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Sunday, October 26, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 49.0° F  Fair
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Scott Walker's War
What began as a trumped-up crisis has caused a real one, as the governor pits Wisconsin residents against each other
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Credit:Kim Keyes

For me and other journalists, the past two weeks have been riveting. I've interviewed dozens of protesters at the state Capitol, from schoolteachers to prison guards. I was there in the Senate chamber when it became clear that its 14 Democrats had left the state to prevent a vote on Gov. Scott Walker's "budget repair bill." I got to follow the Senate Sergeant at Arms on an office-by-office search, to see if any could be found. None were.

I've been at Walker's press conferences, hearing him tersely reiterate that he's taken the only possible path to balancing the budget, as the chants and jeers of thousands of demonstrators intrude into his conference room, begging to differ. I chatted it up with Tea Party activists who staged a relatively tiny pro-Walker rally last Saturday - 3,000 to 5,000 people out of a crowd Madison police estimated at 68,000.

Historic and thrilling events are happening here. Even as I type these words I'm hearing music and cheers from the omnipresent throng gathered at the Capitol, across the street from my office.

But as a lifelong resident of Wisconsin, I'm saddened - truly and deeply saddened - by what Walker has set in motion. It will change the state forever, causing profound and lasting damage, no matter how the budget stalemate plays out.

Scott Walker's declaration of war against Wisconsin's teachers, nurses, social workers, 911 operators, prison guards, park rangers, sanitation workers, snowplow operators, engineers, police officers and firefighters - and their inevitable decision to join the battle - could be for Wisconsin what the attacks of 9/11 were for the nation. It will create a deep before-and-after divide, between a time of relative innocence and a time of perpetual conflict and insecurity.

The difference is that the attacks of 9/11 were external, and stirred a sense of national unity. What has been fomented in Wisconsin is a rupture among ourselves, one that will ensure acrimony and contention for many years, perhaps decades. The dispute will be not just between Walker and his tens of thousands of newly impassioned enemies, but between the state's citizens - worker against worker, neighbor against neighbor, family member against family member. (Personally, I think a colonoscopy without anesthesia might be less painful than the next get-together of my extended family.)

"Our state is ripped apart right now," fugitive Democratic state Sen. Jon Erpenbach told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow from his "undisclosed location" last week. Get used to it. The animosity that has been unleashed here will not go away when some uneasy stasis is reached; it will become part of the fabric of life in Wisconsin.

None of this was necessary, none of it is justified, and none of it can ever be forgiven or forgotten.

Walker claims the state's budget crisis is so gaping and horrific he had no choice but to unilaterally extract benefit concessions from some public employees and minimize the collective bargaining rights of nearly all of them, at the state and local level. But Wisconsin's fiscal situation is not as grave as that of other states, nor is its current budget deficit as large as what Walker's predecessor was able to plug two years ago, without drastic measures.

Moreover, Walker's sense of urgency over reining in employee benefits has not prompted him to be otherwise tightfisted. In just the last several weeks, Walker and the GOP have passed $140 million in new tax breaks for businesses, with more to come. (As a candidate, he promised more than a billion dollars of givebacks to corporations and the state's wealthiest residents.)

And, as the Wisconsin State Journal reported, the largest share of savings in Walker's budget repair bill for the current fiscal year ($165 million) will come from refinancing state debt, not new payments from public employees ($30 million). And the elimination of most collective bargaining - which allows employee unions to negotiate everything from benefit levels to sick days - has no direct impact on the state's bottom line.

Walker says neutering collective bargaining is absolutely necessary because of the changes he'll announce next Tuesday in his first biennial budget. It will include "major cuts" in state funding to local governments and reportedly calls for slashing state aid to schools by $900 million over the next two years.

The only way to ensure these cuts do not lead to "massive layoffs," says Walker, is to give local governments and school boards the authority they've long sought to make unilateral adjustments to pensions and other benefits. "To protect our schools, to protect our local governments, we need to give them the tools they've been asking for, not just for years but for decades."

But as Isthmus has reported, this statewide and decades-long clamor from local officials has somehow escaped the attention of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, the Wisconsin League of Municipalities and even the conservative-leaning Wisconsin Counties Association.

All of these groups say that while they've sought changes in the collective bargaining process, they have not asked for the elimination of collective bargaining rights; many of their members don't think doing so is a good idea. Muses Dan Thompson, executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, "The governor gave us a great deal more flexibility than we asked for."

