In The News
Who runs the real Democrats taking on Walker?
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
Posted April 11, 2012
“We’re not choosing Walker’s opponent,” said a union leader at Serb Hall – and turning to the Democratic Party official standing next to him he smiled and added, “And neither are you.”
What events are making clear – if only the media would cover them fairly – is how no backroom biggies control this state of the state. Not Scott Walker’s myth of outside union goons and coffers. Not the GOP fantasy of government workers Pied Pipering the ratty lower class around the Capitol. Not the journalistic fabrication that the nearly million people who signed recall petitions are bleating sheep misled by wacko radicals.
Parents, students, neighborhood groups, middle class workers, modest ecologists and vehement environmentalists, organic and nonorganic shoppers, rich and poor developers of green communities, farmers, moderates, Latinos, retirees, independents and growing numbers of traditional Republicans who feel abandoned by the extremists in their once grand party. All are showing up at these grassroots events and actually defying the usual factions that decide these things.
All the establishment figures can do is lend organization, money, suggestions and influence to a runaway express. It supersedes party labels, Act 10 anger, union membership. It even ignores the tyrannical pressure of GOP secrecy, the Tea Party determination to expose every petition signer or punish every Republican who speaks out against Walker.
It is all somewhat naïve and Capra-esque, given modern political sensibilities, but Wisconsin is looking much like the climactic frame of the 1938 “Boys Town” when screen after screen of motivated youth behind a determined priest marched to rid the community of gangsters.
Consider. The powers that be want an enormous turnout May 8 to end once and for the GOP canard that Walker is a shoo-in and Wisconsin doesn’t want to dump him. But they don’t want to lose main focus on the actual June 5 recall so they have to accept that many are undecided despite the insider pressures and guesses – and the heart attack that gives the lead candidates. They just want people to stay engaged and ask questions. It’s not quite “anyone but Walker” but it is turning into more than a movement. It’s beginning to smell of a majority.
On April 5 at the first gathering of all the real Democrats who want to replace Scott Walker as governor on May 8, interest filled the 750 chairs set up in Serb Hall and then brought 200 more to line the walls plus scores of media hoping to record some sort of bitter squabble because many there backed former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk and some unions had expressed displeasure at Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
The media left early and in vain (though two days later they concocted “Democrats in disarray” stories to sell newspapers and radio/TV shows). Citizen Action, the sponsors of the event, relied on a simple device to make sure the issue remained ousting Walker. Those who liked what was being said raised their hands and wiggled their fingers and those who didn’t turned their backs. Some of the most prominent hand-wavers were candidates on the stage listening to each other (something few in the media reported).
Everyone proved worth listening to -- even an interloper. No, not fake Dem Gladys Huber, the trotted out octogenarian Republican who helped Alberta Darling by forcing a Sandy Pasch primary in that summer recall and is now back as emergency placeholder in case all these strong Democrats back out of their primary. She remains wisely invisible.
No, the interloper given full stage time was Mike Mangan, self-identified Lincoln Republican from West Allis who still floated a few Republican myths about welding jobs and the like but mainly proved how many Republicans wish they had a more moderate leader. Mangan took the seat of the invited but absent Walker, and clearly wanted to cause a GOP primary May 8 by excoriating Walker’s jobs record, disdain for workers, and fossil fuel embrace.
His hopes to stand in for many Republicans who want to speak truth to power were dashed April 11 by the reality that most Republicans enjoy the power whatever their emperor’s lack of clothing. Mangan was bumped from the race for lack of signatuares on his nomination papers.
It did not require a partisan house for the real Democrats to demonstrate they were more intelligent, humorous, analytical and human than the current governor. Even the most unlikely at age 71, Secretary of State Doug La Follette, unleashed some zingers as well as sporting impressive credentials (and a famous relationship to “Fighting Bob” La Follette) of surviving elections even during Republican tsunamis. He was indeed the centurion at the bridge blocking Walker’s bargaining rights bill as long as legally permissible.
But he’s also an astute observer of state politics, a wicked analyzer of legislative excess and a firm believer (without mapping the lineage) in his late great cousin’s call for fair play and lively open debate – the Wisconsin ideal that Walker kicked into the swamp.
