What's Behind the Recall in Wisconsin: Workers Fighting Back As Walker Dodges Questions About Corruption

The folks that were angry about this started a recall....Not hundreds, not thousands, but tens of thousands of ordinary people did an extraordinary thing. They stood up and took their government back.” -- Gov. Scott Walker, discussing the 2002 recalls that led to his election as Milwaukee County Executive.

In a 60-day period during a cold Wisconsin winter, state residents collected nearly one million signatures for Governor Scott Walker’s recall, triggering the recall election scheduled for June 5. The words above, uttered by then-candidate Walker in his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, are strikingly relevant today. 

The June 5 election between Walker and Democratic challenger Tom Barrett will end this stage of a year-and-a-half-long battle over Walker’s divisive "reforms." But the events that led up to the recall election have laid the groundwork for a movement that will last well beyond June 5.

Not According to Walker's Plan

When Walker first announced his plans to roll back collective bargaining rights on February 11, 2011, he anticipated the fight would be over in less than a week. Claiming the state was broke (just weeks after cutting the corporate tax rate), Walker announced Act 10 on a Friday and planned a vote the following Wednesday, leaving almost no time for public debate or deliberation. He even scheduled a bill signing at the end of the week.

Things did not go according to plan. The events of the following week were pivotal in changing the course of Wisconsin history and sparking a democracy movement across the country.

On Monday, February 14, the University of Wisconsin’s graduate assistants' union and their students marched from campus to the state capitol with Valentines expressing love for their university and support for their teachers’ right to bargain. Their message was clear: “All public sector workers are under attack. Faculty and staff are under attack. The UW as a whole is under attack. With these extreme acts, Scott Walker is seeking to undermine the labor peace of 50 years….You need to get active now!” Their commitment and organizing is widely viewed as essential to sparking the fire that continues to burn.

Public hearings on the bill started the following day and thousands lined up to testify. Republicans quickly abandoned the hearings but Democrats remained to listen to citizens testify through the night and into the next day (and eventually into the following day, and the next, for weeks). The state constitution requires that the doors of the capitol must stay open whenever the legislature is in session, so the capitol sleep-in began as those waiting to testify set up camp on the marble floors of the capitol. This act of occupying the capitol became a signature part of the Wisconsin protests, and helped inspire the tactics later used by the Occupy movement.

On Wednesday, public school teachers from around the state called in sick and came to the capitol to protest, shutting down schools in districts statewide. High school students marched on the statehouse to decry the attack on their teachers' collective bargaining rights. On the other side of the world, Egyptians were rising up against the Mubarek regime, and signs like “Cairo is cold in winter” and “Walker like an Egyptian” (a play off the Bangles song) were seen in the crowd.

It could have all been over on Thursday. Republicans had a 19-14 majority in the Senate and the votes to pass Act 10 without a single Democrat. As the Senate convened that morning to put the nail in the coffin of public employee unions in Wisconsin, the Democrats were...gone.

The 14 Senate Democrats fled across state lines into Illinois early Thursday morning, depriving Republicans of the quorum necessary to take a vote and pass the bill. This act by the Fab 14, as they came to be known, prolonged debate on the bill, and the longer it remained on the floor, the more Wisconsinites came to realize what was really in it. The Fab 14 allowed the fight to continue.

And it did. Each day of this first week, the crowds grew from around 1,000 on Monday to 25,000 on Wednesday to 40,000 on Friday. State residents who had previously paid little attention to politics and who had never participated in a protest were shocked as they came to recognize what Walker and the Wisconsin GOP were trying to do, and carpooled to Madison from towns and cities across the state. An unseasonably warm Saturday saw 70,000 people descend on the capitol square, the largest protests seen in Wisconsin since Madison was at the center of protests over the Vietnam War.

