Activists like Standing, with trombone, were blindsided by early union endorsements.
Brian Standing blew through much of his vacation time last year protesting at the state Capitol. A Dane County planner and union steward for an AFSCME local, he was outraged at Gov. Scott Walker's campaign to eliminate collective bargaining rights for most public workers.
"As a steward I know the benefit that unions have comes from what they're able to bargain, and most of it has nothing to do with wages," he says. "To say that you can no longer talk about that is a violation of First Amendment rights."
Standing's baritone voice came in handy at the protests. "I'm loud," he says. "I don't need a megaphone." And he's now a regular at the daily Solidarity Sing-Along at the state Capitol. He helped make phone calls for last summer's recall races against GOP state senators who supported Walker's agenda, and he stood in the cold, playing his trombone with a "radical street marching band," when activists from around the state delivered more than 900,000 signatures to the Government Accountability Board Jan. 17 to recall the governor, lieutenant governor and four Republican state senators.
But he's not involved in the Democratic primary for governor, put off by what he sees as the "business as usual" tactics of union leaders and the Democratic Party.
"They were not the ones who got this started," he says, noting that grassroots unions, particularly UW-Madison's Teaching Assistants' Association and Madison Teachers Inc., did a lot of the early heavy lifting.
Standing is particularly unhappy with AFSCME's and WEAC's early endorsement of former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, who has pledged to veto any state budget that does not restore collective bargaining rights to public employees. The issue is not Falk herself, but the process: Leaders of the state's two largest unions made the endorsements quickly and with little input from the general membership, says Standing.
"I wasn't asked. I'm a steward and a delegate to the South Central Federation of Labor. I'm fairly active, and no one ever asked me."
Maggie Thomas, an activist who has spent countless hours protesting and working on recall efforts around the state, was also dismayed by the early union endorsements. So much so that she divested from the political arm of AFSCME, her union, and sent money instead to Lori Compas, who launched a recall effort against state Sen. Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) without the help of the Democratic Party and is now running herself in the election.
Thomas and Standing were hoping that Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) or Rep. Peter Barca (D-Kenosha), who emerged as fiery opponents of Walker during the protests, or former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold would step up to run. And they thought the strength of the uprising, which also protested Walker's health care and education cuts and lack of transparency, would carry some weight in the electoral arena. Thomas says labor's anointing of Falk turned the broad movement against Walker into a single issue.
"Right away it created disharmony and disunity," she says.
WEAC president Mary Bell acknowledged at the time that some in her union were surprised and concerned about the endorsement but said it was made early to educate members about it. AFSCME leaders say that "the process was accelerated by the fast timeline of the recall election" and that all known potential candidates were invited to interview with the union in January.
Though Thomas says she'll likely put all her energy behind defeating Walker once the Democratic nominee emerges from the primary, she, too, is sitting on the sidelines for now. "I'm willing and committed to work and haven't been able to get myself out there."
UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden says such sentiments are a real concern for Democrats, who will have just one month between the May 8 primary and June 5 recall election to marshal forces to defeat Walker. "After many months of unity among Democratic activists, union members and other opponents of Scott Walker's agenda, there is now some splintering as the Democratic primary heats up," he says.
Thomas allows that the current dynamics are to some degree the "growing pains" expected when creating "something new and different and visionary." Will Jones, professor of American history at UW-Madison, agrees: "It's the nature of a social movement in which you have lots of people working on something that's highly decentralized."
It can prove damaging to electoral goals, he adds, but not always. "Movements get beyond these debates."
This is not the first time that divisions have emerged between the grassroots activists galvanized by the Capitol protests and the "establishment."
When Democratic Party operatives in Washington, D.C., decided in August that there would be no recall, "there was an immediate backlash from the grassroots in Wisconsin," says Ben Manski, executive director of the pro-democracy Liberty Tree Foundation and a former co-chair of the Green Party.
"That signaled the point at which there was a clear parting of the ways," says Manski.
