Wisconsin: Worked-Up Unions

Wisconsin is the republic of political unhappiness. Six of 10 voters disapprove of Republican Governor Scott Walker, who picked a fight with public-sector unions by curbing their collective-bargaining rights. Labor mobilized, and voters bounced two state senators in recall elections in August. A campaign to oust Walker gets under way in November.

If unions succeed in getting the signatures necessary to put a Walker recall on the ballot next year, it could provide a boost for President Obama. “We’ve seen record turnouts since Scott Walker declared war on working people, and there is no sign of dissipation,” says Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary-treasurer of the state AFL-CIO. “Scott Walker started something he never intended to start.”

Voter grumpiness knows no party lines: Obama, who carried Wisconsin with 56 percent of the vote, now faces widespread disenchantment. A statewide poll by SurveyUSA in late August found 50 percent disapproved of his performance in office, though his approval rating, at 45 percent, was higher than in most national soundings.

The disappointment is palpable in Racine County, a fading industrial prairie of 195,000 people squeezed between Milwaukee and the suburban sprawl that creeps north from Chicago. The county twice chose George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and Richard Nixon, and in 2008 they went for Obama. “Something better change for the better,” says Sherry Etes, the co-owner of a wine store in Racine who backed Obama. “I made the mistake of voting for somebody four years ago, and I won’t make that mistake again.”

Even among those who say they will support Obama next year, there is no masking their concern over rising unemployment and the President’s inability to lead the nation out of the longest slump since the Great Depression. “I’m 68, my wife is 64, and we’re both working. It sucks,” says David Azarian, smoking Pall Malls in the back room of his Racine general store, a business he’s been trying to unload for four years while working a second job as a tax preparer. “I don’t know that he’s done enough, but I’m not knowledgeable enough to know what should be done.”

At 7.8 percent in September, Wisconsin’s jobless rate, which is better than the nation’s 9.1 percent, halted a steady climb since April, though it hardly represents full employment. A report from the nonprofit Center on Wisconsin Strategy said 239,000 residents were hunting for jobs in July, noting, “Never has the state had so many people looking for work.”

Although Wisconsin is often caricatured as a hotbed of left-wing activism, thanks to university town Madison, the state in fact is complex and polarized. “The extreme right wing and extreme left wing have become more and more entrenched,” says J.B. Van Hollen, Wisconsin’s Republican attorney general. “I think people in the middle of the road are more disgusted than anything with politics, but not necessarily with government.”

The Midwestern state is the perfect stage for a debate over the role of government. On one side is its heritage of progressivism embodied by Robert La Follette, the fiery U.S. senator who opposed World War I, railroad interests, and child labor. On the other is the modern-day vision of smaller government and reduced entitlements articulated by U.S. Representative Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the House Budget Committee.

If Walker enraged organized labor, Obama’s health-care reforms and economic stimulus programs “helped mobilize the conservative base and contribute to their resurgence in ’09 and ’10,” says Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “You’ve got an unhappy middle class, unhappy with their situation. They were looking for someone to improve it, and then they were disappointed when that didn’t happen.”

The state is up for grabs, says Franklin, adding that Obama’s 2008 margin of victory was an aberration. “It is Democrat with a small d,” he says.

Former Democratic Governor Jim Doyle says that after the union fights, Wisconsin is in a state of “extreme polarization. Some of the polling I’ve seen, I’ve never seen it quite as dramatic.”

The recall campaigns in nine legislative districts during the summer that were prompted by the battle over union rights drew $44 million in contributions, most coming from out-of-state interests. Millions more will be spent on the effort to recall Walker.

By the time the Presidential nominees come calling in pursuit of Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes, they’ll know the state is primed for a fight.

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