Right-Winger Scott Walker Overreached, and His Arrogance Has Turned the Political Tide Against Him in Wisconsin
Wisconsin's government has effectively been shut down as the stand-off between hard-right Republican Governor Scott Walker and the 14 senate Democrats who left the state to block passage of his draconian union-busting bill continues into its 3rd week. Walker's intransigent stance even after state workers conceded to his wage and benefit demands has cost him much of the political capital he held when he assumed office earlier this year; an effort to recall the governor next year is already underway.
On Monday, Walker told reporters that the absent lawmakers had to return to the capitol within 24 hours to address a non-controversial measure in the bill to restructure the state's debt – a move that would save Wisconsin $165 million. It's unclear what the exact deadline is – the Associated Press reported last week that the date-certain was February 25 – but whether it's today or later this week, the governor has set up a game of chicken with the provision, threatening to lay off thousands of public workers if the measure doesn't pass.
The 14 Senate Dems who are reportedly holed up in Illinois responded by offering several other options to avoid the looming deadline. "He doesn't have to do the bonding," Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller told the Wisconsin State Journal. "It's not as time critical as the governor has indicated." According to the Journal, “whether Walker takes one of those options will show whether he's serious about avoiding a financial crisis — or wants to 'scare people' into accepting his controversial bid to end most collective bargaining for public employees.”
If even one wavering Democrat returns to the capitol, Walker will be able to push his bill through the legislature. On the other hand, if 3 moderates in the Republican caucus turn against his bill, it will die; Republican state senator Scott Fitzgerald has signaled privately that he would not support the measure, but his office says he's still officially onboard.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin's public workers have already been hurt by the assault on their unions. As Ruth Conniff reported this week, “record numbers of public employees are requesting retirement papers” in anticipation of deep cuts. The effect on the state, Conniff notes, “could be devastating,” adding that the number of people retiring from the public sector in the next two weeks “could easily dwarf the 12,000 lay-offs the governor has threatened” if his bill isn't passed.
Above all, this is a political show-down. The side that the public comes to view as being primarily responsible for the messy standoff will lose. And Walker, having overreached dramatically, has the political winds blowing against him. He has refused to accept a compromise offered by one of his fellow Republicans and to sit and negotiate in good faith with his political opponents, as he is required to do by law (one union filed a complaint this week charging the governor with unfair labor practices).
He ordered the capitol building closed to the public, despite the fact that the state's Constitution guarantees citizens access. In response, Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney pulled his deputies from the doors because, he told reporters, it is not their job to act as "palace guard." A judge issued a restraining order on Tuesday ordering the building to be re-opened.
A Capital Times editorial accused Walker of 'assaulting free speech' in the state, noting that the governor has “gotten his allies to engineer changes in the Legislature's rules in order to limit hearings and debate.” Walker, charges the Times, “is desperate to silence the outcry against his attempt to take away public workers' collective bargaining rights, undermine BadgerCare and SeniorCare, and concentrate decision-making in his office so that he can sell state properties to his cronies in no-bid deals.”
The governor presented a budget on Tuesday that calls for “big cuts in state aids to schools, local governments and the UW System and a tight cap on property taxes,” according to Wispolitics.com. He and his fellow GOPers have introduced 8 other far-right measures in the purple state, and a poll released this week shows that if a rematch of last November's election were held today, Walker would lose by 7 points. Most of the drop in his support came from Republicans and independents in union households. Two recent national polls found the public opposed to stripping away public workers' right to bargain collectively by about a 2 to 1 margin.
The Capital Times reports that “even allies” are “backpedal[ling] from Walker's extremism.
Walker appears removed and smugly oblivious to all the worry, discomfort and anger being felt in and around the Capitol by public employees and their supporters. He sits insulated in an East Wing world where he and fellow Republicans apparently delude themselves about their righteousness.
At the same time, the Wisconsin State Journal reported that on Monday, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald “contended that Senate Democrats were growing weary of their exile,” now in its 12th day. "I think the dynamic will change after tomorrow (Tuesday), when the governor releases his budget," he said. The Republicans control the legislature and are applying serious pressure on the renegade law-makers, threatening not only to lay-off state workers, but to possibly cut off their staffers' pay. On the now-infamous “prank” call Walker took from the Buffalo Beast's Ian Murphy posing as oily right-wing funder David Koch, the governor discussed a variety of tricks that he and his staff had contemplated to lure the legislators back to Madison.
Both sides in this conflict have drawn lines in the sand, and nobody can say how it will end – which side will blink first. But even if the bill passes, that won't be he end of the struggle. Although it's still a remote possibility, talk of holding the first general strike in the US in generations is gaining steam in the capitol.
Organizing is underway to recall legislators on both sides of the issue; a study released Monday found that the 8 Republican senators eligible to be recalled are vulnerable, as over a million Wisconsinites would sign a petition starting the process if asked. A conservative group based in Utah is already working to recall the 8 eligible Democrats.
Finally, there will be litigation if the bill passes. According to Firedoglake's David Dayen, “lawyers plan to sue the state the moment Governor Walker signs any budget repair bill that includes the stripping of collective bargaining rights.”
There is still a lingering sense that the Assembly vote was illegal. Democrats are still looking at all footage of the vote, to see if their suspicions are correct that Republicans leaned over and voted by electronic device in place of their missing colleagues. “The most important thing over the next two weeks,” Nichols told the People’s Legislature, “Is to maintain the rule of law and the rules of the Senate. We can’t let them roll over process … I believe there are enough good judges left in this state to get injunctions and slow this down.”
Meanwhile, the uprising continues. Lawmakers in Ohio may vote on a union-busting measure similar to Walker's as soon as Wednesday, and thousands of protesters have descended on Columbus to voice their opposition.