Before, he says, everyone from moderates to radicals was in communication and respectful of differences in approach and goals.
With the gubernatorial election, Manski adds, "what you've seen is an abandonment of solidarity on the part of the old powerbrokers - the heads of WEAC and AFSCME - and national Democratic Party operatives. You have this fight taking place between two very discredited parts of the Democratic Party. It doesn't involve the vast majority of the broader progressive movement."
While unions have lined up behind Falk, who formally entered the race Jan. 18, high-profile Democratic leaders, including U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, Erpenbach, former Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton and U.S. Rep. Ron Kind quickly got behind Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett after he entered the race March 30.
Democratic Party of Wisconsin spokesman Graeme Zielinski dismisses Manski as a minor player and someone who will "always have something to say about disunity."
He says the coalition to recall Walker is a big coalition with many moving parts, but they're all moving in the same direction. Manski's take, he adds, is not representative of most of the thinking among the grassroots or its leaders.
"This [effort] is being run by the grassroots," Zielinski says. "So many parts wouldn't have been done but for the grassroots."
But there is indeed some reshuffling, if not fracturing, within the movement. Michael Brown, who founded United Wisconsin, the citizen-fueled group that led the petition drive to recall Walker, has left the group, as has board member Ray Yunker. Together with blogger Scott Wittkopf, they've formed a new group, Wisconsin Movement.
The three say they are establishing their new group as a political cooperative in order to "keep the control and direction of the organization in the hands of the people responsible for our great successes."
Wisconsin Movement's founders say it will be a nonpartisan, people-powered group that will have a political action committee to support candidates. Brown, who runs a small marketing business in Appleton, has publicly endorsed Barrett, but neither Wisconsin Movement nor United Wisconsin is endorsing a candidate in the primary.
Wittkopf says Wisconsin Movement will act as a clearinghouse for grassroots groups that now operate independently of each other. The ultimate goal is policy reform pushed by people, not party operatives or policy groups that operate on a top-down basis.
United Wisconsin, for its part, will continue to mobilize volunteers, register voters and distribute literature that details the impact of Walker's budget on, among other things, education, health care and the environment, says executive director Lynn Freeman.
"We exist to make sure nobody stops paying attention to Scott Walker and what he's doing," she says. "No one else plays that role."
With less than two weeks to go, the two leading candidates in the Democratic primary are making their play for the "grassroots" vote.
In a television ad released by the Barrett campaign, the candidate promises that if elected he would focus on jobs and education and fight to restore collective bargaining rights for teachers and public employees. The 30-second spot ends with a black screen with one message: Tom Barrett is endorsed by Dave Obey and grassroots activists across Wisconsin.
Falk, meanwhile, reached out to activists in an email that appeared to knock Barrett at the same time: "After more than a year of the grassroots standing out in the cold, gathering signatures, knocking on doors and calling friends and family, the insiders of Wisconsin politics are trying to mow us down and make sure that only their voices are heard on election day."
The email continued: "Let's not let them swoop in and co-opt our movement. Let's not let the politicians pick our candidates. Let's leave the decision to you and the hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites who started this movement and defined its strength.... Ours isn't a campaign of political insiders. It's a grassroots campaign of labor, of women, of environmentalists, of progressives, of community organizers."
Barrett spokesman Phil Walzak, in response, told the Associated Press that "the people that are supporting Tom Barrett are people who have been part of this movement and leaders of this movement from the very beginning." Michael Brown, he noted, was one of those supporters. Barrett also has the support of six of the "Heroic 14," the Democratic state senators who delayed passage of the governor's collective bargaining proposal last year by fleeing to Illinois, and, as of Tuesday, Rep. Barca.
Pam Porter, an environmental consultant who has advised Falk in the past and is supporting her in the primary, says Falk's deep base of progressive support has been obscured by the controversy over her early support from labor.
"There's never been a time when such a broad coalition has come together in support of a candidate.... She has earned this big tent," says Porter. She notes that Falk is backed by environmental and labor groups, whose interests in the past have often clashed.
