney and former Dane County executive. Bruce Colburn, vice president of the Service Employees’ (SEIU) HealthCare Wisconsin unit, sees Falk as showing a great deal of promise. “I think the labor movement sees Kathleen Falk as someone who would be a good srong candidate, who would fight to overturn the collective bargaining law,” he said.
Colburn stressed that SEIU has not endorsed anyone yet. “We need to look at how the candidate is going to campaign, and what they’re going to do in office,” Colburn stated.
The question of accountability is also uppermost in the mind of Bob Peterson, president of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association. Peterson, long critical of the timidity shown in the past by Wisconsin Democratic legislators, sees a potential for building a grassroots movement that would exert continuous pressure on the Democrats to enact a progressive program.
“Clearly, labor has to work closely with the variety of people who are fed up with Walker,” Peterson said. “The lessons from last spring are that we can move people and that includes Democratic legislators, who became much more aware of issues like worker rights and voting rights.
“We need to be organizing the base and having a connection to people once they are elected,” Peterson emphasized. “The people need to be mobilized around these particular elections, and also stay involved in holding elected officials accountable to progressive values and policies.”
While Walker is clearly hemmorhaging support — a stunning 24 percent of once-immovable Wisconsin Republicans now want to see him recalled — his financial resources will be an obstacle to a cakewalk recall effort. Under increasing plutocratic campaign-finance rules mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts, Walker will be able to draw on unlimited corporate contributions from such allies as the billionaire Koch brothers.
Once again, Wisconsin is shaping up to be a major battleground between the top 1%, and the rest.