Monday, March 7, 2011

Poll positions: Scott Walker
and the Wisconsin 14


They’ve come to be known as the Wisconsin 14, a name that recalls the heyday of revolutionaries who animated American life in the 1960’s. Remember the Chicago 7?

But the group of 14 renegade senators from the Badger State is standing on principles while trying to work within the legal system, at least the legal system according to Wisconsin, the state that’s very much ground zero in the battle over collective bargaining as a basic right of American workers. A new poll finds that the citizens of Wisconsin are, by and large, in their corner.

The Democratic senators bolted from their state a few weeks back, denying the new Republican governor, Scott Walker, a quorum needed before a vote in the Republican-dominated state Senate to dismantle collective bargaining. Since then, the tug-of-war between Walker and the vagabond senators (now self-sequestered in or near Chicago) has played out as much in the media as in the statehouse, where thousands of Wisconsinites protest every day against the governor and his plan.

The poll released Sunday by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute validates their sentiments. The poll finds that 51 percent of the 603 respondents oppose Walker’s so-called budget repair bill, a measure intended to close the state’s $3.6 billion shortfall, in part by curtailing the collective bargaining rights of the state’s 170,000 public employees.

Today, one of the Democrats in exile, state Sen. Mark Miller, sent Walker an olive branch of sorts, requesting a meeting with the governor “near the Wisconsin-Illinois border” for the purpose of pursuing “serious discussions” meant to resolve the impasse with a “bipartisan, negotiated compromise.”

Walker wants none of that. In another of his windy, self-important news conferences, Walker dismissed Miller’s outreach as “ridiculous” and stuck to his previous position: No compromise.

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There’s been some thought that this thing has run its course. Some people feel that, having attained a national level of attention, having widened the scope of the debate over collective bargaining, having cost Gov. Walker some of the hair he is clearly losing, it’s time for the Wisconsin 14 to return to Wisconsin.

That view’s supported to some extent by the WPRI poll, which found that 47 percent of poll respondents approve of the Democrats’ move while 51 percent of respondents disapprove. (With a margin of error of ±4 points, though, this is essentially a statistical dead heat.)

But this wasn’t a move by the Democrats to make a point; the senators who vacated the state could have done that by writing a, shall we say, collective op-ed piece for the Wisconsin State Journal. It wasn’t about making a point. They did it to make an impact, a legislative impact meant to directly alter the emerging conservative dynamic vis-à-vis public workers’ rights — to short-circuit the most ruinous legislation against collective bargaining in the last 50 years.

The citizens of Wisconsin understand that, too. That’s why, in the same WPRI poll, 65 percent of those responding said Walker should compromise with the Democrats; 33 percent said he should not. And exactly 50 percent say they think limiting bargaining rights does littler or nothing to change the state’s budget situation; 43 percent think otherwise.

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Walker has other problems. The new Wisconsin governor faces an ethics complaint alleging that he illegally coordinated campaign expenditures and solicited campaign contributions from his office — charges stemming from the news about a phone call he had with prankster blogger Ian Murphy, who pretended to be billionaire David Koch. It’s the same Feb. 23 phone call in which Walker laid bare his plans to choke off the air supply of public employee unions in Wisconsin, part of a wider GOP strategy to dismantle such union influence around the country.

That may be one reason why 53 percent of those responding to the WPRI poll have an unfavorable view of Walker’s job performance since he took office nine weeks ago.

The standoff continues; Walker, doing his best apocalyptic Chicken Little imitation, is threatening layoffs of thousands of state workers if he doesn’t get his way. Such an action is as likely to redound badly for him as it is for the Democrats who oppose him in the statehouse in Madison. The WPRI poll found that 66 percent are somewhat or strongly opposed to state layoffs; 30 percent support such an action.

How this statehouse imbroglio ultimately plays out in the court of law is the great unknown right now. But some Wisconsinites are clearly feeling voters’ remorse; efforts to recall the governor next year are underway. To go by the WPRI poll results, the governor is losing the battle in the court of public opinion. That ruling, distilled in the Sunday poll, may be as big as anything ever handed down from the bench.

Image credits: Walker: The Associated Press. WPRI logo and poll snapshots: Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.

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