IN THIS ISSUE
WHAT HAPPENED IN WISCONSIN?
Part referendum, part re-election, part rematch, energized by activists and awash with money, the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election was an epic. Walker won handily, leaving unions to recall Werner von Braun's remark that he learned more from his failures than his successes.
We are facing our own tests this coming academic year, with an election in fall and a legislative session in spring, so now is a good time to take a dispassionate look at what happened and see if we can learn something.
- Background. The recall campaign was a reaction to a governor and a narrow and uncompromising legislative majority determined to smash inconvenient checks and balances.
- California versus Wisconsin. The successful recall of Gray Davis suggests some reasons why Scott Walker won.
- But What Does it Mean? Some pundits claim the recall was a mistake, while others claim that the country is moving to the right.
Wisconsin was the home state of progressive Governor Robert La Follette and anti-communist Senator Joe McCarthy. Academics may see one of the world's leading universities in one of the nation's most livable cities, but Wisconsin is the state where right wing Governor Tommy Thompson explored welfare "reform" during the 1990s and progressive Senator Russ Feingold lost to Ron Johnson in 2010.
Like Florida, Wisconsin has a smaller state capital (Madison, population about a quarter million) and a larger metropolitan area (Milwaukee, population about two million) where about a third of the state lives. There is one beguiling difference: while Tallahassee is isolated, Madison is only eighty miles from Milwaukee, so unhappy Milwaukeeans can readily drive to Madison to protest.
That's what happened last year.
In 2010, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker defeated Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, 52 % to 46 %. Walker's platform included cutting state employee wages and benefits, but soon after he was elected, Walker signed a
Budget Repair Bill that restricted collective bargaining rights of most public employees. The bill also imposed unilateral wage and benefits cuts.
The unions offered wages and benefits concessions, but Walker was after collective bargaining and wouldn't negotiate. That's what led to Democratic state senators leaving the state to deny the state senate a quorum, while busloads of angry citizens descended on the capitol. In the end, the senate tweaked the bill into something that could be passed without a quorum.
Was that bill consistent with the Wisconsin state constitution? By some coincidence, that question would be taken up just after a race for supreme court justice. It was a circus: the incumbent (David Prosser, supported by the Bar) showed signs of partiality towards Walker, the press became wary of an incumbent they had previously supported, and the victory margin was smaller than the irregularities. After Prosser won, the court upheld the Budget Repair Bill by a 4-3 vote, although the three dissenters dissented only in part.
United Wisconsin started the recall campaign in March of 2011, and kept it going through the summer crescendo and through the fall's dispirited decrescendo of sick-outs, public gloating, lamentations and condemnations, and comparisons between Wisconsin and Egypt. In January this year, the signatures were filed, and the recall election turned out to be a rematch between Walker and Barrett, whom Walker had already defeated in 2010.
CALIFORNIA VERSUS WISCONSIN
The last governor to face a recall election was Gray Davis, and it may be useful to look back at that story. California had been hit hard by the dot-com crash and Californians were already demoralized when it suffered one of the biggest deregulation spectacles in American history.
Exactly what part the money played is a matter for scholarly debate, but Enron went bankrupt before it could pay damages for mucking up California's power grid.
- In the 2000 – 2001 California Energy Crisis, Texan companies – notably Enron – manipulated California's power grid to maximize profits, incidentally creating service failures and ultimately economic chaos. In addition, constitutional amendments forbidding the legislature from passing a budget or raising taxes with less than a 2/3 majority paralyzed the budget process (which is still paralyzed).
- Although Davis won re-election in 2002, the inability of the legislature to pass a budget and Davis' proposal to triple the vehicle license tax, together with some indiscrete campaign contributions (he was accused of being beholden to many special interests) helped reduce his approval ratings to 27 % (67 % disapproved, according to the Field Poll).
- A recall campaign took off when right-wing businessman & Congressman Darrell Issa gave it $ 1.2 million of his own money. Once the recall petition collected the requisite million signatures, 135 candidates launched campaigns to run against Davis, including a number of entertainers – but Issa himself dropped out.
- Amidst the resulting carnival, Davis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and other participants
spent up to $ 80 million over 77 days, including $ 10 million Arnold gave to himself.
Now let's compare California's Gray Davis to Wisconsin's Scott Walker.
First of all, Field said that as the California recall was getting into gear, 27 % approved of Davis' performance and 67 % disapproved. On the other hand, in Wisconsin this February, Rasmussen reported that 52 % approved of Walker's performance, and in general his approval – and disapproval – ratings both hovered in the forties and fifties. Also, while Davis was accused of being ineffectual as well as in league with special interests, Walker was riding a bandwagon (albeit loaded with special interests). Bandwagons are harder to beat.
The Wisconsin recall was also a rematch, and voters didn't change their minds. For example,
Scott's support in union households rose from 37 % to 38 %. In addition, there was an echo of President Andrew Johnson's impeachment trial: many voters said that a recall was appropriate only for misconduct. Those voters may not have meant that literally – Davis was recalled, after all – but it suggests that Walker had not crossed whatever line voters saw.
Finally, there was the money. California sprayed vast amounts of money in all directions, but the monied class was more focused in Wisconsin. So far, Wisconsin Democracy has reports of $ 35 million donated to the two candidates – over $ 30 million to Walker. But if most voters didn't change their minds on candidates they already knew, what did all that money do?
2.5 million people voted, less than ten percent were undecided this January, and unions (which never have much money) poured volunteer labor into swaying that ten percent while $ 35 million was spent chasing perhaps a quarter million people. That's about $ 140 each. Since Walker won by 53 % to 46 % – as opposed to 52 % to 46 % in the 2010 election – it's possible that Walker's campaign spent $ 1,400 per voter purchasing an additional percentage point he didn't need. Well, it kept the campaign consultants off welfare.
BUT WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
President Obama had kept his distance from Wisconsin, but pundits and politicians have a Potomac point of view, so the news was flooded with speculation about whether Romney would gain some momentum. Many pundits spun the election as a referendum on unions because San Jose and San Diego both voted to cut pensions of municipal employees.
Curmudgeonly studies have shown pundit predictive powers to be comparable to those of tea leaves, so responses of politicians and interest groups may be more telling – if only to show the spin. Walker sounded a conciliatory note in his victory speech, and when Romney complained that Obama "says we need more firemen, more policeman, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin?" and Bob Schieffer asked Walker if "Governor Romney is talking about getting rid of more teachers and firemen?" Walker responded that "firefighters, police officers, and teachers...[are] not what I think of when I think of big government," but didn't elaborate.
Walker advised Romney that he would do better playing Reformer than Republican (his words), but in what may be play for the convention, or plans for next spring, some Floridians saw it differently. Jeb Bush said that Walker's victory showed that "the intensity of the conservative side of politics is now stronger than the liberal side" while Rick Scott – whose approval ratings are still above Davis' – said that Walker's victory validates the course that the two governors took. Our governor is not making any conciliatory noises.
The recall may have been, as some claimed afterwards, a fight worth fighting. But another lesson might be that we should use our heart as a tool. And pick our fights carefully. Here in Florida, we do have a fight on our hands, both in the legislative elections this fall and the legislative session next spring. Any UFF member who would like to apply lessons learned is invited to contact our Political Committee chair, Ross Alander. "Don't waste any time in mourning," said Joe Hill; "organize."