Nel's New Day

April 1, 2012

Wisconsin’s Journey to Freedom

It’s April Fool’s Day, and the great state of Wisconsin is well on the way to getting rid of its personal fool. Fifteen months ago, the state was largely known for its cheese and solid middle-class population. Then Scott Walker came into power—and I really mean power.

Very wealthy and very conservative Charles and David Koch, anti-union oil-and-gas magnates, bankrolled Walker’s campaign along with Koch-backed groups like Americans for Prosperity, the Cato Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Reason Foundation. Walker ran on a platform of getting jobs for people and getting the economy back on track. There was no mention of union-busting or elimination of public services or giving more money to the rich, but the minute he stepped into office that was clearly his goal.

He began his reign of terror with a law that stripped most collective bargaining for public employee unions—except for local police, firefighters, and State Patrol troopers—in a state where public workers gained ability to bargain together over a half century ago and in the city where the nationwide public-sector union, AFSCME, was founded. His law also took money from public employees who were required to pay more for pensions and health insurance while it decreased taxes for corporations. In addition, Walker gained broad authority over health care programs for the poor and turned 37 civil service jobs into political appointments, giving him even more power. At least the law didn’t authorize the sale of state power plants, a bill that the Koch brothers badly wanted to pass so that they could take over these plants.

The law was highly contentious since its inception when people protested at the Capitol and the Democrats left the state to prevent its passage. After the signing, Dane County sued to stop it because the state Senate lacked enough members to have a legal vote. Republicans claimed that they had taken out spending measures that would have required the three-fifths of Senate members to be present. Dane County also claimed that the Senate violated the state’s open meetings law, which requires that public notice of meetings be posted 24 hours in advance. Judge Maryann Sumi’s decision in favor of Dane County was later overturned in a contentious ruling by a divided Wisconsin Supreme Court.

There are many unsung heroes who protested Walker’s heavy-handed violation of human rights—people who slept at first inside the Wisconsin capitol and later outside in the snow after they were kept from entering the building. One of the most dramatic events, however, was the one with tractors. Over a year ago on March 12, fifty of them, huge and tiny, pulled together for a tractorcade passing more than 150,000 people shouting, “Thank you!”

Walker’s campaign promise was to “get government out of the way of employers … who will then help Wisconsin create 250,000 jobs by 2015, and as we create those new jobs, we will be able to add 10,000 new businesses.” He had a slow start last year; job loss in Wisconsin during 2011 was the greatest of any state in the country. From January 2011 to January 2012, Wisconsin lost 12,500 jobs, even as the nation as a whole added jobs for 17 straight months.

Because of state law, Walker could not be recalled for one year after he was sworn in. With only 60 days to obtain approximately 540,000 valid signatures on the recall petitions and a variety of ways that conservatives tried to sabotage the process, people got over 941,000 signatures with 900,939 of them valid. That’s an average of 15,000 each day. Even Fungky Van Den Elzen is the name of an actual person. The primary is scheduled for May 8 with the general election on June 5.

The anti-union activity in Wisconsin also spilled over into the state Supreme Court. When incumbent Justice David Prosser ran for another term, millions of out-of-state dollars poured into the state, and a record number of voters turned out on election day. Prosser lost by 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.

Once Prosser got back into office, he appeared to attempt to strangle Justice Ann Walsh Bradley. Literally. And he did it in front of four other justices after the divided court overturned Sumi’s decision that the state violated the open meeting law. Prosser had shown animosity toward Bradley before his so-called “re-election” when he called her a “bitch.” Ironically, state law prevents judges from presiding over matters if they are material witnesses to the case. With all the witnesses forced to recuse themselves, Prosser may not have to face the disciplinary complaint filed against him. Adding injury to insult, he also wants the Wisconsin Judicial Commission to release records of its deliberations to let him determine whether the commission is politically biased against him. Law allows only the judge facing discipline to waive confidentiality.

Prosser explained that his putting his hands around Bradley’s neck was a “reflex.” He was disturbed about the commission’s attitude when he was questioned about his behavior. “The truth of the matter was, they were not interested in what my defense was or any provocation for my action,” Prosser said. “They were only interested in my conduct.”

