John Nichols on the Fight to Recall Extremist Gov. Scott Walker: It's Money-Power vs. People-Power

John Nichols, a longtime columnist for the Nation and associate editor of the Madison Capitol Times, has chronicled the dramatic fight for the future of Wisconsin over the past two years in his book, The Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest from Madison to Wall Street. With all eyes on next week's attempt to recall bought-and-paid-for governor Scott Walker – and four Republican state senators – Nichols appeared on last Sunday's AlterNet Radio Hour to give us the latest developments. 

Below is a lightly edited transcript of our interview. (You can also listen to the whole show here.)

Joshua Holland: John, let’s put this effort in context. The uprising in Wisconsin was a little more than a year ago. While some on the right condemned it as an assault on democracy, in your book you argue that it was in keeping with the best traditions of America. Can you unpack that for us a little bit?

John Nichols: Sure I’ll do my best. The founders of the American experiment, who were certainly imperfect men but they got a lot about how you create a democratic republic – they were very conscious of the fact that the most dangerous thing for America would be a sense that elections were it-- that the scheduling and holding of elections would end the democratic responsibility. The thing that Jefferson and Madison spoke a lot about, especially at the time of the drafting of the Constitution, was the notion that it would be terribly dangerous if Americans came to think of the presidency as an elected monarch. If they began to think the elections were for the purpose of creating a king for four years.

This is a deeply rooted, American concept. Unfortunately in recent decades we’ve lost sight of it. It isn’t that we haven’t had protests; it isn’t that we haven’t had political pressure, but I think especially on the left there has been a sense that a lot of problems will be solved by reports or that a divided government will prevent horrible things from happening. Maybe there was some truth to that, but that era is gone. It is now possible to have one party take dominant control of the government in a state, or perhaps even the nation, that is so overwhelming that if people don’t go back to the streets and use their right to assemble and petition for the redress of grievances -- and do so aggressively with the purpose of influencing the processes of government -- they’re going to be ceding their ability to check and balance elected officials for lengthy periods of time, and they will fall into the trap that Jefferson referred to.

JH: Scott Walker came into office and he claimed that these were emergency measures designed to address the budget, even though stripping union members of their rights to collectively bargain had no impact on the budget. If you look at some of the states with the worst budgetary pictures, they have already stripped their public workers of that right. We saw a number of Democratic senators flee the state in order to try to block this legislation, and I can’t really recall another time when Democrats took such bold action to stand with working people. It was really refreshing, wasn’t it?

JN: It was incredibly refreshing. The joke we tell in Wisconsin is that the demonstrations were so substantial, so significant that they caused something unprecedented in modern American history to occur: Democrats became Democrats. It’s true!

JH: Sad but true.

JN: The Democratic Party kind of built its rep between 1896 when William Jennings Bryan delivered the Cross of Gold speech and around 1945-1948 at the end of the Roosevelt-Truman period. In that time the Democrats became increasingly identified with the working class. It was a party of labor. It was a party that knew which side it was on. That didn’t mean the Democrats were perfect. They were often bad on racial issues. They were often bad on a whole host of other matters. But on economic issues with the Democratic Party there was a tendency to side with a broad mass of people.

The amazing thing about this was that even into some rather dark eras in our history we still had Democrats who kind of did the right thing on economics. Weirdly enough you had Southern Democrats into the 1960s who voted against Civil Rights, and yet they would still vote for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- programs that are now referred to by Republicans as communist.

That’s the important thing to remember. The Democratic Party was for a period in American history inclined toward a relative economic populism. That was lost in the 1980s; it was absolutely obliterated. What has happened in Wisconsin and I think in Ohio, and a few other places around the country, is these mass mobilizations of workers placing direct demand on government have really created a "which side are you on" moment where Democrats are forced to decide whether they’re going to be Democrats, or whether they’re going to be cogs in the Republican corporate machine. In Wisconsin you actually saw that break occur.

JH: Part of this is a bigger story in the decline of union membership. That was always a big part of Democrats’ campaign financing. As campaigns have grown more expensive and with the decline in union membership, they turned to Wall Street for the cash. Like the famous bank robber said, 'That’s where the money is.'

Last year we saw recall efforts against six Republicans senators and three Democrats. Three Democrats held on, and two of the sitting Republican senators were successfully recalled. Some called it a failure because they didn’t get the three seats they needed to take the Senate. How do you see that?