If Doug has the La Follette name, Kathleen Vinehout had the La Follette style – square-jawed, honest, eloquent and straight from the heartland. The state senator who fled to Illinois to delay Walker is also a veteran dairy farmer and college professor who keeps peeling voters away from Barrett and Falk whenever she talks.
Again and again at Serb Hal, she landed candid punches, flashing her knowledge of the state budget and how the money ”was always there – it was Walker’s priorities that went awry.” She should know – she was there fighting. Her companions on the dais could only agree with her passionate points just as she was in agreement with many of theirs.
Falk had a third of the crowd in her pocket going in but won more over with her laments about what Walker had done to public education, which she called the key to job growth. She also played up her own impressive record of 14 years, the best job helper in the state because, she noted, she respected workers.
Many expected Barrett to be the most under attack because many unions made it clear he was not their first pick, while many veteran Democrats put him first. Some believe that not having unions in his pocket works in his favor but it was union members at Serb Hall most upset at how a misleadingly edited video from a Charlie Sykes radio show was sent to AFSMCE workers to make Barrett look like a closet supporter of Walker’s attack on bargaining rights. AFSCME later disowned the video, and here’s the reality. Like unions Barrett supported paying more in health care and pension benefits but from the start opposed taping union mouths shut at the bargaining table, which Walker did while adding such nasties as the now unconstitutional elimination of union paycheck dues and forced annual recertification outside his selected “public safety” pets.
Barrett is good at these forums explaining how he avoided the Walker trap of hitting Milwaukee hardest with state aid cuts in order to force the mayor to fire public workers. Instead, Barrett tucked and trimmed to avoid layoffs. Unions here still feel he was too willing to trim and also gave a pass to those fire and police workers who supported Walker, were spared Act 10, spared higher health and pension costs and then had the audacity to demand raises denied regular workers.
Still, Barrett was clearly in the direct eye of the Walker storm while Falk was not, and he uses that to explain how she could be more openly supportive of unions faster. A debate remains of degree – those who think Barrett was just being shrewd and those who think he waffled too readily.
But here’s the surprise.
Rather than sounding flame-throwing mad at Walker, all his opponents speak directly about how he destroyed the basic fair play of the state, and then accurately and even derisively dissect his policies. Even more amazing given what you hear on television and in print, union bargaining rights are not center stage for any of these candidates.
The litany against Walker starts and ends with his proven poor record on the economy and jobs and the even poorer defense his side offers that eventually all his stubbornness will make things better (most economists know the general national recovery plays the biggest part).
Usually a candidate under attack like Walker is in this period points to all the good things in his record and waits till a final opponent emerges to go negative. Not Walker’s ads. He has nothing positive to show so he’s been negative against all his opponents from the get-go.
The Democrats meanwhile do have strategic disagreements – what used to be called open debates in democracy before the media tried to turn every dispute into a headline. For instance, none of these candidates disagree on reversing the signatures of Walker’s legislative failures on public education, government revenue, job policies, cronyism and, first off, bargaining rights. But how?
Falk won unions over by insisting that eliminating Act 10 was Condition One of any fiscal budget bill. Barrett wants an immediate special session instead to end Act 10. Falk fears the legislature will dodge that session, while Barrett fears the still GOP Assembly will dodge her fiscal budget insistence. Vinehout was not alone in wanting her alternate budget with bargaining rights immediately adopted and La Follette probably spoke the truth at Serb Hall more quietly, that Walker has left such a legal mess that it might not be fixed until 2013 once he's dumped.
But note that all these debates are about strategy not about goal.
For philosophical differences you had to look at things like paid sick days, which Barrett infamously opposed when nearly 70% of city voters supported an ordinance. He defends the principle but told Serb Hall he wanted a national law first. That caused many to turn their backs to him even though Falk and La Follette confessed they did not know enough about the issue to form an opinion.
It was Vinehout who slyly pointed out that states doing better than the federal government in social and economic policies are often the hallmarks of change and was once something Wisconsin prided itself on – until Walker came along.
Here the crowd got a better sense of the different approaches, the issue of daring and chance taking that is the real May 8 choice. None of these Democrats are wild-eyed idealists. None are extremists against the extremist Walker. The citizens want him gone, but what level of firebrand will they go for? It’s a matter of taste, since none of the choices seem likely to dampen the fire.