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Win or Lose on June 5, Advocates Agree Wisconsin Progressive Movement Must Continue

Will Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker be recalled on June 5? (Photo: Terry Soto)

Gone are the massive throngs of protesters teeming around the capitol in Madison. The recall election of Gov. Scott Walker is coming up on June 5, and now it isn’t about assembling large crowds with grievances; it is about getting out the vote.

“Republican turnout is pretty consistent from election to election,” Norm Stockwell, operations coordinator for WORT listener-sponsored radio in Madison, said. “It is the Democratic vote that is up and down in Wisconsin. What will decide this election is Democratic turnout.”

Ed Sadlowski Jr., who is the representative for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Wisconsin Council 40 (which includes Rep. Paul Ryan’s Congressional district), said that labor and progressives are working together with the state Democratic Party and the support of the Democratic Governors Association. The Democratic National Committee has been virtually absent from the recall election, offering little in the way of financial, public or logistical support.

Perhaps it is not surprising that a White House that is primarily concerned about the re-election of President Obama would all but ignore the electoral effort to recall Walker. On May 30, Chris Cilizza of The Washington Post cited that Walker is seven points ahead according to the most recent Marquette University Poll – and most polls have been giving him an edge in the rematch with Mayor Tom Barrett of Milwaukee. (Many advocates of recalling Walker that Truthout interviewed in Wisconsin argued that the recent polls were skewed to the right in their methodology and that Democratic polling showed the race was very close.) However, the poll (which has a 4 percent margin of error) showed Obama currently leading Romney in the Badger State among likely voters, 51 to 43 percent. And it appears that even despite a late-breaking visit by Bill Clinton, the White House doesn’t want to risk that Obama lead in the Marquette poll.

But it is not just the White House that is uncomfortable with the recall election after virtually ignoring the March demonstrations and recall petition drive. Sadlowski also was irked that some national unions (with exceptions such as the Steel Workers Union and others), at first, were generally uninterested in the Wisconsin uprising of last March against Walker’s crack down on unions and other socially regressive legislative moves. Sadlowski, however, noted with pride that AFSCME International has since pumped large contributions into the Walker recall. The locals in Wisconsin have been a major player in the progressive revolt from the beginning, often dragging reluctant national unions into the fray.

Walker is not the only individual up for recall. His Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch along with four Republican state senators are on the ballot on June 5. She is being challenged by Mahlon Mitchell, who played a highly visible role as the president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin union in supporting the original Madison protests. The bête noir of the State Senate to progressives, Scott Fitzgerald (who is Walker’s man in the senate), is facing a recall challenge due to Lori Compas. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel calls her “in many ways … the face of the grassroots movement in Wisconsin’s recall elections.”

Walker, as any Truthout reader knows, has millions of dollars in campaign funds coming in from out of state, including donors such as the Koch brothers – and many right-wing anti-union Citizens United third-party funders, not to mention the Republican Governors Association and the Republican Party. But even if Walker were to ride out the polls and win against a vigorous Democratic and progressive get-out-the-vote campaign, he has a deep shadow following his every move: he is the “John Doe” in a longstanding Milwaukee County district attorney’s investigation of staff members who worked for Walker when he was Milwaukee County CEO. In fact, although he has been neither indicted nor named as a target of the investigation as of yet, just the other day, Walker moved $100,000 from his campaign fund into his legal defense fund, indicating a heightened interest by the prosecutor into the activities of “John Doe” regarding his staff workers, some of whom have already been convicted. Due to Wisconsin laws regarding the use of legal defense funds by elected officials, the transfer of the money was a tacit admission that Walker is under investigation.

Office of Scott Walker in state capitol in Madison.Office of Scott Walker in state capitol in Madison. Will he be indicted after the election? (Photo: Terry Soto)The Milwaukee County district attorney is being appropriately tight lipped about the status of “John Doe” right now. So whether or not Scott Walker is indicted remains to be seen. How much of a factor Walker’s legal limbo will affect the election is not clear. Only 3-5 percent of poll respondents are reportedly undecided.

But it is more than likely that the results of the June 5 recall race will be cast as a referendum on the aggressive, new, ultra-right-wing attack on the 99 percent. That may also explain the White House’s reluctance to align itself too closely with the recall forces. If it does, it runs the risk that if Walker wins it will boost Romney’s ability to claim a mandate on proceeding nationally with Walker’s Koch brothers/American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) policies.

Ben Manski, longtime Madison organizer and founder of the advocacy/coalition building organization “WAVE: We Won’t Pay for Their Crisis,” believes that the foundation of a progressive coalition in Wisconsin is strong, whatever the election outcome.

“The politics in Wisconsin are different than most of the rest of the country,” Manski told Truthout. “Organized labor has often worked with the progressive movement. A lot of union leadership are not Democrats. They are progressive progressives. They put the movement before the elections, even supporting greens. They are movement unions. Coalitions have been part of every budget cycle.”