JN: Oh, I think it’s comic to call that a failure, both on the numbers and the symbolic importance. First, I love recalls. I think they’re wonderful tools. I think they’re the people’s equivalent of impeachment. They are the place at which citizens can have the ultimate act to hold their elected officials to account. I think they’re very powerful. They terrify politicians, and I can’t imagine anything better than that.

In Wisconsin when we had the nine recalls in 2011, as you say the three Democrats held on and two Republicans were defeated, but here’s the significant thing: In addition to winning five of the nine recalls the Democrats won the majority of the votes across the nine districts. That’s significant because those are nine districts, all of which in 2010 had voted for Scott Walker for governor. They were all either Republican-leaning districts or at the very least swing districts.

The recalls sent an incredibly powerful signal that a majority in Republican-leaning districts had opted against the policies of the government. What that did when a new Senate was constituted after the recalls was that it convinced a moderate Republican to begin to side with the Democrats on some some fundamental environmental issues as well as voting rights issues.

The significant thing is the recalls of last summer actually prevented some really atrocious things from happening. They were an incredible signal to voters saying that you can make these interventions. Even if you don’t get everything you want you can slow down a train that’s heading toward you. That’s a good thing. I think last year was hopeful. It certainly wasn’t sufficient, but it wasn’t something to be whining about.

JH: There are four more Senate recall elections coming up. With all the attention on Scott Walker I haven’t seen a lot about those races. In fact I haven’t found polling on those races that was more recent than mid-April. What’s your read on that from the ground on those four Senate races? Are those in play? The last polling, which was a long time ago, showed that all four incumbents seemed to have significant leads.

JN: Here’s the deal. The important thing to understand is that this is the most sweeping set of recalls in Americans history. We’ve never had a situation where on a single day a state could change control of both its executive branch and the dominant house of the legislative branch. It’s a very big deal. The four state senate races are important because they challenge Republican incumbents who have gone along with the governor’s agenda on all of these labor issues and a host of other matters as well.

I would say that it’s fair to argue that at least two of the seats are likely, not certainly, to be picked up by the Democrats. If that happens -- in fact if just one seat is picked up -- the Democrats gain full control of the state senate. That in itself is a pretty big deal.

I think what’s also very important in all four of these races is that you’re really seeing the generalization of a Democratic position. Unlike in the past where in rural and urban districts you might see Democrats running on different issues, all four of the Democrats who are challenging these Republican incumbents are running on genuinely progressive platforms. They’re saying, "we support labor rights, we support small farmers and small business, we want to see corporations pay their fair share, we support voting rights, and we support open government." It’s a really strong agenda.

Each of these races become a referendum. One of the most fascinating things is in the most Republican of the districts, a rural district that’s between Madison and Milwaukee, Lori Compas -- who is a wedding photographer and has never been involved in politics -- has mounted an incredibly effective campaign. She may not win, because it’s a Republican district, but there’s simply no question that what she has done is revitalize progressive politics in one of the most rural areas in the state. That has an impact long-term and can also have an impact short-term by feeding votes out into the gubernatorial recall, which takes place the same day.

JH: Let’s turn to Scott Walker. Let me first just ask you to give us a brief recap of some of the scandals that have been swirling around Walker’s office for the past year or two. I understand that six of his former aides have been charged with 15 felonies in the so-called John Doe investigation?

JN: You’re exactly right. You ask for a brief rundown of the scandals associated with Scott Walker. I’m not sure that’s humanly possible.

JH: I’m asking you for a book, aren’t I?

JN: I have not been able to keep up. I think you can break it down into two things. There’s a scorching scandal surrounding his former Office of the Milwaukee County Executive. It’s pretty evident from the indictments that have already come down and the pattern of the investigation that aides for the governor, and perhaps the governor himself -- that remains to be seen -- set up a secret campaign operation in the County Executive’s Office where people were paid out of the Treasury for pretty much just full-time campaign work for Scott Walker and his favorite candidates. It was effectively a recreation of an old-style political machine without any rules. It appears to have been illegal.

That’s why his deputy chief of staff, his scheduler, his former deputy chief of staff have all been charged. That’s why the FBI has raided the home of his former chief of staff. That’s why his current press secretary and at least one of his current cabinet members have taken immunity in the John Doe probe. It’s also why the governor is now represented by four separate law firms, including two of the top criminal defense law firms. These aren’t firms that deal with election law; these are firms that deal with major crimes.

We know from financial filings that he’s paying more than $100,000 for the criminal defense firms, as well as his campaign paying hundreds of thousands for election law firms, and a Washington fixer firm. The guy is looking at major state and potentially federal investigations into his activities.