As has been said many thousands of times since Walker unveiled it on Feb. 11, the budget repair bill is not about balancing the budget, it's about busting unions.

You don't have to take my word for it. You can take Scott Walker's. Last week he was asked by the Wisconsin State Journal whether the measures he's seeking "in more ways than one, if not killing the unions now, would lead to their ultimate irrelevance and probable [demise]" - because without collective bargaining their role would be so limited that employees would stop paying dues, as Walker's bill allows. The governor conceded the point, saying, "Presumably, that's why there's so many national union leaders here because, politically, they want the money."

It's an admission that substantiates accusations from many quarters that Walker's real goal is to rob unions of their ability to operate politically. They are a major source of campaign contributions and volunteers to Democratic candidates, against the now-unlimited ability of corporations to pour money into elections. Get rid of unions and you can start thinking seriously about getting rid of Democrats.

That's why the outcome of Walker's war has enormous stakes for the entire nation. He's part of a trio of GOP glory governors - along with Chris Christie of New Jersey and John Kasich of Ohio - at the vanguard of a movement to crush public employee unions.

But make no mistake: Walker has gone further than any of these other governors in his pursuit of this agenda. (A similar attack on collective bargaining in Indiana is being waged by GOP lawmakers but opposed by that state's Republican governor.) As I heard a reporter from Duluth tell a reporter from the Washington Times, before the start of Walker's press conference last Friday, "Christie is mostly just talk. He didn't do anything like this."

Walker's kneecapping of public employee unions in Wisconsin would elevate his status among national Republican conservatives - people who couldn't care less about workers in Wisconsin or what's best for the state, but who just want a model for how other states can enhance their party's electoral fortunes.

A secretly recorded phone conversation Tuesday between Walker and a Buffalo-based weekly newspaper reporter pretending to be David Koch, the New York City right-wing oil billionaire and Walker backer, shows Walker relishing his role within this group. After Walker goes through what he says is "the list" of Republican governors who have launched or may be preparing attacks on public employee unions in their states, the reporter pretending to be Koch interjects, "You're the first domino."

Responds Walker: "Yep, this is our moment."

The only sticking point is that this is still a democracy, meaning Walker and the GOP cannot implement their agenda and get away with it without a modicum of public support. And there's just one way they can get it: by focusing resentment on public employees, to encourage other workers to see them as conniving, capricious and in need of a sharp yank of the chain. That's exactly what Walker has set out to do, and it's why his war will devastate Wisconsin.

At every turn, Walker has sought to frame the issues of the moment in divisive ways. He says the rift in the Senate Dems is between "those who are ready to work and those who are not." He says the choice before him is whether to side with protesters or "the millions of hardworking taxpayers of Wisconsin," as though the two categories do not overlap.

Walker rages at the gall the unions showed last December, after he was elected but before he took office, when they tried to "cram through" overdue contracts. Meanwhile, he bristles at the suggestion that there was anything the least bit hasty about his wanting to pass his sweeping budget repair bill - which also includes restricting Medicaid eligibility and deepening his control over state agencies - within a week of its unveiling.

According to Walker, the unions are devious and untrustworthy, which is why he's made no effort to negotiate and why he's flatly rejected their offer to accept his pension and health care demands if only they can keep their ability to bargain collectively. He paints this across-the-board concession by every public employee union in the state as "a few people...suggesting they might be willing to come to the table...at the 11th hour."

In fact, other Wisconsin governors have successfully negotiated with the state's public employee unions, who've time and again made sacrifices to help the state balance its budget. (The proposed contracts killed prior to Walker taking office, for instance, included $100 million in union concessions.) But Walker won't admit these unions can be worked with because he wants them dead.

In other ways, Walker is deeply invested in milking resentment toward public employees, to channel people's frustration over economic hard times into a backlash against anyone who is doing better than they are - except, of course, the actually wealthy.

Here's Walker from his press conference last Friday:

"For those outside of government, who overwhelmingly - overwhelmingly - are paying more than double what we're asking for in this measure, they look at this and say, 'Where do I sign up for this?'... Every factory worker I talked to this last week, who is paying 25 to 50 percent for their health care premium, who doesn't have a pension, who has to pay into a 401(k) and in some cases had that suspended, every one of them looks at this and says, 'You know what? Not only do I not get that, [I have] to pay for it.' That guy has to pay the difference.... He has to [foot] the bill for everyone else."