Ongoing Protest and Solidarity

But in contrast with the Vietnam-era protests and the Occupy protests to come, the Wisconsin protests were remarkably conflict-free. There were only a handful of arrests throughout weeks of demonstration and with hundreds of thousands of protesters. Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney famously told Walker his police department “would not be the palace guard” and refused to suppress the grassroots uprising. Off-duty law enforcement officers donned “Cops for Labor” T-shirts and marched alongside students, teachers, farmers, the elderly, and firefighters.

Walker had not planned it this way. He did his best to divide and conquer, attacking collective bargaining rights for teachers, snowplow drivers, nurses, and other public employees, but exempting law enforcement and firefighters. It backfired.

“Firefighters are taught that when there’s an emergency you don’t run away from it, you run to it,” said Mahlon Mitchell, the president of the state firefighters union, at rallies throughout the protests. “This is the emergency. They’re trying to burn down the house of labor, and we won’t let them do it.” (Mitchell, the youngest and first African-American president of the state firefighters' union, is running for lieutenant governor in the recall election against Walker.)

Despite the peaceful nature of the protests and the solidarity between demonstrators and law enforcement, right-wing media went out of its way to portray the Wisconsin uprising as violent. Fox News’ Mike Tobin claimed he was “hit” by a protester while taping a segment at the capitol, but it did not happen (I was there and can also attest that he was not hit). While discussing the Wisconsin protests, Bill O’Reilly spliced in footage from an altercation in California -- with palm trees in the background –- giving viewers the impression that Wisconsin demonstrators were violent. Palm trees became an enduring symbol in Wisconsin of right-wing spin and misleading portrayals of what really was happening in the state.

Protests continued throughout the following weeks. During the day, the capitol rotunda was filled with drumming and chanting, and in the evening, people snuggled into sleeping bags and curled up on the floor. Ian’s Pizza received orders for delivery to the capitol from all 50 states and dozens of countries around the world.

On Monday of the uprising’s second week, Walker accepted a phone call from a person he believed to be David Koch, who asked how the governor’s efforts to “crush that union” were going. The caller was actually Buffalo Beast blogger Ian Murphy, who recorded the conversation. Walker had refused to return phone calls from Democratic legislators who wanted to negotiate, but he gleefully accepted a call from “David Koch,” and chattered for 20 minutes about how he considered planting “troublemakers” in the crowd, how he would not budge or negotiate, and how he was being courageous, just like Ronald Reagan. Walker also asked that Koch have “his guy on the ground” – presumably Americans for Prosperity President Tim Phillips – organize rallies and encourage people “to call lawmakers and tell them to hang firm with the governor.”

Prior to the prank phone call, many Wisconsinites had never heard of the Koch brothers, despite Koch Industries being one of Walker’s top donors in 2010, and David Koch having given $1 million to the Republican Governor’s Association (which in turn spent almost $5 million on the race in Wisconsin). But the Koch connection became apparent after recordings of the call went public, and Koch references soon started appearing on handwritten signs at Wisconsin rallies.

The protests reached 100,000 the next Saturday and the capitol occupation continued. The following week, the Walker administration tried to shut down the capitol and defied a court order to re-open it; Walker then introduced a biennial budget bill with massive cuts to K-12 education and the state Medicaid program, as well as eliminating in-state tuition for undocumented university students and a registry for home healthcare providers.

The week after that, in a barely announced meeting, Republican senators rapidly stripped Act 10 of “fiscal” provisions but kept the collective bargaining limits, which allowed them to pass the bill without a quorum (and without the 14 Democratic senators). The Assembly passed the stripped-down bill days later and Walker signed it into law. But Wisconsinites were undeterred. That Saturday, around 150,000 people marched on the capitol in protest and to welcome home the 14 Democratic senators who had fled the state.

Staying Motivated

The state constitution provides that an elected official may be recalled one year after taking office – which meant that fired-up Wisconsinites had to wait until at least November to start collecting signatures. But Wisconsinites remained motivated and engaged during those intervening months as almost everything in the state became hyper-politicized.