Put that in one box and then I’ll quickly just tell you that in the past week there’s been a significant amount of churn regarding his testimony last April to the US Congress where it appears -- and this is based on questions asked by ranking members of the House Oversight Committee -- that Governor Walker lied at a number of turns. He openly and expressly attempted to deceive the committee while under sworn oath.

JH: Despite these things – and despite his overreach – a number of polls have shown he’s ahead of his opponent. You recently wrote that the race may be a lot closer than those polls suggest. What’s going on there?

JN: I think it’s a $50 million question. Scott Walker has raised more money during this recall campaign – not just more than any candidate in Wisconsin history -- he has raised for his own campaign more than all the candidates in any campaign in Wisconsin history. It’s unprecedented amounts of money. His pre-primary filing showed that he had raised $25 million, with 61% of his money in his last report coming from outside the state of Wisconsin. A bunch of the money is coming in massive contributions of as much as $500,000. He’s had an overwhelming fundraising advantage that at one point gave him a 25:1 ratio for spending on media verus his opponent.

He’s also had huge amounts of money coming into the state through so-called independent groups and individuals. Especially the Koch brothers and other major national donors who have funded him in the tens of millions of dollars. It’s very hard for his opponent to keep up in the financial part of the campaign.

You’ve ended up in Wisconsin with a battle between money power on one side -- and Walker certainly has money power combined with a very enthusiastic conservative base -- and people power on the other side. The grassroots movement is now back in the streets going door to door. Tracking a people-powered campaign is an incredibly hard thing to do. I’m not going to lie to folks and say that it’s certain Scott Walker is going to be beat. I think this a real dogfight. An incredible battle. I’ve covered a lot of politics and this one is one of the most intense fights I’ve ever seen. It’s clear that Walker’s people don’t believe they have an overwhelming lead. It’s also clear that supporters of his opponent Tom Barrett know that they’ve got a real fight on their hands.

What is significant and why I suggest this race is close is not really because we’ve seen some polls showing a significant move toward Barrett -- including a couple polls that came out this week showing the race to be within two or three points -- but also because of an intangible that I think is highly significant. That is early voting. Wisconsin allows voters to cast their ballots prior to election day at the county courthouses or city halls. In the first three days of early voting you saw almost half the voters cast ballots as in the entire roughly 13-day early voting period for the 2010 gubernatorial election. It looks as if we’re going to have a massive turnout, and numbers have been significantly bumped up in areas such as Madison and Milwaukee, which are traditional Democratic strongholds.

I think that this mass mobilization, which the unions have put a lot of their resources and energy into, has the potential to produce a sufficient number of new voters. The traditionally unpolled voters such as young people, people of color, and rural people can make this a close and potentially very winnable race not just for Tom Barrett but for the incredible movement that developed last year.

JH: Let me just briefly ask you about Tom Barrett, Scott Walker’s opponent. This is a rematch. Barrett lost to Walker in 2010. Tell me about him. Is he the ideal candidate to be going up against Walker?

JN: He might be. It’s an odd thing. You’ve always got your debate about what an ideal candidate is. Most Wisconsinites who were part of the movement against Walker wanted Russ Feingold to run -- the former US Senator. Feingold chose not to run, but not because of a lack of disdain for Walker. Feingold has been on the campaign trail very aggressively against Walker. I think it's because after 30 years in public office, he was not looking to take on another race this quickly.

Barrett really stepped into that void. He won a four-way primary and is proving to be a pretty effective candidate. He is a very easygoing guy and a natural campaigner. He likes being around people. He’s worked very hard, much harder, I think. than he did in 2010.

The significant thing about Barrett that I think we might want to note is that when he served in Congress from 1992 to 2002 he had an almost parallel record to Russ Feingold. He really is a Wisconsin progressive. He voted against NAFTA, China free trade – trade deals that were favored by Wall Street and the business community, but were an affront on labor. He sort of had a breaking with President Clinton and President Bush. He voted against getting rid of the Glass-Steagall protections, one of the few members of the House of Representatives to do so. He voted in favor of all the major campaign finance reform initiatives and ethics initiatives. He was one of the handful of members of the US House who voted with Russ Feingold to try and block the US PATRIOT Act.

This is a genuinely progressive player who has a good deal of experience in executive and legislative areas. I’d say he’s a pretty credible candidate, although I will suggest that I think he started slow and I think that that caused him to have weaker poll number initially than he should have. I won’t say he’s absolutely perfect, but he’s proving to be an effective candidate. I don’t think Barrett will be the excuse if Democrats lose this race. 


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