This was a common theme at last Saturday's Tea Party rally in support of Walker's plan, organized by a Virginia-based right-wing advocacy group funded by David Koch. The demonstrators I spoke to stressed how hard they must work and what a lousy deal they've got compared to teachers and other public employees. When I asked one protester about the gains, like worker's compensation and the 40-hour work week, that Wisconsin unions have gotten even for nonunion folks, she shot back, "Why should I pay for them to have 40 hours when I have to work 60?"

Such reactions are being applauded by backers of Walker's agenda. "The 85% of Wisconsin employees who do not get a paycheck from the government have little sympathy for the 15% who do," writes Steve Prestegard, the editor of Marketplace Magazine and an occasional guest on Wisconsin Public Radio.

Prestegard has bashed schoolteachers and other public workers, and urged Walker to get tough: "People employed by government who don't like the employment conditions should seek employment elsewhere, voluntarily or not." He's even attacked members of the Green Bay Packers who've expressed their support for the state's public employees - i.e., fellow union members.

How ugly can it get? It's almost hard to believe.

The other day Rush Limbaugh played a clip of a Wisconsin schoolteacher explaining why she's protesting Walker's anti-union agenda: "I think we've lost the sense of democracy. I feel like what people in Egypt are fighting for right now, that's exactly what I feel like I'm fighting for right now."

This is what Limbaugh said in response: "What an absolute idiot. It's a crying shame that this glittering jewel of colossal ignorance is teaching students. Comparing this to Egypt? ...Most of us have more class, most of us have more understanding, most of us are more mature than to run around whining [mock sobbing], 'This is what we want! [more sobbing] I want my dignity! I want my respect, and I want my benefits [sniffle], I want my health care!' Well, go earn it! It's not about what you want. In your case, it's about what can be afforded. They're trying to make themselves out to be oppressed. You're not in Egypt. You're a bunch of people who feel entitled to be freeloaders."

Forget for a moment the offensiveness of a drug addict who makes more than $30 million a year lambasting schoolteachers and other public employees as "freeloaders." Just consider what it says about Scott Walker - who appeared as a guest on Limbaugh's show this same day and undoubtedly is aware of his well-publicized rant - that he would let one of his state's teachers, or any public employee, be denigrated like this, without offering the slightest murmur of dissent.

Now consider why Walker does not object; it's because he wants such sentiments to take root, and spread. That's also why people who have spent years of their lives serving Wisconsin, and who feel they deserve some respect, will fight him to their dying breath.

In a sense, the greatest casualty of Walker's war will almost certainly be Scott Walker himself.

Obviously, Walker knew his budget bill would prompt protests, and probably thought these would add luster to his image among the national GOP leaders he's trying to please. But there is no way he could have anticipated what has actually occurred - crowds of more than 60,000 people and Democratic lawmakers on the lam. There's also no sign he's grasped what these historic developments will mean for his future.

The opportunity Walker inherited from Republican predecessors Warren Knowles, Lee Dreyfus and Tommy Thompson - to be a governor who has the grudging admiration even of people who disagree with him politically - is forever lost. The actions he's taken and the reactions they've sparked ensure that, for the rest of his term, Walker will be regarded with bitter enmity by hundreds of thousands of resourceful people who hold positions of influence within their communities.

From now on, the overriding issue of Gov. Scott Walker's tenure will not be the state's business climate, or balanced budgets, or education, or public safety. It will be Scott Walker. The effort to recall him will be launched Jan. 3, 2012, the first day this becomes an option. (All it takes is 540,208 signatures; people have already crunched the numbers.) That Walker was not more mindful of this possibility is perplexing, given that he was elected Milwaukee County executive on the heels of a successful recall effort there.

Of course it is possible for Walker to survive. But the only way that can happen is if he succeeds in his vile politics of division, turning citizen against citizen, neighbor against neighbor, worker against worker. He must continue to encourage people to resent the teachers who teach their children, the nurses who care for their loved ones, the social workers who offer them help in times of need, the prosecutors who seek justice when they become victims of crime, the police who protect their communities and the firefighters who are prepared to die to save their lives.

It is a war that will have no winners.

Click here for a timeline of the last week.

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