Wisconsin election about more than governor recall


HEAVILY PREGNANT with her third child, 36-year-old Elizabeth Ziemer lumbers back into the living room and drops the pile of letters on to the coffee table. “A lot of them are just like this,” she says, pulling a note from an envelope. “You better watch out. I mean it,” is scrawled on the unsigned, handwritten note.

Last November, Ziemer and her husband Cale (38), a businessman, held a petition-signing in the driveway of their wooden bungalow, across the street and four doors down from Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s modest home on 68th Street in Wauwatosa, a suburb of Milwaukee. Their petition was part of a Democratic drive to recall Walker. More than 900,000 signatures were collected, in a state of 5.5 million, and Walker faces a recall election pitting him against Milwaukee’s Democratic mayor, Tom Barrett, on June 5th.

If he loses, Walker will be only the third governor in US history to be recalled.

The Ziemers began receiving hate mail soon after their name appeared in the newspaper in connection with the recall petition. “As a state and a nation, we are behaving like teenagers who don’t want any discipline,” says one of the more polite letters. “COMMON SENSE HAS GOT TO BE THE RULE OF THE DAY IF OUR GREAT COUNTRY IS TO SURVIVE,” it concludes, in capital letters.

“We told the police about the letters. They said they couldn’t do anything,” says Mrs Ziemer, a web designer with the face of a Madonna. “It doesn’t worry me a ton, just when my husband is out of town for the night.”

Mrs Ziemer says she was shocked by Walker’s sudden proposal, on February 11th, 2011, to annul laws dating from 1959 and 1967 that granted collective bargaining rights to city and state employees.

“He never mentioned anything like that when he ran for office. That’s a pretty big thing to spring on people,” she says.

In a telephone conversation with a hoaxter pretending to be David Koch, a billionaire benefactor of right-wing causes, Walker recounted a dinner with his cabinet on the evening of February 10th, 2011. “It was kind of the last hurrah, before we dropped the bomb,” Walker told the Koch impersonator. Walker compared his attack on the unions to Ronald Reagan breaking the air traffic controllers’ strike in 1981. “This is our time to change the course of history,” he said.

The bright flags and lawn signs on 68th Street give it a deceptively festive air. Window shades are drawn and most residents won’t answer their doors. Deb (59), a physician and a neighbour of the Ziemers, has an “I Stand With Scott Walker” sign on her lawn, flanked by “Recall Walker” signs to either side. “We have to combat our neighbours,” jokes her husband, Jack. They don’t want to give their family name.

“We don’t discuss the election because we want to stay neighbourly and the way to stay neighbourly is not to discuss it,” Deb summarises the situation. She has also ceased talking politics with her divided family. “I don’t believe it’s in taxpayers’ interest to be haggling with public sector unions,” Deb says in defence of Walker. “The public sector has a pretty good time of it. Their hours are short. The unions engender laziness.”

Walker was elected with Tea Party support in the November 2010 midterms. His attack on public sector unions precipitated six weeks of mass demonstrations and a sit-in in the capitol building in Madison. Fourteen Democratic state senators fled to neighbouring Illinois to deprive Walker of the quorum he needed to pass the Bill. Walker used a legislative sleight of hand to pass it without them.

Opponents of the recall movement, including the Pulitzer prize-winning Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper, say the provision in the state constitution should be reserved for politicians who break the law, not those who enact unpopular legislation.

The campaign has dented Wisconsin’s reputation for being “midwestern nice”. In Chippewa Falls, to the north of the state, Jeffrey Radle, a Walker supporter, had to be hospitalised after his wife, Amanda, a Walker opponent, ran over him in her Dodge Durango SUV earlier last month. Mrs Radle was on her way to vote in the Democratic primary when her husband tried to stop her.

Last summer, David Prosser, a conservative state supreme court justice, was accused of choking a colleague during deliberations on Walker’s annulment of collective bargaining. Under a new law, a Republican legislator carries his Glock semiautomatic pistol to the assembly floor. Wisconsin is now considered the most politically polarised state in the US and a laboratory for conservative ideology. It displays symptoms affecting US politics nationwide: a gridlocked assembly and partisan supreme court; cookie-cutter laws drafted in Washington and exported to state assemblies by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC); a law tightening voter identification requirements – denounced by Democrats as an attempt to prevent ethnic minorities from voting. Both sides accuse the other of drawing outsiders into state politics. Some 60 per cent of the more than $30 million in campaign funds raised by Walker have come from out of state, including $1 million that the oil billionaire Koch brothers funnelled through the Republican Governors Association.

Wisconsin has long been known for counting its nickels and dimes. Walker claims credit for staunching a $3.6 billion state budget deficit.

He rejected more than $800 million in federal stimulus money for a high-speed railroad from Milwaukee to Madison, on the grounds the state could not afford to maintain it.

He has impeded the development of wind energy, and tried to authorise a huge open-pit iron-ore mine in a riverbed near an Indian reservation. On Good Friday, he signed a Bill making it more difficult for women to sue against discrimination in the workplace.

A Marquette Law School poll released on Wednesday shows Walker seven points ahead of Barrett, at 52 to 45 per cent. A Walker victory next Tuesday could give Mitt Romney a serious crack at Wisconsin, where Barack Obama still leads by eight points.

Republican vice-presidential hopefuls have trooped through Wisconsin campaigning for Walker. Romney calls him a hero.