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Progressive Movement Rises Up But Can't Oust Walker From Wisconsin Governorship

Walker outspent Barrett 8-to-1, but Democrats may have regained control of the state senate.

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Scott Walker was elected governor in the Tea Party landslide of 2010, when many of the voters who cast ballots for Barack Obama in 2008 didn’t turn out, often citing a poor economy and Obama’s failure to meet their expectations. In Wisconsin -- a progressive state with a reputation for good government -- public employees, with a labor-friendly populace, soon found Walker seeking to dismantle protections that were decades in the making—particularly collective bargaining rights.

Nobody expected the groundswell that followed. Anticipating the Occupy protests that followed across America, thousands of people came to the state capitol and would not leave. The rallies in the winter of 2011 were the country’s largest pro-labor protests in decades, since before World War II. Despite dramatic days of protests—including Democratic state senators hiding to deprive the GOP majority of a quorum to pass draconian anti-labor bills—Walker rammed through laws stripping labor rights and imposed a corporatist agenda. That prompted a recall signature gathering effort that crested last winter with a million signers—half the vote that put Walker in office.

The anti-Walker tide grew in 2011 and emerged as the campaign that prompted Tuesday’s special election. In the months since Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board certified the recall, Walker and his opponents have taken their dueling campaigns nationwide. Walker has raised more than $30 million, a sum on par with leading GOP presidential candidates, including millions from Republican billionaires who have said they want to destroy labor unions.

The coalition of unions leading the recall—which was ahead of the state’s Democratic Party for most of this effort—relied on smaller donations and old-school organizing to spread its message. That campaign peaked in the massive get-out-the-vote effort seen on Tuesday. These efforts reveal there is plenty of stamina left at the grassroots, which is a notable counterpoint to the billionaire-dominated world of GOP super-PACs and seven-figure donations that has defined that Republican Party in 2012.

Various polls have found between a quarter and a third of Wisconsin households have union members. That network was tapped by public employee unions, which saw the attack on collective bargaining as part of a GOP push for privatizing public services. Other groups joined the campaign, such as the League of Young Voters, comprised of African Americans under age 30, which identified and turned out an estimated 15,000 African-American voters from inner city Milwaukee. Other national groups, such as Democracy for America and People for the American Way, also got involved, making thousands of phone calls to voters and working to protect civil rights.

As soon as the polls opened on Tuesday, there were signs that the recall vote was going to be unlike anything in recent state history. In the two largest Democratic strongholds, Milwaukee and Madison, turnout exceeded expectations by noon. At several Milwaukee precincts, extra poll workers were assigned and local election officials also coped with shortages of paper ballots and registration forms. People were still waiting to vote as polling hours closed.

“They weren’t expecting a lot of young adults in this election,” said Cary Jenkins, of the League of Young Voters. “There were long lines at 7 a.m.” The turnout in Madison was equally surprising, said Sam Mayfield, a documentary filmmaker who has covered the recall for more than a year. “I went to one polling place this morning and they thought this might be end up higher than Obama’s turnout,” she said. Madison officials said the turnout there might reach 80 percent of registered voters.

In the more conservative outlying areas, such as Green Bay, the local newspaper’s Twitter feed described equally strong turnout, saying the sentiment among voters was serious and deeply felt, though there was little rancor. Election protection hotlines recorded phone calls from some people, notably students who recently moved, reporting some were not allowed to vote under the state’s new 28-day residency requirement.

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