Message to Wisconsin: Fight the Power, Forget the Polls

Roger Bybee

Volunteers in January celebrate the vast number of signatures—over 1 million—collected to recall Gov. Scott Walker. (Photo by Mark Hirsch/Getty Images)

The last 16 months have provided an unpredictable emotional roller-coaster ride of demoralizing lows and exhilirating highs since Scott Walker declared war on workers on Feb. 112011.

With the recall election for Walker coming up on June 5, every little development, every possible indicator of how the public mood is shifting, can cause either ecstasy or agony for the many thousands who have been actively fighting Walker and his billionaire backers all these months.

Late last week, a new poll by Marquette University Law School showed Walker ahead of labor- and progressive-backed Democratic opponent Tom Barrett by a 50 to 44 percent margin.

So on Monday night, when my long-time friend and Uprising author John Nichols — who also hails from Racine — and I gave talks about new books on the significance of the Wisconsin labor rebellion, there was an undercurrent of anxiety running through the crowd of 150 or so that filled Boswell’s Books in Milwaukee. John has developed a large national following through his work as correspondent for The Nation, his frequent commentary on MSNBC, and the seven books he has authored.

In stressing the secession” of the job creator” class from any responsibility except profit maximization, I fear John and I may have merely deepened fears in the crowd, already put on edge by polling numbers and Walker’s $25 million war chest, which gives the governor close to a 25-1 edge over Barrett. (Despite this gross imbalance, the mindlessly pro-Walker Journal Sentinel headlined a story in this even-handed” fashion: Barrett, Walker have one thing in common: Out-of-state donors.”)

Fortunately, John lightened the mood with an hysterically funny account of the lies and hypocrisies of Scott Walker, his corporate sponsors, and his flunkies, included in his superb new book Uprising.

John Doe vs. Scott Walker

John also called attention to the ongoing John Doe probe of Walker’s administration when he served as county executive of Milwaukee. The investigation has already produced numerous indictments (on charges like looting a fund for wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans), and several top Walker aides — and family members — have accepted immunity in exchange for testimony. Of course, the content of some 1,300 Walker e-mails has yet to be revealed to the public. 

But the focus of our discussion remained largely on the impending recall and the prospects for Walker’s foes. John stressed optimism, recounting all the times we faced seemingly impossible barriers and still managed to overcome them (as when activists gathered more than 1 million signatures — twice the required 540,000 — to trigger Walker’s recall).

An incisive critique of the Marquette poll, which John later expanded upon in print in the Capital Times, also gives reason to hope:

The previous Marquette poll, which showed a dead heat between Walker and Barrett, found that 43 percent of those identified as conservatives, while 32 percent identified as moderates and 22 percent as liberals.

In other words, the new poll upped the number of conservatives interviewed — those most likely to support Walker — by five percentage points while it reduced the percentage of liberals polled — those most likely to vote for Barrett — by two points. [The dramatic shift in the polling sample] accounts for the entire boost in Walker’s number and the entire drop in Barrett’s number.

Wisconsin labor and progressives can also take heart from a new poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research from May 19 to 21, showing Walker leading Barrett by only a 50 to 47 percent margin, which is within the poll’s four-point margin of error. Even more encouraging, Barrett leads with independents, 50 percent to 44 percent.”

Victory Within Reach

Thus, much to our audience’s relief, there should be no doubt that the successful recall of Walker is within reach.

But clearly, activists cannot allow their mood or focus to fluctuate with the polls in the few days remaining.

There are several key groups where Wisconsin progressives and labor must work tirelessly to shore up support:

  • Youth: While Barrett has a 25-point advantage among voters ages 18 to 30, the recall vote on June 5 will take place while colleges are out of session and students are scattered. To reach the youth vote, especially among people of color, we need to see more events like the Milwaukee rally staged last Saturday by Van Jones’s new organization, Reclaim the Dream, capped by rapper Jasiri X jubilantly performing his witty and wicked song dedicated to Scott Walker, You’re Fired.” Van Jones lit up the crowd when he declared, We’re bringing together people too proud to let Scott Walker take away what their grandparents and parents fought for and won for all of us.”
  • African-American and Latino communities: People of color intensely dislike Walker for his efforts to disenfranchise them, his attacks on Medicaid and other programs serving the poor, and the assault on unions and the public sector, where about 20 percent of African-Americans are employed. There remains, of course, the historic problem of turning out these communities whose voting has been systematically discouraged through conscious efforts by white elites.

However, innovative and deeply-rooted get out the vote” organizing efforts are underway in both communities. One couple I know has leafleted and spoken to 10,000 people, by their count, outside inner-city grocery stores in recent weeks.

  • Independents: Walker’s pattern of deceitful conduct in office can be more heavily emphasized to intensify support among independents. This lengthy train of abuses includes: Walker’s heavy-handed tactics to ram through Wisconsin’s new anti-public union law; his openly-acknowledged consideration of bringing in troublemakers” to discredit peaceful protesters at the Capitol; his Milwaukee County operation that triggered the John Doe probe; his reliance on contributions from billionaires like the Koch brothers and Wisconsin businesswoman Diane Hendricks; and, most recently, his administration’s premature release of unverified job figures to muddy the waters surrounding Walker’s ranking of worst-in-the-nation on job creation.

Former Nixon aide John Dean, who has gone through a profound personal and political transformation, perhaps best summed up the essence of Walker’s character: more Nixonian than Nixon.”

  • Private-sector unionists: Walker’s support among union members in the private sector plummeted to just 20 percent at the height of labor protests at the Capitol. But both polling data and anecdotal evidence suggest that Walker has recovered some lost ground among union members not employed by the public.

However, recently-released video footage features Walker telling right-to-work” enthusiast Diane Hendricks of his plans to use divide and conquer” tactics to first isolate and destroy public-sector unions and then, implicitly, to extend the attack to private-sector unions. The Wisconsin AFL-CIO is now working hard to alert all unionists of a recent spate of contract fights over corporations seeking to insert right-to-work” language into union contracts.

A more specifically class-based message from the Democrats — perhaps along the lines of Van Jones’ comments — would also help to mobilize private-sector unionists against Walker.

Ultimately, the responsibility in the next 12 days for those fighting to unseat Walker and open the way to a new progressive era in Wisconsin politics is crystal-clear: Forget the polls and fight the power.

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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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