Walker Bets on Brats to Heal Wisconsin as Praise Pours In

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s triumph in a June 5 recall election brought him praise as a Republican standard-bearer unafraid to defy Democrats and their union allies and brave the consequences.

Now, after a 15-month fight over union restrictions that became a national test of ideology and money, the Republican governor is inviting the Legislature over for a healing cookout -- “brats and burgers and maybe a little bit of Wisconsin beer” to “kind of break the ice and figure out how we can get past this,” he told reporters after a speech yesterday in suburban Milwaukee.

The question is whether it’s too late and the wounds are too deep.

The recall efforts begun when a polarized Legislature passed restrictions on unions that Walker supported prompted more than $100 million in spending as well as feuds played out in front of television cameras and even fistfights. Walker’s tactics, which brought acclaim yesterday from Republicans around the nation -- and Democrats’ insistence on trying to remove him -- were at odds with a political culture that for decades thrived on compromise.

“I do believe that this recall election was looked upon by both sides as something that they wished had not happened,” said former Wisconsin Governor Martin Schreiber, a 73-year-old Democrat.

States of Rage

Schreiber, who served from 1977 to 1979, said 15 months of arguments over whether Walker and his supporters should continue in office have been “cataclysmic” for Republicans and Democrats alike.

Wisconsin has joined a list of states where politics has been defined by confrontation and disdain of compromise -- just as in Washington, D.C.

The inability of Minnesota Republicans and Democrats to work together forced a government shutdown last year. In Ohio, Governor John Kasich and Republicans controlling the Legislature enacted a labor bill similar to Wisconsin’s that prompted unions and Democrats to seek a ballot issue repealing the measure.

Indiana has been similarly torn. This year, Democratic lawmakers boycotted the House of Representatives to try to block passage of so-called right-to-work legislation. Such a measure prohibits union membership or payment of dues as a condition of employment.

No Quarter

Six-term incumbent U.S. Senator Richard Lugar lost a May 8 primary to Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who criticized him for working too much with Democrats. Mourdock said he wanted a Republican majority so as not to be forced into compromise.

“I don’t want to see the Republican Party having to work with Democrats,” Mourdock said in an interview on May 3. “For those who call for bipartisanship, it is bipartisanship that has taken us to the brink of bankruptcy.”

Evan Bayh, a Democrat who represented Indiana as a U.S. senator from 1999 to 2011, has said lack of bipartisanship in Washington was the main reason he retired. He said he hopes Wisconsin’s bitter episode leads to a new sense of comity.

Leaders may conclude that, having “gone over the abyss,” compromise is the best course, Bayh said.

“Having scorched the earth, perhaps the political leaders in Wisconsin will realize they have to live off the land,” Bayh said in a telephone interview.

The recall efforts were provoked in February 2011 when the governor used Republican legislative majorities to restrict bargaining for most public-employee unions. Walker held his ground, protesters swarmed the capital and Democrats and unions organized ouster efforts.

Tossed Out

Last year, nine recall elections for senators were held -- six against Republicans and three against Democrats -- and two were thrown out, both from Walker’s party. Yesterday, the lieutenant governor and three Republican senators escaped recalls. Walker beat Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett 53 percent to 46 percent.

One Senate recall remained undecided; the Democratic challenger was leading by 779 votes out of 71,731 cast. A loss for the Republican incumbent would give Democrats the chamber.

Walker took a victory lap yesterday, appearing on national television and drawing plaudits from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who called it an “impressive win.” Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said the win showed that “citizens and taxpayers can fight back -- and prevail -- against the runaway government costs imposed by labor bosses.”

Let’s Talk

Even so, Walker said yesterday that he has bridges to mend.

“As we take on big issues in the future, there’s no doubt that we’re going to hone in on what we need to do to fix things, but we’re also going to spend the time talking to people,” Walker told reporters.

The president of the state’s largest public employee union said Walker needs to prove his sincerity.

“Wisconsin needs to heal, but trust has to be earned,” Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, said in a telephone interview.

The election validated what Walker set out to accomplish, including getting a deficit under control without raising taxes, said state Senator Alberta Darling, a Republican who survived a recall attempt last summer.

Just Business

“Why should that be a partisan idea, to be in good fiscal condition and good fiscal shape?” Darling said in an interview at Walker’s election night victory party in Waukesha. “What is partisan about that?”

The campaign has left the residue of bitterness for some voters. Walker’s television ads attacked Milwaukee, the state’s largest city, as crime-ridden and badly run.

Paula Lorant of nearby Whitefish Bay said she was offended by the attempt to pit the rest of Wisconsin against the city.

“Those ads portrayed Milwaukee as a cesspool with horrible schools, high unemployment and outrageous crime statistics,” Lorant said. “The message was that if you elect Tom Barrett, that’s what will happen to the rest of the state. How do we heal from that kind of fear-mongering?”

Wisconsin’s heritage of progressivism and bipartisanship suffered, said Jerald Podair, a history professor at Lawrence University in Appleton.

“We’re well past the road of no return,” Podair said in a telephone interview. “There’s no possible way that we go back to the old, civil, gracious Wisconsin.”

Mark Miller, the Democratic Senate leader, said he welcomes the governor’s “pledge to govern in a new way” and will take up his offer of bratwurst.

“I want to give him the benefit of hospitality that has been extended,” Miller said. “We will see what happens.”

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