TOPICS > Politics

In Wisconsin, Recall Election Watched for National Repercussions

June 4, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
A bitterly divided electorate. A long tradition of political experiments. The most expensive campaign in state history. And national repercussions, no matter the outcome. Welcome to Wisconsin, where voters are preparing for Tuesday's contentious recall election of embattled Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Jeffrey Brown reports.
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JEFFREY BROWN: A bitterly divided electorate, a long tradition of political experiments, outside money helping fund the most expensive campaign in state history, and national repercussions, whatever the outcome of the vote. Welcome to Wisconsin.

A pedestrian overpass atop I-94 outside Milwaukee, it’s not the most obvious place to wage political guerrilla warfare, but for these supporters of Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker, the stakes in tomorrow’s recall election couldn’t be higher, and anything goes.

TIM MAGUIRE, Wisconsin: It’s a power struggle.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes? A power struggle between?

TIM MAGUIRE: Between the taxpayers and the public workers unions.

JEFFREY BROWN: What kind of reaction are you getting from people?

ANNA DICKRELL, Wisconsin: We’re getting a lot of beeping and thumbs up. We’re getting a few not-so-nice gestures.

JEFFREY BROWN: Gestures you don’t want to make for us.

ANNA DICKRELL: Correct.

PROTESTERS: A million signed the recall to take Scott Walker down.

JEFFREY BROWN: Supporters of Scott Walker’s Democratic opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, have their own brand — make that band — of political passion.

ELLEN MEANY, Wisconsin: When you mess with Wisconsin, you’re messing with something that’s very basic to the heartland of America.

JEFFREY BROWN: State by street, neighbor by neighbor, everywhere you turn in this state, it is loud, raucous, intensely divided.

BONNIE GOSSENS, Wisconsin: It’s become a little bit of a circus. Wisconsin politics all of a sudden are no longer civilized.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the candidates themselves say that what happens in Wisconsin will resonate far beyond the state.

GOV. SCOTT WALKER (R): We have been a leader. Years and years ago, it was progressive on the left. A generation ago, it was welfare reform and school choice, more on the right. I think we’re a leader again.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have also been talking about taking on the special interests. Who does that mean? Does that mean unions?

GOV. SCOTT WALKER: Public employee unions. The leadership of our public employee unions in state across state, in local government across local government, not only here in Wisconsin, but across the country, have had a stranglehold on the taxpayers. And that’s driven many of the deficits that we see not only here in Wisconsin, but I believe many of the deficits you see around the country.

TOM BARRETT (D), Wisconsin gubernatorial candidate: I think Gov. Walker wants to have national implications and I think that is who he is catering to. Again, he is the rock star of the far right and he is able to raise these tens of millions of dollars.

JEFFREY BROWN: You keep using that.

TOM BARRETT: But it’s true. You have got a sitting governor who raises 60 percent to 70 percent of his money from out of state. So he wants the state to be an experimental dish for the right wing. And. . .

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean nationally?

TOM BARRETT: Nationally.

JEFFREY BROWN: Wisconsin has been living through a political drama for nearly two years now, with a great debate over the size and scope of government, budget deficits and spending, and the power of corporations and unions.

If all that sounds familiar, well it should. This state is a laboratory for many of the issues playing out in, and dividing, the nation. It all began in November 2010, when then 43-year-old Scott Walker defeated Tom Barrett by five points. And Wisconsin, which had voted for Barack Obama in 2008, changed overnight from Democratic to Republican control of both houses of its legislature and the governor’s office.

GOV. SCOTT WALKER: I, Scott Walker. . .

JEFFREY BROWN: A month after being sworn in, Walker sent shockwaves through the state, introducing and eventually signing a measure to end collective bargaining rights for most public sector unions. The governor claims it was necessary to close Wisconsin’s $3.6 billion budget deficit.

GOV. SCOTT WALKER: We’re moving Wisconsin forward.

JEFFREY BROWN: His opponents instead saw it as a war on unions and public services and staged mass protests outside and even inside the capitol in Madison, decrying the challenge to the state’s historic tradition on labor rights.

Wisconsin passed the nation’s first workers compensation protections in 1911. Two decades later, it was first to introduce unemployment benefits. And it was this very state that, in 1959, was first to grant collective bargaining rights to public employees.

With all that in mind, the recall petition gathered steam last fall, leading to tomorrow’s rematch between Walker and Barrett.

If Wisconsin is a laboratory, it’s schools may soon enough be the place to how well the experiment is working.

PATRICIA NEUDECKER, Oconomowoc District School superintendent: It’s a hot time in our state.

JEFFREY BROWN: At Oconomowoc High School, in a suburb of Milwaukee, school superintendent Patricia Neudecker says the end of collective bargaining with the teachers union helped break what she calls a logjam.

PATRICIA NEUDECKER: So, we have asked ourselves how can we make changes to use our resources better, our money, our time, our people?

