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Union-Busting Payback Comes Four Years Early: Margaret Carlson

April 7 (Bloomberg) -- “It isn’t fair!” is a cry we try in kindergarten and never give up. To tamp down this thirst for instant justice, the nuns at my school invoked the sweet hereafter, where all wrongs would be righted, as a reason for us to suck it up at recess.

As an adult, and a lucky one, the last thing I want now is fairness. I could be waiting on tables instead of being served at them, delivering the papers instead of writing for them.

In that, I’m like Wisconsin’s Republican governor, Scott Walker. He didn’t want fairness to kick in after he assumed power in January and used the rubric of “budget repair” to bully the folks who clean his office and guard his prisoners.

The sweet hereafter made an early appearance in Wisconsin on Tuesday. A Democrat, Chris Abele, cruised to victory in the race to fill Walker’s former post, Milwaukee County executive. And state Supreme Court Justice David Prosser, part of a 4-3 conservative majority seen as likely to support Walker’s assault on unions, ended up in a too-close-to-call election that may result in a recount. Just six weeks ago, Prosser was expected to coast to victory over JoAnne Kloppenburg, an assistant attorney general. Only five incumbent Supreme Court judges have been defeated since 1852.

Ordinarily it takes four years to right an electoral wrong. Not this time. Liberal and conservative groups descended on Wisconsin to turn what would normally be a ho-hum election into a referendum on Walker. Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin weighed in for Prosser via Twitter. Money poured in like it was the 1990s. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University estimated that outside groups spent more than $3.5 million, with the liberal Greater Wisconsin Committee spending almost $1.4 million and four conservative interest groups collectively spending almost $2.2 million.

Tax Cut

In the driver’s seat for two months, Walker rammed through a tax cut for business, then used the deficit he’d just increased as justification for going after the pay and benefits of state employees.

Initially he had widespread support in a depressed state. The many who had lost their jobs in private industry resented public workers who seemed to be living so high off the hog.

But after public employees quickly accepted what amounted to an 8 percent pay cut, and Walker proceeded to strip most of their collective bargaining rights anyway, sentiment shifted. Tens of thousands of people demonstrated at the Capitol. Polls showed the public didn’t want Walker to go that far. He did anyway.

Candidates as Proxies

The two candidates for the state Supreme Court, running without party affiliations, were proxies in a war not of their choosing. They did provide fodder to the two opposing forces. Prosser, the incumbent, was joined to the hip of Walker, a reliable ally when Prosser was Republican speaker of the state Assembly. Prosser had to apologize when it came out that, during a heated debate behind closed doors last year, he hurled an epithet at Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson.

All that money sloshing around produced some effective, if not wholly accurate, negative ads.

One claimed that Prosser, as a county district attorney in 1978, didn’t adequately investigate or file charges against a Green Bay priest accused of abusing two boys but instead told the bishop, who eventually moved the priest to another parish. labeled the ad “barely true” for overstating what information Prosser had before him in 1978.

‘Ridiculously False’

Kloppenburg came in second, behind Prosser, in the February primary, earning a spot in the runoff. She was criticized as too small for such a big job, having largely handled inconsequential state regulatory matters.

According to one ad, “Kloppenburg is so extreme, she even put an 80-year-old farmer in jail for refusing to plant native vegetation on his farm.” called that “ridiculously false,” since a judge, not Kloppenburg, put the farmer in jail, for contempt of court, and Kloppenburg didn’t even ask for that punishment.

Late in the race, Kloppenburg got a break when former Democratic Governor Patrick Lucey quit as honorary co-chairman of Prosser’s campaign to support her.

Regardless of the eventual outcome, Kloppenburg’s out-of-nowhere showing is a cautionary tale for those governors following in Walker’s path by curtailing workers’ bargaining rights, and for the Tea Party, which you’d think would be fighting for the little guy, not the big bully.

Next Steps

If Kloppenburg does prevail, the challenge will be for the unions not to go too far in their triumph. Some of their work rules really are ridiculous. Just as it was ugly for Walker to exempt from his bill some of those unions that had contributed to him, it’s unseemly when a union sits across the table from a governor it helped usher into office.

If only those in power could remember that you can do almost anything as long as you are perceived by the public as fair. Need to balance out-of-control budgets? Spread out the hurt, and let everyone who works have a decent life. Don’t lean so heavily in favor of the haves, who, after all, have the world, the tax code and the marketplace leaning heavily in their favor already.

The nuns were right on just about everything, except the part about waiting for justice. It’s much better when it’s delivered in the here and now.

(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Margaret Carlson in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at

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