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Monday, March 2, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 8.0° F  Fair
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Dire straits in Wisconsin's small towns fuel anti-government resentment
'Public workers are the ones who are rich'
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Walsh: 'There's very little blame on the private market.'
Walsh: 'There's very little blame on the private market.'

Perhaps there is yet one more lesson to be learned from the unsuccessful effort to recall Gov. Scott Walker: Everything is relative.

At a forum last week hosted by the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, political science professor Katherine Cramer Walsh made a stark observation, culled from five years of conversations with residents around Wisconsin. "In most communities," she said, "the public workers are the ones who are rich."

Not "comfortable" or "middle-class," but rich.

Walsh's comments came as she offered suggestions for what people on either side of the political divide need to know about the other in order to start mending fences.

For Barrett supporters, she said, "It's useful to hear that, especially in smaller communities, public employees are the only ones making decent wages and getting insurance and benefits," she said. For these residents, she added, "it's a question of public employees versus private employees, not rich versus poor."

Walsh, in a later interview, acknowledges that she does not have wage data to support these claims. "Whether or not it's accurate I don't know," she says.

But Walsh, a lifelong Wisconsin resident whose parents were public school teachers, says she first ran up against the public/private divide when visiting a community in northwestern Wisconsin during the spring of 2008.

She says that a group of loggers, most of whom were self-employed, believed that while schoolteachers may work hard during the year, they have cushy positions. Among the perks: great benefits, health care, summers off and an annual salary of about $50,000 a year. "Nobody in this town makes anywhere near $50,000," says Walsh, paraphrasing comments she heard. "At the lumber mill, they're making $20,000 and losing their fingers!"

Walsh says when she probes further, asking why people see a public employee/private employee divide and not a rich/poor divide, she gets stares of disbelief.

It seems to come down to what is tangible and what can be controlled. Private-sector workers, many of whom are struggling, perceive that a large portion of their taxes are going to pay for the salaries of public workers. A cut to public-employee wages and benefits would, at least in theory, mean lower taxes.

But these same people don't see themselves as having any control over the salaries and benefit packages of CEOs in the private sector, says Walsh. Moreover, they don't really see anything wrong with top executives making big bucks.

"There's very little blame on the private market," says Walsh. "It always comes back to government."

State Rep. Terese Berceau (D-Madison) says that Republicans have cultivated this "politics of resentment."

She says that when she grew up in Green Bay in the 1960s, things were not always easy, but "we didn't feel that the next-door neighbor was the enemy - that somebody had a job and we should hate them for it."

Berceau says that most people in the state Legislature represent rural areas where the poor outnumber the rich and where there are few businesses or factories. "So the only people there who are making money are the ones doing the roads and teaching." But, she adds, making deep cuts to public-worker salaries will discourage good people from serving and will mean even fewer people spending money in local communities.

"Will it just mean everyone will be poor?"

Walsh says the current GOP leadership in the state might have seized on simmering resentment about public workers, but they did not create it.

"The interesting thing to me, being here in Madison and watching events unfold, is knowing that a lot of the sentiments Gov. Walker and the Republicans tapped into were not manufactured, but were out there well before the governor [took office]."

By the way, if you're wondering about Walsh's advice to Walker supporters, it was this: "It would be helpful for them to sit down with public employees - to hear that they are concerned about the future, the financial well-being of their community, and that they also work hard."

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