Falk has pretty much wrapped up the endorsements from established public interest groups, including the Sierra Club; Voces de la Frontera Action, an immigrant rights groups; Clean Wisconsin Action Fund; the Young Progressives at UW-Madison; and Emily's List, which funds women candidates.
Barrett's list of endorsements includes no such groups, but he has picked up several union endorsements, including the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, the state's largest police union.
Porter says the coalition of groups that is supporting Falk started taking shape after the 2004 elections, when progressive activists, funders and unions met to assess their progress. Porter says progressive groups realized they needed to get more involved in electoral politics in order to advance their issues. And they needed to find common ground and start working together more.
Porter says steel workers and conservationists, for instance, were part of a coalition that fought the proposed Crandon mine. "It was about relationship building," says Porter.
Bruce Colburn of the Service Employees International Union says similar work has gone on under the direction of We Are Wisconsin, founded shortly after the Capitol protests to build relationships between labor and community members around the state.
"A lot of amazing things didn't happen in Madison," says Colburn, whose union supports Falk. "It happened in towns and cities across the state, organizations and community people and labor people coming together in common interests. That is not only the story of progressive groups but of a new relationship developing between community and labor around a common interest."
The membership of the group, which also has a PAC that ran its own commercials and supplied volunteers for last summer's recall races against GOP lawmakers, is split 50/50 among labor and community members, says Colburn.
He says some of the discontent among grassroots activists with the Democratic primary stems from people not thinking there is much difference between candidates and others not having faith in the electoral process.
That's why We Are Wisconsin, says Colburn, has been trying to focus not just on electoral politics, but on issues and collective action.
"It's gone beyond a simple coalition to looking at long-term ways we can unite."
Political science professor Burden notes there are different incentives for the social movement that emerged during the Capitol protests last year and the round of electoral politics currently under way. The one common denominator is labor, which helped fuel the protests and is now actively involved in recall efforts, says Burden.
"The splintering has come in part because a couple of the large unions decided to back a particular candidate early in the process. They might have avoided some of the conflict by waiting to endorse a candidate until after the signatures were verified or even waiting until after the primary."
Historian Jones says it's inevitable that people within social movements will disagree about strategies. It's also a given that the organizations and institutions associated with the movement are better equipped than individuals to make quick decisions and to mobilize people and money.
Jones is writing a book on the civil rights movement and notes some similarities to the current dynamics. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, for instance, was founded because the NAACP wasn't willing to back the Montgomery bus boycott, preferring to focus on court actions rather than civil disobedience.
Jones says that the people who were very involved in the protests at the Capitol represent a certain geographic and social group, but not the entire state. He says the work being done by Colburn with We Are Wisconsin involves groups that were not frequent visitors to the state Capitol.
"It's one thing to be democratic," says Jones, "but it's also about bringing other groups to the table."
Colburn allows that there isn't a candidate who has been able to galvanize all the people involved in the protests and recall efforts. But he says that will change on May 9.
"I think there will be a coming together and a big jump in excitement and enthusiasm after the primary."
Burden says that the party establishment is gathering around Barrett in order to make the primary more decisive. Getting Erpenbach and Barca on board, along with Brown, Obey, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin and several leaders in the black community, is a way to diffuse Falk's early union endorsements, he adds.
If this strategy is successful, grassroots activists could come around to Barrett after the primary. Democrats and union members are not going to support Walker in significant numbers, regardless of who the nominee turns out to be, says Burden.
But there could be some collateral damage among disappointed activists.
"A bad taste in their mouths coming out of the primary might dampen their enthusiasm for knocking on doors, making phone calls, even turning out to vote in June," says Burden.
Barrett is being proactive in that regard. On April 23, he issued a call for a Democratic Unity Committee. The goal would be "to develop a unified plan and strategy to support the Democratic nominee, and keep the focus of this election on defeating Gov. Scott Walker."