In The News
Recall fever! Inside the strategy on both sides
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
Posted March 20, 2011
The state Democratic Party has gotten behind the effort that started with grassroots anger, offering organizing expertise and an active website at www.recalltherepublican8.com. From disjointed public upset and flailing anger, the organizers have rushed to provide cohesion and orchestrate an effort likely to produce successful recall petitions against all eight Republican senators who have been in office over a year.
Democratic Party leader Graeme Zielinski is helping coordinate the recalls -- and he has been blown away by the citizen reaction and active support.
"This is hardly my first rodeo," said the veteran of national campaigns and rallies, "but I've never seen anything like this.” Rattling off comments between phone calls, he said: “Hardly just union people -- citizens of all sorts. Private, public, teachers, retirees, students, mothers. I think the anger will last."
I didn't want to be the interviewer splashing cold water, but I pointed out the anger really has to last. Gov. Scott Walker and the national conservative community, both pundits and corporate backers, think it won't.
In interviews they concede that the Walker opponents are out-hustling them with a quicker and better start – and may have won the high ground with the public. Walker’s vaunted silent majority seems to have evaporated. He has been underestimating the general public outrage, overstating how only union workers are upset and misjudged how the initial weight of court legalities would run.
It may be to tamp down that anger that the Republican senators announced March 18 that they would let the appeals process work rather than reinstate the bargaining rights disemboweling that a judge had temporarily blocked on an open meetings violation. Even if they eventually lose that in appeals, the theory goes, they can re-introduce the legislation. Only now, of course, it would get full debate in a laser-focus environment that may force some changes.
Still, the GOP side believes that their ability to appear conciliatory combined with their superior money and the months it will take to affect change will turn the tide in their favor. Already the Utah supporters of the recall effort against the Democratic senators have found Wisconsin based outlets required by law to funnel their money. The national funding machines of Koch and Rove are already producing ads and polls (some report push-pull ones) in the recall districts. These forces may not win recalls against the eight eligible Democrat senators, but they expect to make four face voters again.
Off the record but clearly between the lines in emails to supporters, these GOP stalwarts reveal their real hopes. Sure, the public anger is against them but they think it will quiet down as people get used to things. They also believe union members are selfish wimps, only caring about what they can get, and will soon squabble and split asunder. The current anger over stolen democratic rights? That will dissipate, they say, over the long time it will take to change things.
Unlike some states where recall signatures bring immediate ouster, in Wisconsin it’s only the first step. To get to a recall vote only requires a quarter of a district's vote in the governor's race -- it will then take weeks to confirm and set an election where it will take 50% plus one vote to oust a senator.
The first actual elections will be lucky to happen by mid-summer. A recall movement has started against Walker – probably the ultimate goal of the current anger -- but can't take place by law until next year.
The full damage of his restrictions on bargaining rights and slashes to education, health care and safety nets won't have an immediate impact except in pockets (such as UW employees who would immediately lose bargaining rights whether they are paid by the state or not - another proof this was always about unions not the state budget). Some in the GOP are working to pull him back from a few toxic sideshows, such as ending recycling, in the hope that such modifications will also cool the heat.
Modifications and compromises may be realistic given the resistance of the public and now the courts, but the Democrats are convinced that voters are unlikely to trust Walker and his cronies ever again regardless of any attempts to scale back.
There is no abating now in the fever to dump him, so the governor’s forces are counting on time. His main budget bill has to pass piece by piece over months. Even if court action provides only a temporary delay in removing bargaining rights for public employees, many workers are protected for a while by union contracts or federal stimulus that runs out in the fall, or by the simple tardy nature of economic changes. Unions had already agreed to financial concessions, so their members are braced for losing deferred compensation in pensions and heath care. Many don’t yet realize how complete income agony or loss of jobs won’t hit for months.
That's what Walker is counting on. The major loss of freedom as well as income will be more like a Chinese water torture, drop by drop with Walker hoping citizens will forget by the time they're wet.
The uncertainty of what is unfolding has its paradoxical side. Think of the grandmothers who feared death panels that didn't exist in the Obama health bill. Now they're waiting for the ax of Scott-care to fall on their Medicaid and their families.
The BlueGreen Alliance noted that single-handedly Walker’s outline has "set the economy in reverse." Private sector workers who already had lost their jobs wonder what will happen now, since they were taken in and supported in their job search by public worker relatives. There are thousands of such workers poised to lose that lifeline, and there are thousands of children beginning to realize they will lose teachers, programs and manageable class sizes in rural and urban areas. But kids can't vote and most jobs won't falter for months.
Union members hope Wisconsin's strong work ethic carries through the temporary disaster of bad choices in pubic office. But there’s a political downside to such optimism: Will such fortitude weaken the resolve for change?
I pointed out to Zielinski that this is not a patient electorate, and union people are notoriously impatient for changes -- they even change their own leaders if things don't happen fast enough.
It’s hard to see how any of Walker's bills will add jobs and attract thoughtful businesses given his perverse view of the economy. But some argue that he will benefit from the nation's general recovery under Obama if things keep heading that way -- and unions are the last people to wish the state bad luck in jobs and economy even under a rotten leader.
His supporters also believe time is on their side. New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks, notorious for preferring historical examples over moral considerations, looked back even to Calvin Coolidge attacking union cops, Reagan dumping air controllers, even Margaret Thatcher attacking British labor to note "I can't think of a single leader who was injured by standing up to unions."
But Zielinski and many community leaders believe Walker is about to break that mold. First, time also works in their favor. By those first summer elections, few on the GOP side will care anymore about that Democratic flight to Illinois while the working class will still care how Walker tried to stick a fork in them.
"He's done something I never expected," Zielinski said. "He's helped us educate the people about what is at stake. Now there are a lot more of them involved in this effort than he imagined" -- including many who voted for him.
Instant education and reaction are proving successful counter-attacks in the current political environment – strike when the excesses are obvious; don’t give overreach a chance to settle in. The recall enthusiasm was built on that instant public response – and it has turned into idiocy a standard right-wing defense of screaming about deficits and "Walker had no choice" but to not listen to the citizenry so immediate is the crisis. No, that was a tsunami in Japan.
Facts on the ground undercut that tough-guy posturing and evaporated the impact of the fear-mongering and those union-bashing ads.
That is why so many believe in the power of momentum combined with the power of persistence. The governor has become an instantly perceived cancer spreading pain throughout the body politic – and the Recall the Republicans forces are determined to eradicate the cancer.