Given that Walker has worked to disenfranchise non-Republican voters (although his overall ALEC voter suppression bill has been stayed by a court, some of its restrictive features such as no same day registration remain and will prevent many students who are finished with college for the year from voting) and has money flowing in from the oligarchy, a lot is at stake given the long-standing and growing strength of the Wisconsin progressive movement, one that, as Manski noted, has been closely aligned with labor on a state and local level.

Lisa Graves, who observes Wisconsin movement politics as executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy (which does not engage in electoral activity, but is located in Madison) is hopeful: “The awakening that has occurred in the past several months in Wisconsin and across the country is not something that is going to be expunged by any one election. I think that this movement is a much longer term effort that has been awakened.”

Graves points out that the right wing has turned losses (think Goldwater in 1964 and Nixon in 1960) into a “long-term fuel for victory.” And they have used movement politics to achieve electoral gains, but in the face of losses, always vigorously return to right-wing movement activism. Her point is that perhaps the strong foundation of progressivism in Wisconsin can learn a lesson from this play book.

No one epitomizes the state’s progressive history better than the late “Fighting Bob” La Follette, who served as a US senator, a US Congressman and the governor of Wisconsin. (He also ran for president on a progressive third-party ticket in 1924.)

A bust of fiery Wisconsin progressive Bob La Follette.This bust of fiery Wisconsin progressive Bob La Follette, on the second floor of the state capitol, became a shrine during the uprising. (Photo: Terry Soto) La Follette’s bust is in the Wisconsin State Capitol and it served as a shrine for activists during last year’s uprising. Ed Sadlowski, for example, slept next to it every night before Walker evicted the advocates of democracy from staying in the Capitol when it closed for the day.

Ed Garvey, a Wisconsin lawyer who also ran for governor and senator (and was executive director of the National Football League’s players’ union), is the carrier of the torch for the fiery La Follette tradition in Wisconsin. Each year, he conducts a Fighting Bob Fest – “A Progressive Chautauqua” – that draws thousands of people to hear the likes of Thom Hartmann, Tammy Baldwin and Jim Hightower. He also edits and blogs on

Garvey talked to Truthout about how La Follette championed people over the robber barons, of how he deplored too much power being in too few people’s hands. Like most people we talked to in Madison, he is confident that eventually the movement will return even if Barrett is not elected. He asserted that it is difficult to sustain maximum energy everyday, but also pointed out that there are “more alley cats than fat cats,” and that will keep people mobilizing. “When politics don’t go well, we have to redouble our efforts as social activists,” Garvey argues.

Frank Emspak, who is the executive producer of Workers Independent News, which broadcasts out of Madison, understands the dilemma of sustained activism vs. political involvement. Like most Madison activists interviewed by Truthout, Emspak favored activism that could reach out, change the paradigm, broaden coalitions and create grassroots change – as well as protect workers in the private sector, rights he currently sees eroding.

There is just so much energy to go around, most activists agreed – and now, the Madison spring uprising of 2011 is dependent upon political candidates in 2012 who inevitably compromise the energy and public education outreach that occurred after the Teaching Assistants’ Association of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, teachers and Madison students marched to the Capitol and launched a pro-democracy movement that reached more than 150,000 people on one day.

Ed Garvey, a Madison attorney.Ed Garvey, a Madison attorney, carries on the La Follette progressive tradition at and through the annual Fighting Bob Fest. (Photo: Terry Soto)“Let’s face it,” Ed Garvey said, “the uprising had tremendous energy and enthusiasm. No one said, ‘what if we get an election and recall.’ I didn’t hear anyone talking practical politics.”

But Emspak argued that there was no choice: “It [the recall of Walker] was a strategy of last resort. As we were mobilizing people in the community last year, there was no plan ‘B.'”

“To the extent that the electoral process is limited and expensive,” Emspak, however, contended, “It is not the only thing we should be doing.”

And then, there’s that other lesson Emspak said he learned. In 2008, many progressives joined the Obama campaign as if it were a movement, not just a political campaign. After Obama was elected, his campaign email lists and money were used to support a personal political agenda, for the most part, not the movement.

If the Democrats and progressives were to increase the voter turnout for Barrett to the 2008 presidential election year levels, the Democrats would almost certainly take the governorship. (There is some conjecture that Barrett, in a lower turnout situation, could lose to Walker and Mitchell still win the lieutenant governorship if there is a strong African-American turnout, since Mitchell is black. That is based on the fact that the two positions run independently in a recall election and assuming some blacks would turn out to only vote for Mitchell. A handmade yard sign.A handmade yard sign in front of a Madison home symbolizes the importance of labor in the United States and in the June 5 recall election. (Photo: Terry Soto)Mitchell also has a stronger following than Barrett in the progressive and union camps due to his leadership role in the 2011 uprising and the loss of the perceived progressive candidate, Kathleen Falk, to Barrett in the Democratic primary.)

But the clear message from the activists Truthout interviewed in Madison was this: Don’t count on politicians to lead; count on pro-democracy/economic justice movements to lead the politicians.