Roving thoughts and provocations

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Which Wisconsin?

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett

The attempt to recall Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker (and several state legislators), which culminates in Tuesday’s recall election, began two emotionally bitter winters ago. A piece of Walker-sponsored legislation known as Act 10 was put forward without much public warning: it was a proposal that, among other things, increased state employees’ contribution to health care (a substantial cut in their take-home pay) and removed public workers’ collective bargaining rights (an exception being made for police and firemen, who had supported Walker’s campaign). Shoved forward during a February thaw, Act 10 was thought to be shrewdly if mischievously timed—a Friday!—but it backfired. The weather was sunny and warm for winter and rally organization began that weekend: Madisonians, a huge portion of whom work in some way for the public sector—not only teachers but sanitation workers, prison guards, and hospital workers—took to the street and marched on the capitol, occupying it for months, while joined by people from all over the state, as well as by Susan Sarandon and Jesse Jackson.

At that time, the protests were full of surprising unity, even between protesters and police, who would high-five one another in a friendly manner despite the cops being on duty. All was nonviolent. Farmers drove their tractors around the Capitol Square, parents brought their children to show them what civil disobedience looked like, taking photos of the kids holding Recall signs. Teachable moments as family outings were everywhere. Microphones were set up, speeches were given, music played, chants were chanted, pizza was delivered, drums were drummed. For weeks, people clapped, shouted, and danced. By St. Patrick’s Day the feeling of angry camp-out and festival was still in the air, though there were more leprechaun costumes and some of the chants had been hijacked by teenaged interlopers: Hear it loud, hear it clear, we want union rights and beer. Nonetheless, it became a source of local civic pride that the protests seemed a direct prompt to the subsequent Occupy Wall Street Movement. Some Madisonians would claim the Arab Spring as well. Scott Walker took to wearing a bulletproof vest.

Despite the assertion by journalist David Brooks (and others) that Americans live in more like-minded communities than ever before and are therefore cut off from values and opinions at variance with their own, more than a year later Wisconsin’s recall of its Governor and several legislators is now said to have pitted neighbor against neighbor. It is being called “a civil war,” and as in our American Civil War some family members are not talking to other family members. Despite a history of bipartisanship, people have chosen sides (as midwesterners tend to do in divorce; not for them the pseudo-sophisticated friends-with-all approach). Tales of confrontation abound: A driver with a “Recall Walker” bumper sticker might be tailed on the highway then passed in the adjacent lane by someone holding up a “Fuck the Recall” sign.

There have been calls for civility and healing as well as for further debate. Days before Mother’s Day, on the eve of the Democratic primary to choose Walker’s opponent in the recall, Kathleen Falk, the former Dane County Executive who had been one of the first candidates out there, garnering union and environmentalists’ endorsements but mysteriously considered “unelectable” even by her admirers, said the state was crying out for “a mother’s touch.” It was not her finest moment. But when she said “a budget is a moral document” she was back on track.

The widely considered “more electable” Milwaukee mayor, Tom Barrett, who defeated Falk in the primary, has been defeated by Walker before, in the 2010 gubernatorial election, so what constitutes electability for the Democrats is a little fuzzy. Barrett was said to have run a lackluster campaign in 2010, but luster is still not his strong suit: he remains stolid and mild and intelligent, perhaps temperamentally unsuited for campaign life, though he can do fieriness if absolutely necessary. Everyone is slightly in drag: Barrett, the people’s mayor of Milwaukee, is chiseled, handsome, and dignified in an almost regal way; in a rally with Bill Clinton this past weekend, even while costumed in a Milwaukee Brewers jacket, the very tall, polite Barrett made the crowd-pleasing Clinton look like a raspy, wispy tough-guy.

Peter Gorman
Protest in Madison, Wisconsin, March 12, 2011

Meanwhile Scott Walker, in public debates, looks sleepy, even a bit cross-eyed. To study his notes in a televised debate he bows his head so low that viewers see his bald spot in back. The pose looks almost like shame. But when he lifts his head back up again he becomes magically fast-talking. Since Walker never graduated from college, in public settings he plays his Eagle Scout card in a way that impressed even me though I know the Eagle Scouts boast a bunch of unlikely suspects (among them, the film director David Lynch). With Barrett and Walker facing each other down, the recall election has the look of a rematch, although Democrats have consistently said it is not. With Barrett behind in the polls the recall also has the sad-making whiff of futility.

In phrasing handed to him by someone on his campaign, Barrett has declared himself “rock solid” while Walker is the “rock star” of the national right wing. (Walker blames the left for “starting it”—“it” being the state’s affairs going national—with activist movie stars, union support, and continual media coverage last winter.) In addition to his right-wing, right-to-work policies, Walker’s out-of-state speaking engagements are an issue, as is his quest for a national profile, especially since it has involved the unprecedented accrual of out-of-state cash. At another moment in time this might be a genuine sticking point in the traditional midwestern “who do you think you are?” psyche, but voters may care less about Walker being a “rock star” than Barrett’s campaign managers are hoping. It is not the most stirring theme to run on.

There can be a begrudging provincial respect for someone in the national eye, even if it’s the eye of a storm, and of the Tea Party, as well as the out-of-state billionaires who have helped fill Walker’s campaign coffers, which are now up to $31 million—an unprecedented amount in Wisconsin political history. Walker, who last year fell prey to a taped prank phone call from a blogger pretending to be one of the Koch brothers is now using Koch cash to run Willie Horton-style ads, the most recent featuring a photograph of a dead Milwaukee toddler.

Barrett, partly because of recall rules that limit a challenger’s resources, has no such national money. But to insistently call Walker a “rock star” may exalt Walker more than is understood by the Barrett campaign, which is hoping for the mythic Wisconsin wholesomeness to prevail at the polls. Certainly corruption seems to surround Walker and he has a criminal defense fund already in place—the first time a sitting governor has ever had one. Rumors of indictments are in the air, regarding both Walker’s time as Milwaukee County Executive and his current use of state moneys. But many people in self-contradictory Wisconsin, the home of both the Progressive Party and of Joe McCarthy, may not care very deeply about the charges against Walker.

While the state struggles financially, and Walker and his Republican henchmen in the legislature attempt to bestow both tax and environmental breaks to “job- creating” open-pit mining companies while rejecting $810 million of Obama stimulus money for a high-speed train, the town-gown-style split that has always existed along various fault lines across the state has reemerged, this time cutting through small town neighborhoods, Indian tribal land, and even academic departments. Wisconsin has long been considered a collective of liberal college communities connected by interstates crisscrossing the farmland. But especially with the rise of suburban sprawl, it has become much more unpredictable than that.

If Walker wins, the sorrow of so much grassroots political effort coming to naught will be profound. From “Obama Nation to Abomination” quipped local radio show host, Michael Feldman, though the extent to which the recall election is also a referendum on the Obama presidency is unclear. A June election, its timing determined by recall rules, is not a November one. Over 100,000 students have dispersed for the academic year—many are out of state for the summer; some entering freshman have yet to turn eighteen. Wisconsin has a long history as a swing state: in 2000 Gore won it by only 6000 votes, and if Florida had been successfully contested, Bush was going to demand a Wisconsin recount; Kerry took Wisconsin by only 16,000.

Despite this, and despite the Republican legislature’s newly stringent voter ID laws, Wisconsin could still be Obama’s. But it won’t be the comfortable margin of 2008. Well, the whole world is watching—sort of. If only the whole state were voting.

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