JEFFREY BROWN: Neudecker says the new rules allowed the district to save money, negotiating a new health care contract, for example, and dropping 15 teachers from a staff of 60, even while paying the remaining 45 $14,000 more a year.

Most important, she says, is the school’s new ability to change the workday for teachers, having them take on four 90 minute blocks, rather than three.

PATRICIA NEUDECKER: We discovered, if you will, that we could create some efficiencies by changing the way we assign teacher class loads.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you couldn’t do that under the collective bargaining?

PATRICIA NEUDECKER: We would have had to negotiate that change; that’s correct. So we wouldn’t have been able to move forward with this plan without an agreement from the union; that’s true.

JEFFREY BROWN: The teachers union argues that Gov. Walker’s cuts to education are leading to fewer teachers, longer hours and larger class sizes, all to the detriment of learning.

Mark Miner is a civics teacher at Oconomowoc who’s decided to retire ahead of schedule because of the changes.

MARK MINER, Oconomowoc High school teacher: I don’t see how taking away prep time particularly is going to lead to an improvement in the delivery of education.

JEFFREY BROWN: Miner says morale is low also because the changes were done top-down in secret. And like many public sector workers, he’s shocked by the bitter tone of the political debate.

MARK MINER: Public employees, teachers, have almost become public enemy number one in Wisconsin. Public employees didn’t cause the financial meltdown.

JEFFREY BROWN: The governor, though, is sticking to his guns. At a campaign stop at Quad/Graphics, a major printing company based in Sussex, he had a direct message. His reforms are working.

GOV. SCOTT WALKER: For the first time in 12 years, property taxes actually went down on a median-valued home. Think about that, went down.

JEFFREY BROWN: By his side on this day, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, just one of the Republican stars of Walker’s generation who’ve come to help him.

GOV. NIKKI HALEY (R), South Carolina: The country is watching.

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, it is.

TOM BARRETT: We know that this governor has said that he was going to drop the bomb, drop the bomb on the working people of this state.

JEFFREY BROWN: And at a crowded and chilly rally in a Milwaukee park, Tom Barrett brought in some Democratic star power of his own: former President Bill Clinton.

FORMER PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: You need a budget from the next governor that deals with whatever the realities are, but where there are shared responsibilities and shared sacrifice, not winner take all.

CHARLIE SYKES, radio talk show host: Bill Clinton is once again coming into town and campaigning for Tom Barrett.

JEFFREY BROWN: Conservative radio talk show host Charlie Sykes is convinced that what the majority of Wisconsin citizens do want is a politician precisely like Scott Walker, willing to take no prisoners, even if it leads, as it has, to just the third recall election of a governor in U.S. history.

CHARLIE SYKES: Change agents are lightning rods, there’s no question about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s how you see him, change agents?

CHARLIE SYKES: Very much a change agent. Look, a lot of politicians in his position could have appointed a blue-ribbon task force, could have kicked the can down the road, could have shuffled the money around like other governors, both Republicans and Democrats, did. And he went right at it and said, okay, we have to change the dynamic of the state of Wisconsin.

JEFFREY BROWN: “The Progressive” magazine in Madison has been involved in these kinds of battles since its founding by fighting Bob La Follette more than a century ago.

Today, political editor Ruth Conniff sees Gov. Walker’s fight against public sector unions as part of a larger agenda.

RUTH CONNIFF, “The Progressive”: He has been willing to enact the laundry list of far-right policies that groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is a national group of corporations and Republican state legislators, have wanted to enact across the country in the states for a long time.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you don’t buy the notion that he has honest convictions of his own? Wherever these come from, he says he is taking on things that have to be done.

RUTH CONNIFF: He may believe it. You know, I think there is sort of a set ideology on the right. I don’t think it’s driven only by personal greed on his part, necessarily. But it is certainly a pretty stark right-wing ideology.

JEFFREY BROWN: With positions so hardened on the main issues, the two sides have tried other tactics in the campaign’s closing days, with Barrett pointing to a corruption scandal involving several former Walker aides, and Walker taking aim at Barrett’s record on jobs and crime in Milwaukee.

Pollster Charles Franklin, a visiting professor at Marquette Law School, says things are so polarized that there are hardly any undecided voters left in the state.

CHARLES FRANKLIN, Marquette University Law School: We could see an increase of 500,000 to 800,000 voters that didn’t come out in 2010. Either party that can win the dominant side of that increase in turnout will overwhelm the 3 percent of undecided voters.

MAN: We’re asking folks today if they plan on voting June 5 during the recall election.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, indeed, the phone banks were working overtime this weekend for Scott Walker. And union members were going door-to-door for Tom Barrett, as all watch and listen to the noise, the energy, and the competing visions of the political laboratory that is Wisconsin today.

And you can find more on Wisconsin’s recall election, including some behind-the-scenes moments from my reporting trip, on our website, NewsHour.PBS.org.