Walker began to lose more control when recall elections for eight legislators narrowed Republican control of the Senate to just one vote. Moderate Republican Senator Dale Schultz, who voted against the collective bargaining bill, opposed a deregulatory environmental bill crafted exclusively for an out-of-state mining company, essentially killing the bill.

With the eminent recall, Walker is keeping up a brave front. His governor’s annual salary is $144,423, but he now claims that he could “make some real money” if he left politics and entered the private sector. On June 5, the Wisconsin electorate may provide him with this opportunity.

Walker’s success in the recall is being made more complicated after the announcement of a secret investigation and criminal charges regarding his former aides when he was Milwaukee County executive. Walker’s creation of a legal defense fund is a strong indication that he is directly involved in the ongoing investigation. According to Wisconsin law, people may start such a fund only if they are under investigation or being charged with violating state campaign finance or election laws. Fortunately, Walker’s campaign fund has millions; he can transfer these funds to a legal defense fund with the donor’s approval. A criminal charge hanging over his head may affect the number of votes that he gets in the recall.

Even if Walker survives the recall, he’s losing another law; he can’t eliminate the Democrat voters with his voter ID law. A Wisconsin judge has suspended it, describing it as “the single most restrictive voter eligibility law” in the country and finding it in violation of the state’s Constitution that explicitly gave the right to vote to all residents who are 18 years old or older. Dane County Circuit Court Judge David Flanagan cited studies finding more than 200,000 Wisconsin residents who lacked a state-issued photo ID were otherwise eligible to vote. He called the law “a real cost that is imposed on constitutionally eligible voters,” especially “burdensome” for the elderly and disabled.

The ID requirement, according to Flanagan, fell disproportionately on elderly people, people of color, and poor people, and claims that the voting process needed to be policed to prevent voter impersonation–or fraudulent voting–were overblown and “extremely unlikely.” The ruling stated that the law was overreaching and inflexible and, in light of the state Constitution’s explicit creation of voting rights, unconstitutional. Nowhere in the state’s Constitution does it require eligible voters to present a state-issued photo ID–a fact voter ID supporters like to omit.

U.S. District Judge William Conley also overturned parts of Walker’s anti-collective bargaining law by ruling that union dues can be automatically withdrawn from paychecks and union members don’t have to re-up their memberships each year. Union attorney Tim Hawks said the seven unions that sued will decide whether to appeal to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. Last year, most major unions didn’t hold votes asking members whether they wanted to stay unionized, as required by the new law, because of the difficulty and expense of such an election.

After the resignation of a Republican up for recall, the Wisconsin Senate has a 16-16 tie, with a Republican siding with Democrats on union issues. If Walker tried to pass his union-stripping bill today, he would lose. And if Republicans fail to defend the three seats they hold that are under recall, they face the loss of their majority entirely. As in last summer’s recall elections, the Republican Party of Wisconsin is running “fake Democrats” to force the Democratic challengers to spend money on a primary that could have been used in the general election and launch negative attacks on the Democrats while the Republican incumbents remain above the fray.

Walker changed the history of the United States. Protesters across the country, many of them with the Occupy Wall Street movement, have forced even the Republicans to address taxes on the wealthy and corporations while imposing financial transactions taxes on Wall Street speculators. The protest brought people together: parents and students joined and then replaced teachers at the Capitol in Madison as crowds of just 1,000 grew one-hundred-fold. For the first time, small towns hosted labor rallies, and other states pushed back, Ohio defeating the governor’s union-busting bill.

“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.” Walker said this when he described the 2002 recalls that led to his election as Milwaukee County Executive. History repeats itself as people fight Walker’s reign of power.


“If you love your freedom, thank a protester.” That’s the sign on the last page of a remarkable book by Dennis Waldmann. Stories from 68 people and over 150 images of the protest at the Wisconsin Capitol in Cut from Plain Cloth: The 2011 Wisconsin Workers Protest show the diversity of the protesters and the pride that they took in standing up for freedom. It is a must read!

This blog isn’t even the tip of the iceberg. There are thousands and thousands of stories about the bravery of people who didn’t want to give up their to the corporations, the people who believed in fair and reasonable wages. If Wisconsin can fight back against the oppressors, so can the rest of the states.



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