Recall Is Walker’s Making

For 16 months Wisconsin has been embroiled in arguments spurred by Scott Walker’s decision of Feb. 15, 2011, in which he introduced a bill to curtail collective bargaining rights for public employees as part of his Budget Repair Bill, also known as Act 10.

The agonizing months since have felt like one long, bad family fight over the dinner table with no respected family matriarch around to slam her fist on the table and tell us all to shut up and listen as she settled the debate.

Some think the June 5 recall election is a travesty, a waste of time and money, or just a bunch of whining from people who lost the last gubernatorial race.

I disagree. I see it as a great moment for democracy, but not for the reasons many say it’s necessary. First, let me outline the reasons I DON’T think are valid for recalling Walker.

o He didn’t say he would curtail bargaining rights in the campaign. Yes, I think this was disingenuous, but I’m far too cynical of candidates to think they’re giving me their honest plan during the campaign season. The “he lied to us” argument does little for me.

o Walker hasn’t sparked the job creation he promised. Really? How many economists have to explain just how small a role presidents and governors have in shaping our economy before we stop expecting them to turn around a ship in a few months or even years?

o The Voter ID law. I think it’s dumb, but not grounds for a recall.

o His stance on green jobs and energy. Walker seems to have a disdain for new technology, particularly anything that would ween us off coal, cars, and oil. But that’s not much different than half a century of American energy policy.

These are all policy decisions, and when you’re elected you get to lead the policy debate. You get to set the agenda, and if after your ideas are vetted enough people agree with you, your ideas get a shot, for better or for worse.

I don’t even think the idea of ending collective bargaining rights, on its own, warrants the recall.

The reason Governor Walker deserves to be recalled is because of the manner in which he took decades of legislation and compromise and tossed it aside as so little garbage. He took standards of labor negotiating that were woven into the fabric of our state, that helped to improve working conditions for everyone, and trashed them without public debate, refusing to accept concessions that met his stated budgetary goals.

Walker likes to say that his changes provided the “tools” that school boards and administrators said they needed to control costs, but every administrator I spoke to said this went far beyond anything they ever asked for.

“None of us were asking the governor to charge our employees more,” retiring Sevastopol School Superintendent Steve Cromell told me last fall, referring to the measures to increase teacher contributions for health insurance and pensions. “We wanted to open bidding for health insurance. Nobody ever said we needed to break teacher’s unions.”

Walker’s infamous “divide and conquer” strategy wasn’t necessary to accomplish that. Sturgeon Bay School Superintendent Joe Stutting said the governor was playing a game of semantics that doesn’t ring true and creates a relationship that will only deteriorate with time.

“He calls them tools, but what they are is simply a way to make employees take less,” Stutting said. “How many times can you ask employees to balance your budget?”

At a time ripe for moving the state forward in common purpose, Walker instead drove a political wedge between working-class people – good people – on false pretenses.

On the heels of a national economic collapse that was due in great measure to the actions of our financial elite and the costs of two decade-long wars, Walker aimed his sights on middle-class workers.

Rather than work toward solutions to improve wages and benefits for all workers, he sought to curtail them for a segment he could paint as overpaid and over-benefitted – teachers, municipal employees, social workers.

It should be no surprise that hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites fought back, but we sure have a love-hate relationship with our democracy.

We endlessly bemoan the lack of citizen engagement in politics. But when a group rallies together, be it the Tea Party or the Occupy movement, we tell them to shut up. What we really seem to want is for people to vote every couple of years, then sit on the sidelines and let a club of old white men take care of us. They were elected after all, and they know what’s best for us.

Is it worth the estimated $9 million cost of the recall (or $17 million, depending on whose numbers you use), to see citizens so galvanized by public policy as to collect hundreds of thousands of signatures for the opportunity to vote again? In this moment it is.

In an era when compromise is a dirty word, when representatives pander to the extremes of their base, showing them that we’re willing to go to great lengths to call them out is more important than ever.

Maybe, just maybe, a recall can keep a few honest enough to work together again.

My friend Mr. Gallagher has said that Scott Walker must have the worst public relations team ever assembled. On that we agree. Walker brought this on himself.

He didn’t want to have the debate in the legislature in the winter of 2011, instead driving the state to have a much more costly and decisive debate in the 16 months since.

Now the electorate will settle that debate. If his reforms are worth it and he has made his case, then in the grand scheme of things a $9 million implementation is a cheap price. If he hasn’t, then it’s time for a different idea.

The sad thing about the recall is that if Walker’s goals were truly budgetary and if he honestly had his sights focused simply on what is best for the state, he could have gotten most of what he wanted without it.

There’s something great about Wisconsin standing up and calling him out for over-reaching, something inspiring about the citizens slamming their fists down on the dinner table and saying “Shut up, all of you! We’re going to settle this with a vote.”

For more from Myles Dannhausen Jr. on the Wisconsin protests, read “Locked Into the Wrong Debate.”