Polarized Wisconsin Digging in for Official Start of Walker War

Thirteen months after the first yard signs demanding Governor Scott Walker’s ouster were driven into frozen turf, his survival has become a national Republican cause as Wisconsin prepares for what may be the third gubernatorial recall vote in U.S. history.

The 44-year-old first-term governor has laid the foundation for his campaign through cable news appearances, out-of-state fundraisers and television ads defending a bill he signed curtailing unions that represent public employees. On March 30, election officials will decide whether voters get the chance to throw him out on June 5.

In mid-January, Walker’s critics turned in 931,000 petition signatures -- including those of 29 circuit court judges -- seeking a vote on his removal. That’s far more than the 540,208 required, and Walker has said he won’t go to court to stop a vote. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign has estimated spending on the election will be $60 million to $80 million, double the outlay on the 2010 governor’s race.

“I can’t think of anything that is the equivalent of this,” said Charles Franklin, a political scientist who runs the Marquette University Law School Poll. “It’s just stunning that it’s kept people so engaged for 12 months.”

A recall might break single-party control of Wisconsin, where Republicans also hold both houses of the Legislature. Only two U.S. governors have been recalled: Gray Davis of California in 2003, and Lynn Frazier of North Dakota in 1921.

Weighing Walker

Walker’s prospects of becoming the third are in the balance. Marquette released a survey yesterday showing the state split almost down the middle.

Walker leads, 47 percent to 45 percent, in a hypothetical matchup with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, whom Walker defeated in the 2010 governor’s race. Facing former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, who has said she will run, Walker is ahead, 49 percent to 45 percent. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.

Walker’s opponent may be chosen in a May 8 primary.

While 18 states let citizens force recall elections of public officials, Wisconsin has in the past year embraced the right as if it were an exciting new hobby.

Nine votes on state senators of both parties were held in July and August, and two lost their seats. Recall votes on four more -- all Republicans -- will be held June 5. One, Pam Galloway, announced her resignation after the election was certified.

Taking Names

On March 30, the Government Accountability Board, a nonpartisan panel of former judges, will rule not only on Walker, but on the sufficiency of 842,860 signatures collected for a vote on Republican Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch.

The recall drumbeat began in February 2011 after Walker pushed through the Legislature restrictions on collective bargaining that cover most public employees. Unions said the rules were meant to break their power, while Republicans said they gave local governments tools to remain solvent.

Weeks of demonstrations dominated Madison, the capital.

The debate has expanded beyond collective bargaining and now includes Walker’s $800 million cut in school aid and a district attorney’s investigation into former aides who served Walker while he was Milwaukee County’s executive. That probe has led to charges that the aides performed political work on government time. Although Walker has said he doesn’t believe he is a target of the investigation, he has established a fund for legal expenses.

Wisconsin at Work

The central message of Walker’s defense of his governorship is that his fiscal overhaul is working, helping the state to recover from the longest recession since the Depression. He promised that the state would get 250,000 new private-industry jobs in his first term.

Although the state’s unemployment rate has declined since Walker took office, to 6.9 percent in January from 7.7 percent a year earlier, Wisconsin lost 12,500 nonfarm jobs last year, including both public and private positions, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

However, the state ranked fifth-worst on the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States index from January 2011, when Walker took office, through that year’s third quarter, the most recent data.

The Legislative Fiscal Bureau reported Feb. 9 that the state has a budget deficit of $143.2 million.

Blinking Slogan

There is little ambiguity in opinions about Walker, polls show. From Milwaukee, where blue-and-white “Recall Walker” and “I Stand with Walker” yard signs define the debate, to small towns where neighbors know who stands where, the ouster campaign has sucked up nearly all the political oxygen.

In the central Wisconsin town of Portage, visitors are greeted by Jim Porter’s blinking sign in the yard in front of his small yellow house: “Reunite Our State. Recall Walker.”

Porter is a corrections officer at the Columbia Correctional Institution, a maximum security prison, and is staunch in defense of public employees.

“Walker and his cronies have demonized us very effectively,” Porter said.

Downtown, Laurie Krueger runs a jewelry store with her husband, John, and said Walker “did what had to be done.”

“A lot of people really feel what he did was good,” she said in an interview.

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