So much going on! Earthquakes, hurricanes, war in Libya, economic collapse – but I’m just back from a week of vacation in Wisconsin, and had a chance to learn a little more about the recall campaigns that finished up last week, so I think I’ll write about that.
In case you were hibernating last winter, I’ll sum up the situation very briefly. The Republican Party, driven by the Tea Party, scored big victories in Wisconsin in the 2010 election: they won the governorship, a U.S. Senate seat, and majority control of both houses of the legislature. The new Republican Governor, Scott Walker, decided to use this partisan control to make basic structural changes that would both push the party’s policy agenda and help them maintain control in the future. There were many parts to this package, but two were probably the most important:
- Walker’s so-called “Budget Repair Bill,” which made cuts in benefits for state workers (especially health care and pensions) and also undermined the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions. (They were forbidden to bargain over benefits, and they lost the power to collect dues by payroll deduction.) The latter had nothing to do with the budget, but was designed to weaken the power of the largest progressive political force in the state. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision gave both corporations and unions the power to spend unlimited sums to influence elections; if Walker could knock out the unions, that would leave the corporations with no strong opponent on the other side.
- The Wisconsin Republicans also pushed through a bill to redistrict the legislature for the 2012 election. This was meant to consolidate their hold on a majority; I’ll only mention it here, as that’s not my focus.
The Budget Repair Bill drew strong opposition. Hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites demonstrated against it, occupying the state’s Capitol building for weeks and rallying in cities across the state. Emboldened by this public outpouring, all the Democratic members of the state senate left the state, holing up in Chicago, so that the Senate would not be able to pass the bill (budget bills can pass by a majority in Wisconin, but they require a larger quorum, more than the Republicans could achieve without the Democrats).
After weeks of standoff, the Republicans decided that the Budget Repair Bill was not about the budget after all, and passed it under the easier rules that apply to non-budget bills, as they had enough for a quorum under those rules. There were other issues (timely notice, the open-meetings law), and lawsuits are still pending, but they passed it anyway. The Democratic senators then returned to Madison.
The Wisconsin recalls grew out of this struggle. Outraged progressives gathered signatures to call recall elections against all six Republican senators who were eligible for recall (those who had served at least one year in office); Republicans retaliated by filing for recalls against the Democratic senators, though they only got enough signatures to force three elections. That meant there were a total of 9 recall elections, against 6 Republicans and 3 Democrats, during the summer. The last of these, against 2 Democrats, was August 16.
- All three of the Democrats who had been challenged won reelection.
- Of the six Republicans challenged, 2 were defeated and 4 were reelected.
- The Republicans retained control of the state senate, but by only one vote.
This was a victory for the Democrats – they had more senators after than before – but less than they had hoped for, so it was also disappointing. An earlier electoral challenge to the Chief Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court (an ally of Governor Walker) had also narrowly failed to defeat him, so it can be said that the progressive forces have grown stronger, but not yet strong enough to win. There will be another round next year – Governor Walker becomes eligible for recall in January, and there will be a regular legislative election in November 2012.
But there is another result, much more important than electoral victories or defeats: the coming together of progressive-minded people across the state as a new political force. This happened first in the “We Are Wisconsin” movement that came together to fight the judicial and recall elections, but it is growin to more than that. This weekend in Madison there will be a Democracy Convention, not only to discuss what real democracy is, but to make plans to make democracy happen. Here’s a link to the convention website. People are energized and inspired – and more and more understand that what is at stake is the American way of life. It’s too early to be sure that this movement will last and grow, but it is beginning to look like there is finally a force to counter the Tea Party.