Wisconsin’s Primary Political Concern: Scott Walker

The political excitement in Wisconsin is not about today’s presidential primary.

For Wisconsinites, the most important political news of the season came Friday, when the state’s Government Accountability Board announced that the effort to recall Republican Governor Scott Walker had amassed enough valid signatures to force an election June 5. It will be the first such election in state history, and if Wisconsin votes out Walker, he will be only the third sitting governor in U.S. history to be recalled, joining North Dakota’s Lynn Frazier in 1921 and California’s Gray Davis in 2003.

The precipitating event was Walker’s quick move, upon taking office, to reward the 1 percent with a tax cut while asking the 99 percent to sacrifice. He didn’t campaign on his antipathy for public unions. Yet within his first few weeks as governor, Walker declared war on public-sector workers (except for police and firefighters, many of whom supported his candidacy), cutting benefits, limiting pay increases and sharply curtailing collective bargaining rights, even after the unions agreed to many of his demands.

The reaction was swift and sustained. Democratic legislators decamped to Illinois to deny Walker a quorum. Tens of thousands of protesters showed up at the State Capitol, filling the building’s rotunda with signs, chants and shouts.

Well-Mannered Occupiers

The 24/7 movement was a precursor to Occupy Wall Street (although with nicer manners, warmer outerwear and daily entertainment). The Solidarity Singers (and occasionally polka dancers) still gather every day at noon with lyrics (“We Shall Not Be Moved,” “Roll Out the Recall”) and harmony so honed they could compete on American Idol.

That’s the real difference between the Occupy movement and Wisconsin’s: Democrats, union members and independents in Wisconsin didn’t just get mad, they stayed that way -- and channeled their anger into mastering the state’s arcane recall procedure. The modern tools of politics (email, Facebook, and the like) took a back seat to old-fashioned grass-roots organization. More than 30,000 volunteers had to waylay folks hurrying in and out of the supermarket or drugstore in freezing weather to sign the recall petition -- and they had to sign not once but twice, because the movement was aiming to recall the lieutenant governor as well. Volunteers had to get a quarter of the electorate from the last election -- just more than 540,000 voters -- in 60 days.

On Jan. 17, they delivered one and a half tons of petitions to the Government Accountability Board in Madison. The vibrations could be felt in Columbus, Indianapolis and any other state capital where governors or lawmakers were trying to balance their budgets on the backs of janitors and teachers.

More than 900,000 signatures of the million delivered -- almost twice as many as needed -- were eventually certified. The petition has almost as many signatures as Walker got votes in 2010.

That doesn’t mean Walker is toast. His opponents may have most of the energy, but his supporters have most of the money. Due to a quirk in campaign finance laws, Walker was allowed to raise as much as he wanted before the date of the recall election was set. While the governor accused out-of-state agitators of fueling the recall, he was out of state collecting large sums to fight it.

On the day the petitions were being filed, Walker, according to the New Yorker, was being feted by Maurice Greenberg, the former chairman of American International Group. For $5,000, a donor could dine with Walker and his host. Since January 2011 the governor has raised more than $12 million, a lot of it from outside Wisconsin. The money has allowed him the luxury of being on the air with ads while his opposition was focused on collecting signatures.

Polls Tightening

In a recent Marquette Law School poll, Walker is running two points ahead of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and four points ahead of former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, down from six and seven points, respectively, since January. Falk was the favorite until Barrett got in. Two other Democrats are running in the May 24 primary.

Walker has another problem: An investigation into his tenure as Milwaukee County executive is creeping ever closer to him. His deputy chief of staff has been charged with embezzling money meant for the families of dead soldiers. Another aide was charged with working on Walker’s campaign for governor while on the county staff. Walker’s former chief of staff and spokeswoman, according to court documents obtained by Fox News 6 in Milwaukee, are implicated in e-mails for politicking on county time.

Walker comports himself like a Boy Scout and compares himself favorably to Ronald Reagan, including in a prank phone call with someone pretending to be one of the Koch brothers, wealthy backers of the anti-union movement. In that call, he turned down an offer to infiltrate the protests with a few violent participants, not because it was illegal but because it might backfire. He also compared his efforts to bust the unions to Reagan’s effort to break the air traffic controllers and, by extension, the Soviet Union.

Of course, Walker won election in 2010 as part of the Republican surge, and he had a hand to play -- some public-union work rules are ridiculous, and there are always a few bad apples. But his changes harm those in the working and middle class in favor of the haves -- as in, they have the tax code, the marketplace and most of the rest of life’s breaks. His erstwhile allies, police and firefighters who were exempt from the union-busting rules, didn’t come to the aid of the governor when he called on them to oust protesters from the Capitol.

The paucity of recalls is historical evidence that those in power will be allowed at least to serve out their terms if the public perceives them as evenhanded. The whole country is watching to see what happens when life turns too unfair.

(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Margaret Carlson at

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Michael Newman at

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.