Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Wisconsin national election

There’s been concern expressed in recent months about the unhappy prospect of the primary election season being so front-loaded with big money and the pursuit of leverage that, for all practical purposes, the 2012 presidential campaign may have started months ago. That may be true, but not for the reasons you might think.

Right now we’re less than six hours from the polls opening in the state of Wisconsin, opening to begin the biggest recall election in the nation’s history — an election borne of deep populist discontent, a rage really, against the imperialist diktats of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, a man whose anti-union agenda has alienated hundreds of thousands of municipal workers and their families from their own state government, and in the process made a mockery of the state’s noble history of workers’ rights.

Front-loading the primary season pales in comparison to Tuesday’s vote in the Badger State, an election that may well be the blueprint, the template, for the ideological battles of the 2012 race.

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These are the stakes: Six Republican state senators are up for recall, for their role in supporting and voting for Walker’s “budget repair” bill, which sought to balance Wisconsin’s $3.6 billion deficit in part by stripping the rights of about 170,000 public-service employees to collective bargaining for wages and other benefits, limits pay raises of public employees to the rate of inflation, and ends automatic collection of union dues by the state.

This was after a weeks-long impasse during which 14 Democratic state senators literally left town, laying low at a secret undisclosed location in Illinois, briefly stopping the bill’s progress with their absence until Walker enacted various forms of legal gymnastics to get the bill through the state Senate, and onto his desk for signature, without them. The state Supreme Court, in June, upheld the law.

Progressives in the state have for months targeted six GOP senators — Rob Cowles, Alberta Darling, Sheila Harsdorf, Randy Hopper, Dan Kapanke and Luther Olsen — for their role in the bill’s passage.

Democrats need to win three seats to change the balance of power in the State Senate, a body that since Walker took office in January has seen a power grab Boss Tweed would have been proud to call his own.

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Tuesday’s vote is the day of reckoning, or not. Turnout in the election is, as they say, “key.” The Republicans have brought out their traditional weaponry — huge buys in the major media markets, negative characterizations in the media and a fat direct-mail campaign, all of it bankrolled by (among others) outside interests including the Koch brothers’ trust fund, Americans for Prosperity, the American Federation for Children and other right-wing funding sources.

But what makes this race so potentially pivotal is the degree to which the grassroots opposition to Imperial Gov. Walker has thrived in the face of deeply-funded conservative forces. This has been a movement long on energy, and a populist passion — all of it strong enough to make the pre-recall polls (with high margin-of-error numbers) all but worthless in projecting an outcome.

The state’s progressives aren’t bringing money to the table, they’re laying their hearts, and their principles, on the line. The fact that it’s neck and neck right now speaks volumes.

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In March, Kenneth Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, told Time Magazine that despite the protests of tens of thousands on a daily basis at the statehouse in Madison, “[i]t was pretty clear that the protests, as massive as they got, weren’t going to change the governor's mind. Even though they didn't succeed in getting what they wanted, they mobilized a lot of people and made this a salient issue. A protest doesn't have to succeed in its immediate goal to have a long-term impact.”

Mayer may have been right then, but all that’s changed. If the immediate goal was to raise awareness and galvanize the emotions, it succeeded. Tuesday may see the needed step in actualizing that passion where it counts: in the voting booth.

This recall isn’t an everyday exercise. John Nichols, a crackerjack reporter for The Nation, offered a pre-vote snapshot that was cautiously optimistic for the recall forces, with a measured emphasis on optimistic. “It is absolutely incredible,” he told Keith Olbermann on Current TV tonight. “I’m seeing presidential-level intensity. Signs are everywhere, there’s people with clipboards on the streets, the cars are driving around ...”

State Sen. Mark Miller, the Senate Democratic Leader, quite agrees. “Gov. Walker has created a grassroots rebellion,” he told Olbermann. “We’ve had Republicans out on the campaign trail campaigning for Democrats.”

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It’s not always wise or fair to analogize one state’s political upheaval with that of the whole country; there usually aren’t enough parallels to warrant the connection. Usually. But as sure as the policies of Gov. Walker are an exception to the legislative rule, what’s at stake is bigger than the fortunes of 170,000 municipal workers in one state.

On March 2, the lawmakers in Ohio’s state Senate, voted to pass SB 5, a bill restricting collective bargaining for the state’s 360,000 public-sector employees. The bill moved to the heavily-Republican Ohio House, and from there to the desk of Gov. John Kasich, who signed it into law on March 31. It’s on hold pending outcome of a referendum in November — a referendum made necessary after a protest campaign yielded more than 900,000 valid voter sigs to put it on the ballot.

Newsminer.com reported that a bill curbing collective bargaining rights for Alaska public employees was introduced on March 21 in the House. Other states whose labor unions are in the crosshairs include Massachusetts, Connecticut, Oregon, California, New York, Illinois, Hawaii, Minnesota, Maryland and New Hampshire.

Rob McKenna, Washington state’s Republican attorney general, is running for governor in 2012, a gubernatorial election year. McKenna, who’s capitalized for years on a sunny, accessible mein pointedly at odds with the take-no-prisoners style of his party leadership and rank & file, has some ‘splainin to do — mostly, how his own anti-union positions on collective bargaining agreements and political spending will be received in a state that’s a bastion of liberalism and tolerance for workers’ rights.

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That’s what makes Tuesday’s election in Wisconsin so crucial, so much bigger than one state. There’s been debate about why the Democratic and progressive bases of voters haven’t engaged, about how they’re listless and restive and unfocused relative to the Republican opposition.

Conceding that might, might be true, it often takes one crystalline, a-ha event to make everything clear. You need something to sharpen, to distill the us-versus-them dichotomies, to cut through the chatter of the theoretical. Tuesday’s vote may do exactly that: illustrate to millions of Americans yet to engage just how a deeply local election has national pertinence.

Which makes sense. The passion to save collective bargaining and the rights of unions should be just as exportable as the reach of unions themselves.

What happens on Tuesday will be the first test of whether the forces of social extremism and corporate access to governmental leverage — emboldened by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling — can be stopped and pushed back during the 2012 presidential campaign. The contours of that battle, its ideological terrain, are being shaped right now.

Tuesday will be the first test of whether that pushback, that resistance, is even possible. On Tuesday, more than at any other time, whether we’ve ever lived there before or not, we’re all Wisconsinites.

Image credits: Walker: Via The Huffington Post. Wisconsin solidarity rally: MoveOn.org. Kasich: Cleveland Plain Dealer. Corporate flag of America: via angelfire.com.

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