The campaign for state Supreme Court, originally expected to be a sleepy affair with incumbent Justice David Prosser almost guaranteed to win, turned into a referendum on Governor Walker, with millions of out-of-state dollars poured into the state and record turnout on election day. Kloppenburg was originally announced the winner with 200 votes until Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus, a Republican activist in the state’s most conservative county, announced she had failed to account for 14,000 votes, giving Justice Prosser a 7,500-vote lead that was upheld in the recount.

As the Supreme Court race heated up, the Dane County district attorney filed suit alleging that Walker’s collective bargaining bill was passed in violation of the state’s open meetings law, which requires that public notice of meetings be posted 24 hours in advance. Dane County judge Maryann Sumi temporarily blocked implementation of the bill in March (which the Wisconsin GOP tried to ignore), and made her order permanent in May. The prolonged court battle compelled a wide array of Wisconsinites to scrutinize the process of how bills are passed, rather than just the content, and made residents acutely aware of previously obscure provisions in their state constitution.

Sumi’s decision was overturned in a contentious ruling by a divided Wisconsin Supreme Court. The behind-the-scenes debate between the justices about whether to take the case and how to rule became so heated that at one point, Justice Prosser placed his hands around the neck of fellow Justice Ann Walsh Bradley. The ensuing controversy again thrust Prosser into the spotlight, giving Wisconsin residents another controversy connected to Walker’s union-busting.

Summer saw recall elections for eight legislators who had been in office for over one year and were eligible for recall; the elections narrowed Republican control of the Senate to just one vote, making moderate Republican Senator Dale Schultz (who voted against the collective bargaining bill) a pivotal player. In coming months, Schultz’s opposition would essentially kill a deregulatory environmental bill crafted exclusively for an out-of-state mining company. Walker and GOP leadership had prioritized the bill and Schultz managed to hand them a rare defeat.

ALEC and Koch in Wisconsin

Also in summer, the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) published the Web site ALECexposed.org, releasing over 800 previously secret “model bills” from the American Legislative Exchange Council and documenting known ALEC member corporations and legislators. ALEC, described as a “corporate bill mill,” allows corporations like Koch Industries and ideological interest groups like the National Rifle Association to hand state legislators changes to the laws that benefit their bottom line and further the right-wing agenda. ALEC “model bills” promote privatization of education and Medicare, environmental deregulation, “tort reform,” union-busting, and more.

Many first heard of ALEC during the height of the Wisconsin protests when University of Wisconsin history professor William Cronon, a self-described political moderate, published a blog post raising questions about ALEC's role in Walker’s reactionary anti-union bill. His posting prompted the Wisconsin Republican Party to submit an open records request for Cronon’s emails in a failed effort to peg the moderate professor as a political apparatchik.

With the publication of ALECexposed.org, the out-of-state corporate and ideological influence on elected officials in Wisconsin and elsewhere became clear. Walker was an ALEC member when he was a state legislator, and he appointed other ALEC members to key administrative posts. The leaders of both the Senate and the Assembly were active ALEC members. Multiple ALEC bills were spotted in Wisconsin legislation. In addition to Walker’s attack on public sector unions, everything from voter ID and anti-consumer bills and targeted tax breaks for tobacco companies to concealed carry and “Castle Doctrine” laws, telecommunications deregulation and more, were discovered to have ALEC roots.

ALEC is also closely tied to the Koch agenda, particularly the family’s anti-union zeal. Starting in November, as recall proponents started gathering signatures, the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity (AFP) started running TV and web ads supporting Walker and his “reforms.” Sources say AFP has spent nearly $3 million in the state on its “It’s Working!” campaign.

In early 2012, the real David Koch told a Florida newspaper that “we’ve spent a lot of money in Wisconsin. We’re going to spend more.”

Koch also sees the recall election as a focal point in a national showdown over union rights.

