The fight song for the University of Wisconsin is "On, Wisconsin!" The Wisconsin state motto is "Forward." Lofty ideals filled with optimism, but those days seem long gone in the badger state. The tone in Wisconsin in mid-May 2012 is more somber. Off Wisconsin, Backward, Fitzwalkerstan.
Wisconsin has had the highest job losses in the country under Walker’s reign. A U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that Wisconsin lost 23,900 jobs from March 2011 to March 2012.
Wisconsin has witnessed the largest cuts to public education in the states history under Walker. Over $800 million in state aid to public schools has been slashed, while additional revenue cuts to schools will strip K- 12 education of $1.6 billion total over the next two years. In higher education, technical colleges were cut by 30% ($71.6 million) and the UW system by $250 million. All the while tuition increased at the UW system by 5.5%. In public health, Walker has cut over 500 million from the BadgerCare program. Talk has circulated of upwards of 50,000 people being cut from this essential state insurance plan.
On June 5th Wisconsin voters will go to the polls in a historic recall election that pits Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett against Scott Walker.
Common sense would suggest that Walker would lose in a landslide. Yet the opposite seems to be the case. Walker is leading in the polls by around 5% percentage points - the same margin of victory that Walker had when he defeated Barrett in the 2010 election.
Even news that one would assume would sink his campaign does not seem to negatively impact him. Outside of the abysmal jobs record, Walker's staff is the focus of a "John Doe" investigation during his time as Milwaukee County executive. He is the only sitting governor in Wisconsin’s history to have a criminal defense fund working on his behalf. He was captured on film saying that he wanted to "Divide and Conquer" the public employee unions, yet this damming video, released weeks before the election has not had a major impact.
This is staggering.
How did we arrive at this juncture?
For one, we need to criticize the usual players – the corporate media (from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to Fox News), the Koch brothers and all the other right-wing groups that are pouring tons of money (25 million and counting) to keep Walker in power. But the critique should go deeper than that.
We should critique a grassroots movement that became hijacked by moderate Democrats and a movement that became hijacked by union leadership during the uprising itself. We need to question why the Wisconsin Uprising - a two-week occupation of the State Capital Building and historic numbers of people in the streets for months – morphed into recall elections and the ballot box. We need to question why sixteen months of struggle has become a do-over between Walker and Barrett.
How can this be? Barrett was absent from the Wisconsin Uprising. His relationship with labor is strained at best, and he is a mediocre, if not, terrible campaigner. He is not the type of candidate that one needs at this critical juncture.
He instead represents the larger problem in Wisconsin, the one that is one notch below the Republicans: the Democratic Party.
The Democratic Party has failed working class Americans. They have failed working poor Americans and they have failed unemployed Americans. And they have done so for decades, something that becomes all the more pronounced during an economic depression with no end in sight.
This failure starts at the top. It starts with Obama and his allegiance to all things corporate.
If Obama would simply campaign in Wisconsin, if he would campaign in Milwaukee on behalf of Barrett, he might just generate enough excitement and enough votes for Barrett to win.
But Obama has ignored Wisconsin. Obama stayed mum on the Wisconsin Uprising when thousands of people were in the streets and Madison became the western hemisphere’s equivalent of Cairo. Obama should have gone on national television during the height of the Wisconsin Uprising and addressed the nation for an hour on why the Republican assault on working families and collective bargaining was wrong, but he didn’t. Instead, he (or his handlers advised him to say nothing) and he advised Joe Biden not to come to Wisconsin.
It also segues to Russ Feingold - an honorable man and a courageous politician for decades. Polling numbers indicated that Feingold would have easily defeated Walker. But he chose not to run.
This is a shame. The fact that another candidate even half as appealing as Feingold does not exist demonstrates just how far the Democrats have sunk. It demonstrates just how out-of-touch they are with working class Americans.
Money dominates the two-party system. Money dominates the elections. The Republicans have backed Walker to levels never seem before. Walker has raised 25 million dollars to spend on the recall race, more than most second tier candidates for president. Barrett has raised roughly one million. He is being outspent 25-1.
The response by the Democratic National Committee has been abysmal. The DNC chose not to send Wisconsin Democrats a requested $500,000 even though the Obama campaign has raised record amounts of money for the DNC. There is a murmur that the DNC might relent, but the narrative is clear: Wisconsin does not matter enough to them. Working class and working poor Americans do not matter to them. In short, the DNC are playing to lose.
Labor leaders also need to be criticized. The sub narrative of the Wisconsin Uprising was the union leadership doing all that they could to keep rank-and-file in line, and making sure that no one said the dreaded word “Strike!” Their strategy was to channel the anger, energy, and emotions of the Wisconsin Uprising into electoral politics – a strategy of recall elections that has by-and-large failed.
No underpaid, under-employed union member will ever forget Mary Bell of WEAC and Marty Beil of AFSCME offering up concessions to Walker in the early stages of the capital occupation whereby union members would pay more for their benefits – a concession made without members being consulted. One also has to question why the union leaders also endorsed Kathleen Falk long before any other Democratic candidates even announced their intentions to run. To many of us, that stunk of things being run by those at the top.
This brings us full circle to the reality at hand: June 5th – a date that is approaching quickly. Walker needs to be recalled and even those of us in Wisconsin who despise electoral politics and the two-party system – myself included – need to vote and need to help get out the vote. Walker is the favorite, but nothing is for certain. A week ago the polls showed the race as too close to call. The race will be determined by the party that rallies their base and African Americans, Latinos, and students will determine if Barrett wins or not.
Milwaukee will factor big in the outcome. So will Madison, Beloit, Kenosha, and Racine – cities with sizable minority communities. If Obama, the DNC, and the star persona’s on the left make Wisconsin a focal point to get out the vote, Barrett will have a chance. If they do not, Walker will win – a victory that will have devastating consequences on Wisconsin and beyond.
Walker and his backers will be empowered to continue to de-fund the state and push more and more people into dire poverty. Equally worse, the public will be dealt a crushing blow, one that will be hard to recover from. The message: 16 months of protests produced nothing but defeat. Hello red state. Hello right-to-work state.
This should make people around the country shudder. For a decade Walker was Milwaukee’s problem. He is now Wisconsin’s problem. Next, he will be the nations problem.