Recalling the Recall: Some thoughts on the Wisconsin Civil War of 2012

Karen L. Stewart


           GREEN BAY,WI.  My phone stopped ringing off the hook on Wednesday, June 6.  For several weeks prior to June 6, I had apparently been something of a fascination for the Republican Party of Wisconsin.  They called me at least four times a day, beginning at 9:00 a.m., saying things like, “Hi.  My name is Bambi.  I’m a volunteer for the Walker campaign. I just wanted to remind you to vote for Scott Walker. . .”  

            Did they mistakenly believe me stricken with Alzheimer’s disease?  Usually you only have to remind me once, not 200 or 300 times.  And I never forget to vote. But as popular as I had been with them on June 5 and before, the Republican Party of Wisconsin completely lost interest in me on June 6.  Scott’s robo-calling minions don’t love me anymore!

            They were wasting their time and money anyway. I am a Kentucky-born Democrat, the daughter of two of the staunchest FDR Democrats who ever lived, and whose judgment I respect only more with each passing day.  In fact, I am more likely to become a Catholic priest than I am to vote for a Republican. 

            In Green Bay, the airwaves were thick with Scott Walker commercials.  I stopped watching local network television because listening to obvious lies would place me in serious danger of having a stroke.  Not only that, when I got on the internet, there were Scott Walker ads there too.  Apparently my IP address was recognized as belonging to someone in Wisconsin. It was unbelievably pervasive.  Every time I went to the grocery, I was confronted with legions of signs that said “We Stand with Scott Walker” that dotted the landscape. (The Republicans gave theirs out free.  Tom Barrett signs were $5.)  Even worse, there were red signs up that said, “Recall Santa.  I didn’t get what I wanted.”  I wanted to get out of the car and destroy those, but I refrained.  During this free for all, I legally obtained a Walker sign from Walker’s “Victory Fund” and doctored it a bit so it read, “I Sink with Scott Walker.”  Several neighbors and passersby took pictures of it, but that was apparently its only effect.  

Yard sign during Walker recall election

            I also doctored a bumper sticker changing “We Stand with Scott Walker” to “We Can’t Stand Scott Walker.”  This being 2012, I was afraid to actually put the sticker on my Toyota.  I feared assault on the highway by crazed right-winger in an SUV.  I also felt concern that my car would be trashed while parked by roving bands of Tea Party Republicans sporting sledge hammers.  So I put the sticker on the front of my house near the mail box.  It’s too small to be read from the street, so presumably the only person who reads it is the mailman. 

            Auspiciously missing from the landscape were political ads for Walker’s Democratic challenger, Tom Barrett.  Of course, Barrett had to win a primary to get on the ballot against Walker.  This left him with exactly 30 days to mount a state-wide campaign.  By law in Wisconsin, a recalled public official, i.e.Walker in this case, can raise unlimited cash while his challenger is limited to $10,000 per donor.  Not only that, the Democratic Party did not come to the aid of Wisconsin.  Bill Clinton showed up in Milwaukee one day.  The Democratic Governors Association funneled $3.2 million into the state for ad campaigns, but the Democratic National Committee was not so generous. DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla) characterized the recall election as a “local issue.” As much as I usually agree with her analysis, she was dead wrong about this. It wasn’t and isn’t a local issue.  It’s a template for the corporate takeover of democracy. 

It disturbs me when Democratic politicians fail to appreciate such frightening trends.  They left it to the people in Wisconsin, who are suffering under one of the worst recessions in history, many of whom are out of work, to shoulder the burden of defeatingWalker.  Half of Green Bay is boarded up.  The housing market is gone. For crying out loud, how can non-millionaires hope to find millions to remove the liar from office?

            I do not use the word “liar” lightly.  The word “prevaricator” also fits.  Here is a little history of the recall from my view in Green Bay.

            It began in 2010, when Wisconsin elected Scott Walker governor.  Walker, the Tea Party’s poster boy, had previously served in the state legislature and as Milwaukee County Executive.  He was also the first Wisconsin governor in 64 years to lack a college degree.  He apparently studied something during his time at Marquette, but since he would not release a copy of his college transcript, we don’t really know what that might have been.

 Accordingly,Walker isn’t qualified to substitute for a single professor in the Wisconsin university system.  He is, however, apparently qualified to kick Wisconsin’s heretofore highly regarded system of public education in the ass.  But I digress.

             Walker’s most notable accomplishment as a Marquette student was not academic1.  It occurred during his sophomore year while he was campaigning for president of Associated Students of Marquette University.  He was accused of multiple campaign violations, some of which he later admitted.  The Marquette Tribune endorsed Walker’s opponent, John Quigley, but said that either of them could serve effectively.  One of Walker’s followers, apparently upset with the endorsement, promptly went around confiscating every copy of the Marquette Tribune they could find.  When the newspaper found out about the dirty tricks, it immediately revised its endorsement and prophetically characterized Walker as “unfit for presidency.”  

