Stakes High in Wisconsin Vote, But Labor Effort Energizing Public

Roger Bybee

A sign to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker hangs on a statue in front of the Wisconsin State Capitol on March 10, 2011 in Madison.

The stakes are high. This is about the 2012 election. It is about Obama. And most of all, it is about the future of our country. Are we going to grow in the United States? Are we going to have entrepreneurs? Are we going to have freedom of opportunity? Or, are we going to have a socialistic state?” –Wisconsin State Sen. Alberta Darling (R- River Hills) opposed by liberal State Rep. Sandy Pasch, quoted in Chicago Tribune August 7.


Today marks one of the most fateful days in Wisconsin history, as the outcome of six recall elections directed against Republican state senators — combined with two recall elections against Democratic senators Aug. 16 — will decisively shape the state’s future.

With all the chips on the table, the response from labor and its allies has been overwhelming, according to the coalition We Are Wisconsin.

In the past two days, volunteers have visited over 103,000 doors to help us Get Out the Vote to support our six great candidates up for election,” the group reported Aug. 7.

The presidential election of 2012 will also be hugely impacted by the results in Wisconsin, according to University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist Charles Franklin. If he can’t win here, he also can’t win in other states,” Franklin said of Obama

Obama’s chances in Wisconsin and other Midwest industrial states will of course also be affected by his ability to generate jobs for desperate communities and his colossally unpopular and labor-opposed drive for three NAFTA-style free trade agreements.”

Fighting Walker’s Fiefdom Dream 

The labor-led recall insurgency, on a scale unprecedented in national history, was ignited by Gov. Scott Walker’s new law stripping public employees of all meaningful union rights. Walker originally sought a total ban on public-employee unions, before being persuaded to settle for provisions that would merely” render unions functionally inoperable.

The coalition of labor and progressive groups — later to emege as We Are Wisconsin — gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures to force new elections

Since assuming office in January, Gov. Scott Walker has relentlessly plowed through Wisconsin’s progressive traditions in seeking to rapidly re-configure the Badger State as a Southern-style fiefdom where the demands of corporate CEOs are enthroned and the democratic voice of the majority of citizens is enfeebled by anti-union legislation, restrictive voter ID laws targeting low-income constituencies, outrageously partisan redistricting, and suspect election results.

If the heavily-funded Republican senators can maintain their majority, we can expect Wisconsin to become more like a top-down corporate state and much less like the relatively labor-friendly laboratory of democracy” for which it has gained national admiration. The Walker administration has exemplified its nostalgia for the Robber Baron era by weakening child labor laws and re-instituting prison labor to displace public employees.

However, if the labor-led electoral insurgency can capture a net of three Senate seats, Walker’s blitzkrieg against Wisconsin workers and public institutions will be cut off. 

Such a success would also fuel a potential recall drive against Walker himself in early 2012, whose disapproval rating stands at a dangerously high 59 percent. Lately, Walker has been trying to soothe seething citizens with statements like, The public wants to move on,” but many will not move on” until he has been moved out of the Governor’s Mansion.

Along with the highly unpopular law aimed at ending Wisconsin’s tradition of public-sector unionism, Walker has slashed public-education funding by $800 million, cut public healthcare programs and turned down $9 million in federal health funding, spurned over $810 million in federal mass-transit funding seen as critical to generating jobs in Wisconsin’s flat-lining economy, and expanded corporate tax breaks by about $300 million.

Walker’s full-scale assault on the progressive side of Wisconsin traditions and the public commons” has been amply financed and carefully strategized by a wide range of corporate and conservative interest groups (the DeVos family of Amway fame, the multibillionaire Koch brothers, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Club for Growth, Americans For Prosperity, the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, and high-powered school choice” groups.

Corporate-Sponsored Candidates

As soon as the recall elections endangered complete Republican control of Wisconsin government, many of these same forces took advantage of the massive loopholes created by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

The decision repeals a century of campaign-finance law, reinforces the specious notion that corporations are entitled to the same rights as living humans, and allows corporations to donate money directly from their treasuries, with sharply decreased disclosure requirements.

Most recently, campaign finance groups like the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign estimate that up to $40 million or more has been spent on the recall elections, with most coming from non-candidate organizations.
For example, Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus, a Wisconsin resident, boasted that the GOP had gone all-in” in funding the campaigns of the six GOP senators subject to recall.

The Right’s War of Words

Along with an enormous stream of cash in undisclosed quantities and unknown sources, the corporate-Right coalition backing the Republicans have also mounted a vicious war of words against the pro-labor Democrats.
The Club for Growth has been running an ad accusing State Rep. Sandy Pasch, who is taking on GOP Sen. Alberta Darling, of favoring Illegal Immigrants Over Our Veterans.”

The rhetoric of other Darling supporters has become even more coarse and ugly, labeling Pasch’s backers Nazi-style stormtroopers” even though Pasch is Jewish:

In Politico, [Darling volunteer Vince] Schmuki said it was time to polish off the enemy” and compared the recall elections to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Politico also reported that national Tea Party leaders urged support for Republican candidates by calling volunteers for Democratic candidate Nazi storm troopers” [Pasch is Jewish] and endorsers of ideology that killed a billion people.”

Yet the GOP candidates across the state and their well-heeled supporters have carefully stayed away from linking the Republican candidates to Walker and his policies in their advertising, noted my friend John Nichols of The Nation, who has visited each district.

Sen. Darling, most of whose district covers affluent suburban areas including one of Milwaukee’s richest suburbs as well as the edge of an African-American community, has long tried to depict herself as a moderate. 

But given the co-chairmanship of the powerful Joint Finance Committee, Darling has proven to be a ruthless hit-woman for Walker in his program of destroying union rights, slashing public education, cutting health programs (including those for women’s reproductive health although she served on the Planned Parenthood board of directors until 1995) and handing out new corporate tax breaks at a time when about 66 percent of Wisconsin firms with net revenues over $100 million pay no corporate income taxes.

Races Set the Stage

With spending in this race already hitting $7.9 million, Pasch was seen as having the longest shot of any of the Democratic challengers in the recalls.
But now the centrist and influential Wis​Pol​i​tics​.com ranks the race a toss-up,” with the hard-hitting ads of Pasch and her supporters contrasting her commitment to public education, Medicare, and fair taxation in contrast to Darling’s increasingly rightward lurch.

If labor and its allies can engineer sufficient Democratic victories today and next Tuesday to gain the three seats needed for a Democratic Senate majority, the impact will be immense, especially in other states like Ohio and New Jersey where the new crop of rightist Republican governors have pilloried public employees and portrayed them as benefitting from the economic misery of ordinary taxpayers.

Wisconsin will have developed a template to fight back against the Citizens United decision and big money,” said Ed Schultz, host of MSNBC’s The Ed Show, who chose to broadcast live from Madison because of the recalls’ signficance.

Surveying the effort displayed by labor, Democratic, and progressive forces, John Nichols told Schultz, In all my years of observing politics, I’ve never seen this level of grass-roots energy.”

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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