“What Scott Walker is doing with the public unions in Wisconsin is critically important. He’s an impressive guy and he’s very courageous,” Koch said. “If the unions win the recall, there will be no stopping union power.”

More Controversies

As the recall election date has grown more near, additional controversies surrounding Walker have emerged. 

The ongoing John Doe investigation into illegal campaigning on the public dime during Walker's 2010 gubernatorial race has so far netted 15 felony indictments and two convictions. Because the John Doe proceedings are secret, the scope and target of the investigations is not known. What is known is that Walker has established a legal defense fund, which under state law is only permitted if Walker (or his "agent") is the subject of a criminal investigation. Thus far, Walker has transferred $60,000 to the fund, and Walker's opponents are making it a campaign issue -- Barrett is demanding the release of emails that could show whether Walker is tied to the illegal activity, and is running ads asking "Doesn’t Wisconsin deserve the truth about Walker’s role in the [John Doe] investigation before the election?"

In April of last year, Walker was called before Congress to testify before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform about the drastic changes he had implemented in the first months of 2011. Walker admitted that he never campaigned on public bargaining, and that despite claiming that Act 10 was a necessary fiscal measure, admitted that some of the anti-union provisions saved the state no money.

Walker also was asked where he got the idea for Act 10. “In December, after the elections, but before I was sworn into office,” he replied. Soon after the 2010 elections, Walker made the unprecedented move of asking then-Governor Jim Doyle to halt negotiations on long-overdue union contracts. Despite his objections, Walker told the Congressional committee, "the public sector unions and the state rushed to the lame-duck session legislature and to the governor, and tried to pass through contracts that would have locked us into a dire financial situation.”

However, Madison's WTDY recently obtained documents from the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB) that contradict the timeline Walker described under oath to Congress. It was actually November when the LRB was instructed to start drafting Act 10, not after the events in December.

Additionally, during Walker's Congressional testimony he asserted, not once, but twice, that he never had a conversation with a donor about punishing the funding base of the opposition party -- a clear reference to attacking unions, which are major Democratic Party funders. However, these statements may be contradicted by a recently-released video of Walker filmed in January 2011 showing him talking to his top donor, billionaire campaign contributor Diane Hendricks. Hendricks asked Walker if “we’ll ever get to be a completely red state and work on those unions . . .“ “Oh yeah, Walker broke in. “… and become a right-to-work [state]?” she asked. Walker replied that his "first step" would be "to divide and conquer" through his budget repair bill, which had the impact of defunding and dismantling unions –major funders of the Democratic Party. “That opens the door right there,” he said.

This month, three Democratic members of the House Committee have signed a letter to Republican Committee Chairman Darrell Issa asking that he press Walker on the veracity of his statements.

Close Race, But Movement Is Far From Over

The race between Walker and Barrett remains a dead heat.

Because of a loophole in state law, Walker has not had to abide by typical campaign contribution limits, and has raised over $25 million, most of it from deep-pocketed out-of-state donors like Bob Perry and Joe Ricketts. Barrett, in contrast, only recently announced his candidacy and has raised just $1 million, 88 percent of it from inside Wisconsin. This means Walker has raised 120 times as much money from outside the state as his opponent -- approximately $14.4 million for Walker versus only $120,000 for Barrett.

Walker's fundraising advantage has helped him flood the airwaves with advertisements that, among other things, tout his "jobs record" -- despite Wisconsin being dead last among all 50 states for job creation -- making claims that have repeatedly been shown to be falseRecent reports show Walker and his Republican allies outspending Democrats on TV by three-to-one.

It remains to be seen whether Walker's piles of money will convince voters to keep him in office until 2014. And the tens of millions spent on the 2012 election will soon be just that: spent. Vanished and forgotten.  But the spirit of early 2011 will live on, and the young people inspired, motivated, and activated by the Wisconsin protests will carry that torch well beyond June 5.


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