            Not unlike Richard Nixon’s escapades involving a break-in at the Dean’s office at Duke University Law School, the stage was set for Walker to continue his dirty tricks, a.k.a., lies. Walker’s chief campaign promise when running for governor, at least publicly, was to bring “jobs” toWisconsin.  I will never ever ever trust any politician whose entire platform consists of one four letter word. There are no one-word solutions.  Of course, I was not amused and voted for his Democratic rival, Tom Barrett, who was and is, mayor of Milwaukee.  Barrett is an attorney, and a graduate of UW-Madison’s law school.

           Walker came into office in January 2011 and began doing things he completely failed to mention when he was campaigning on his “jobs” platform. Walker immediately proclaimed a budgetary crisis and then proceeded to do everything possible to dismantle public employee unions, which Wisconsin has had since 1959.  It was the first state in the nation to permit public employee collective bargaining.

            The public unions agreed to every demand Walker made.  He apparently did not expect such immediate cooperation, but bargaining was never his real objective anyway.  The death of public unions was.  Unions comprise the lion’s share of donations to the Democratic Party.  The demise of those unions would have far-reaching consequences, the most notable of which is the de-funding of the Democratic Party. This would leave the Republicans with all the money and the Democrats with none. 

            Several Democratic Senators immediately understood the implications of this trickery and refused to attend legislative sessions in order to prevent a quorum and prevent a vote on the measure.  They insisted that there be debate on the issue, not the “my way or the highway” stance of Walker. When Walker threatened to have the Senators arrested and compelled to attend, they left the state and holed up in Rockford Illinois, where they were beyond the jurisdiction of the Wisconsin State Police. (No. I am not making this up.) Undeterred, Walkerand his Teapublican water bearers, also elected in 2010, passed legislation that gutted public unions anyway.  The final legislation was pushed through without a quorum.  The die was cast.  They didn’t care what they had to do, even if it was illegal.  They did it anyway. 

            Even though he denied it at the time, Walker’s actions made it clear he had no intention of bargaining with public employees.  He did not want them at the table at all. In fact, although he testified before Congress that his intent in union busting was purely budgetary, it was later revealed, on videotape no less, that he told a campaign contributor that his strategy was really “divide and conquer.”  She wrote him a check for $500,000.00. It remains to be seen if charges are brought against him for contempt of Congress.  The evidence is, however, compelling.

           Walker’s legislative union busting tactic resulted in literally months of mass protests at the Capitol in Madison, beginning in February 2011. Wisconsin’s brutal February cold usually keeps most people bundled up at home, not on the steps of the Capitol. But it was not an ordinary year.  Things only got weirder from there.

            Section 12 of the Wisconsin Constitution permits the recall of elected officers after the incumbent has served one year.  A spate of recall petitions followed against members of the state legislature of both parties, but not against Walker.  Because Walkertook office in January 2011, January 2012 was the first month in which he could be recalled.

            By the end of January 2012, just under a million signatures on recall petitions forced the recall of Walkerand his lieutenant governor, Rebecca Kleefisch (pronounced, “clay fish”).  Four other Republican Senators were recalled as well.  Battles broke out on all fronts, even in the Wisconsin Supreme Court.  A Walker supporter, Justice David Prosser, whose own election had been riddled with serious voter irregularities involving the Waukesha County Clerk, prompting a recount, physically attempted to strangle Justice Ann Walsh Bradley over the timing of the release of an opinion on the collective bargaining law.  This fiasco eventually involved the Sheriff of Dane County, but no criminal charges were filed.  The Wisconsin Constitution gives the Wisconsin Supreme Court the power to discipline judges, but since one of the Supreme Court Justices was the alleged culprit, nothing ever happened.  It looked like assault and battery to me, but then I’m apparently not an astutely trained in the law as Prosser, that paradigm of curmudgeonly judging.

            Once the recall was underway, out of state money poured into Walker’s coffers from the bulging pockets of the obscenely wealthy.  Thanks to the structure of the Wisconsin recall provisions concerning unlimited contributions to the incumbent, what the rich think now matters more than what the rest of us think.  (I’m not sure exactly what you call this, but I do know that “democracy” is not the word I am looking for.)  It’s something more akin to: “Don’t you mess with the Man; he has more money than you and can crush you like a bug.”  Perhaps this, or a similar sentiment could replace Wisconsin’s current motto, “Forward,” which no longer applies.

             Preliminary spending totals indicate that Walker raised over 30 million dollars while Barrett’s coffers barely reached four million.  Barrett was outspent by Walker by a ratio of 7.5 to 1.  Two-thirds of Walker’s money came from outside Wisconsin; three quarters of Barrett’s donations came from inside the state.  Mother Jones has an excellent compilation of the financial statistics of the race found at:   (The pie chart is especially revealing, since it is to scale.)

            So with no brakes whatsoever onWalker’s money machine, the media saturation lies began. We began to hear about “Big Union Bosses” from “out of state.”  Who, I wonder, did they think made up those unions?  It sure wasn’t millionaires with bank accounts in the Cayman Islands; it was people who work for a living!  But according to theWalker disinformation campaign, people who work for a living had been transformed into “Big Union Bosses.”  

