“Supporters of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker wave to drivers from a foot bridge above I-94 outside Milwaukee on June 1. Photo by: Terence Burlij
This was a return visit, nicely bracketed. By chance I’d been in Wisconsin just two days after the November 2010 election that completely overturned the state’s political order. In 2008 Wisconsin had voted for Barack Obama. But two years later, both houses of the legislature flipped from Democratic to Republican control, longtime liberal icon Russ Feingold was defeated and 43-year-old Republican Scott Walker was elected as governor. I’d been invited by Wisconsin Public Television to speak in several parts of the state, and everywhere I went people were surprised by what had happened — some happily so, others clearly in shock, everyone wondering what would come next.
They didn’t have to wait long. Just a month into office, Walker introduced a measure to end collective bargaining for most public sector unions, arguing it was necessary to get the state’s fiscal house in order. Enraged opponents held mass protests at the state Capitol, 14 Democratic state senators left for Illinois to try to prevent a vote from taking place, Walker prevailed, a recall petition gained almost a million signatures, and here we are. The good citizens of Wisconsin have been living amid political drama for more than a year and a half.
I don’t use the adjective “good” lightly. People in Wisconsin take great pride in their political engagement and civil approach to civic affairs. It was Teddy Roosevelt who referred to the state as a “laboratory for wise, experimental legislation,” and much of that has been of the progressive, liberal variety, particularly when it comes to labor rights. It was this very state that was first to allow collective bargaining for public-sector unions. But Wisconsin has also been a cradle for conservative ideas — think of then-Governor Tommy Thompson’s efforts at the forefront of welfare reform in the 1990s.
Today, it seems, both traditions are alive, passionately pursued, and energized at the same time. And polite debate has given way to … well, you do hear it, but you hear a lot more partisan, polarized, set-in-my-way certainties. Any number of people said to us, “I’ve never seen it like this before.” We heard several versions of the same joke, about each campaign searching for the same 23 undecided voters hidden away somewhere in the state. (In fact, according to pollster Charles Franklin, about 3 percent of voters say they’re undecided — a very low number.) All this — and the awareness on all sides that there are national implications to what’s happening in Wisconsin — you can find in our story.
Much is planned ahead of time for a reporting trip like this, but a good deal is left open in order to respond to developments as they happen. And some part of the whole experience is left to chance. Driving toward Milwaukee on Interstate 94 at the end of a long day, with most of our crew half-dozing, our cameraman looked up and saw a great hubbub on a pedestrian bridge above the highway. We decided we had to see this. So we got off at the next exit, miles down the freeway, made our way back through side streets, found the overpass, and came upon a group of folks with Scott Walker signs, jumping up and down, waving their arms and signs to attract the attention of the rush hour traffic below. And they got quite a response: horns honking, people shouting out of windows, many giving the ‘thumbs up’ sign, others raising a certain other finger toward the pro-Walker group. Add in the blowing wind, the noise, the rush of traffic right underfoot (those tall trucks!) on a small pedestrian bridge — it was something to see, and completely unplanned.
There were quieter moments of chance that struck me as well. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and rush of the ‘now’, the sense that everything is so new and different; that is to say, it’s easy to lose perspective when you’re in the middle of a news story. But at the office of “The Progressive” magazine in Madison, after our talk about all that is happening in Wisconsin now, political editor Ruth Conniff pulled some very old binders down from a high bookshelf and showed me copies of the magazine from the 1930s. The very first headline I came across read: “Mellon Slips Rich $69,000,000 ‘Dole’.” Change the name and the dollar amount and…you get the idea. And you realize that the progressives at “The Progressive” have been fighting these battles for a long time.
And the beer and cheese? Well, bucking the standard for television news stories on Wisconsin, we left them out of ours. (This being a high-minded NewsHour report, I opted for the laboratory metaphor over the cheddar and brew.) But that doesn’t mean we failed to indulge: A “boot” of beer at Mader’s in Milwaukee — I think I now get how to hold the glass so the bubbles from the toe don’t jump up into your nose. But the “four cheese” burger at our hotel restaurant? Sorry, but can anyone — anyone not from Wisconsin, that is — distinguish the tastes? Not I.