            Wage earners who were not union members began to openly disparage wage earners who belonged to unions.  Worker against worker was the sad result.  It’s the same principle as an old rusted out Chevette holding its bumper together with a Bush sticker: many people who are taken in by this mindless crap eventually vote against their own self-interest. And are proud of it.  The irony is so thick you could cut it with an O. Henry. 

            Family warfare broke out all over the state.  My next door neighbors, a long married couple with two boys, quit speaking to each other about politics when she found out he voted for Walkerin the primary.  She told me this horrid secret in the driveway, in hushed tones.  According to Mother Jones magazine, over one third ofWisconsin’s citizenry stopped speaking to each other about politics to avoid irreparable harm to their relationships with friends and family.  Divide and conquer, indeed!

            You could not venture anywhere in the state without being bombarded by theWalkercampaign’s evil elixir of lies and half-truths.  It ate into the psyches of the people of Wisconsin like battery acid until all they could do was repeat “Vote Walker, vote Walker, vote Walker” all the way to the polls.

            Marquette University Law School hosted two debates between Walker and Barrett.  I watched them.  The stage was set: an attorney with a Juris Doctorate versus a Marquette dropout.  You do the math.  Walker’s remarks were so vague as to be laughable.  “Big Union Bosses” was again his mantra.  “Lower taxes.  Jobs, jobs, jobs.”  And the tape played on and on ad nauseam.  

            Barrett opined that while he puts felons in jail,Walker hires them.  He also pointed out that Walker is the only governor in the U.S.who has a legal defense fund. 

            I, of course, am not among the brainwashed.  My Democratic parents taught me well. My law degree didn’t hurt, either.  The more you know, the better you can resist tyranny.  But what happened in Wisconsin was nothing short of mind control of its low level thinkers.  And that, my friends, was enough to keepWalker in office. 

           Walker did not come out of the melee unscathed.  He lost control of the Wisconsin Senate, which effectively cuts off his ability to push through his right wing agenda, at least until the November elections. Then it’s all up for grabs again.  The huge money donors from everywhere in the country will be back and the disinformation campaign will begin anew. 

            Unfortunately, until the people can rein in this beast sufficiently to relieve us from the utterly idiotic influence of money in American politics and stem the elevation of Dumb and Dumber to public office, the democracy we cherish so strongly will become nothing more than a memory. 

            I hope above all hope that what I just witnessed here in Green Bay is an aberration, that the people have better sense.  But the signs are there.  They point to an urgent need to stop the bleeding from the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United ruling, by demanding its immediate reversal.  Elected officials in Wisconsin recalls should have the same money limitations as their challengers. These acts would least be major steps to remove the influence of money in politics and to restore our democracy to all the people, not the wealthy few.  But how will this be done?  Those in power will never cede it willingly.  Once the entire system is controlled by monied interests, will we have to live through a French Revolution to take our country back?   Could the people make it happen somehow?   The need is urgent.

             I wish I had an answer, but I don’t.  Instead, I fear for the viability of our republic.  How would Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, for example, view these vile developments in democratic processes?   What would these great minds have done?   Don’t we have similar minds now?  Doesn’t anyone have the political wherewithal to fight this short-sighted and moronic intrusion into our most revered institutions?  Can this cancer be excised from the body politic?

            It is hard to predict where Wisconsin will go from here.  There is a secret “John Doe” investigation underway now regarding nefarious goings-on when Scott Walker was Milwaukee County Executive.  At this writing, 13 people have been granted immunity in the probe. Walker insists he is not the focus of any investigation, although he is probably the only governor in the country who has two criminal lawyers and a defense fund.  Moreover, immunity is not typically granted by prosecutors unless there is a bigger fish to fry.  There is a fish as big as a Wisconsin sturgeon occupying the governor’s mansion in Madison, exuding a powerful stench.

            There is also a more recent, on-going FBI investigation of the governor that may answer questions about the shadowy, monied interests that are driving this attempted exodus from democracy.

            Given these harbingers of future revelations, it entirely possible that Walker has won the battle but will ultimately lose the war.  Ironically it is the civil war he started, serving up divisiveness like bratwurst at a Brewers’ game.  The question now is: when will Wisconsin’s heartburn end?


Bio: Karen L. Stewart is a native of Beaver Dam,Kentucky, a 1972 graduate ofWestern Kentucky University, a 1986 graduate the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law and a member of the Kentucky and Wisconsin Bar Associations.  She moved to Green Bay,Wisconsin in 2008 at the age of 58, where she lives with her partner, Green Bay native Janice Conard, their quirky little dog, Maybelline and their fabulous tuxedo cat, Cutie Pie.  As a native southerner, Karen finds ice fishing humorous.

            1I admit to disliking Marquette for multiple reasons.  Most notably, Marquette University Law School is the alma mater of former Republican Senator and now dead man, Joseph McCarthy.  I don’t see how a law school can ever recover from that fact.  It’s like having Jeffrey Dahmer as a graduate of the FBI Academy.