MILWAUKEE — When Wisconsin state Senator Alberta Darling, a Republican, first started gearing up for a recall election in the wake of mass labor protests, it looked like the race would focus on her support for a law that substantially weakened labor unions. But now, with little more than a month before the election, the message — if not the opposition — has changed.
These days, Darling's opponents attack her for cutting aid to schools. They say she should do more to help the unemployed get government checks for a longer period of time. Darling has even come under fire for supporting changes to Medicare, the health insurance program for seniors which is run by the federal government, not the state.
"They are obviously trying to find the issue, or the set of issues, that will build together to recall me," Darling says. "They are doing a lot of polling, they're doing a lot of testing, they're trying a lot of things."
To those on the left, though, there is a lot to be angry about. Union rights may be the most contentious issue debated in Madison this year, but Republican rule brought an onslaught of other legislative activity that Democrats cannot stomach. In half a year, Republicans have seized on just about every volatile issue imaginable, including Planned Parenthood funds, racial profiling, in-state tuition for unauthorized immigrants, environmental regulations, lawsuit limits, voter identification and "concealed carry" weapons laws.
State Representative Sandy Pasch, the Democrat trying to unseat Darling, says she is focusing on issues other than labor because those are what voters in the mostly suburban district care about. "In my district, unions are not a big deal," Pasch says. "They are not a real powerful interest group… But what really resonates with people are the cuts to public education."
A series of nine recall elections across Wisconsin, starting Tuesday (July 12) and lasting until mid-August, will determine whether Republicans hold on to their majority in the state Senate or lose control over one of the three crucial levers of power in Wisconsin government. It will be a long process and, when it is all over, there is no guarantee that it will put to an end to the partisan strife that has split Wisconsin apart for the last year and thrown it into what feels like a never-ending, all-consuming campaign.
Daniel C. Vock
Wisconsin state Representative Sandy Pasch, a Democrat, wants to replace Republican Alberta Darling in the state Senate. But before she can face Darling in August, Pasch must win a primary election Tuesday (July 12) against a little-known Republican who entered on the Democratic side. The primary races, including those involving "fake Democrats," have delayed most general recall elections until August.
Never before has Wisconsin witnessed a wave of recalls like the ones that start Tuesday. Then again, much of what has happened in Wisconsin politics since this past January has been historic.
Tens of thousands of protesters descended on the Capitol to object to a law stripping public employee labor unions of much of their bargaining power, and the entire Senate Democratic caucus fled to Illinois to try to prevent a vote on the measure. Republicans passed the proposal by tweaking it so they could get it enacted without Democrats being present. Attention then shifted to a state Supreme Court campaign that essentially became a referendum on Governor Scott Walker and the Republican majority. The incumbent Republican justice won, but barely. The vote was close enough that it required a recount.
Now, six Republican and three Democratic senators, from just about all corners of the state, are fighting to save their jobs. The recall effort has been a magnet for interest group money and activity. "We Are Wisconsin," a labor umbrella group, has collected $4 million
- chiefly from national labor groups - in its bid to flip control of the Senate. Pro-business organizations, such as the Wisconsin Club for Growth, have weighed in heavily for Republicans. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign counts
37 groups that have spent money for their own activities in the recall campaigns and nine that have aired their own issue ads.
By any standard, organized labor is one of the most active participants. Last week, a group of roughly three dozen union protesters showed up at one of Darling's Republican campaign offices across from a shopping mall. They filed inside and demanded to talk to the senator, but not about collective bargaining. Instead, they wanted to talk about unemployment benefits. It was their second orchestrated effort to attack Darling on the issue, even though she supports the extension they want. The labor protesters said Darling had not used her influence with fellow Republicans to change the law.
|Recall election dates in Wisconsin
|Source: Stateline reporting
"If she cared, why am I in the position I'm in?" asked Rose Wright, a laid-off janitor who exhausted her unemployment benefits a month and a half ago. Wright, who is from Darling's district, says she lost her home and now lives with her sister. "She had three months to do something. If she wanted to make things right… (she could) pick up the phone, call Scott Walker and make it happen for us."
(On Monday, committees in both the Assembly and Senate advanced legislation to extend the benefits, which the legislature likely will take up when it returns next week to handle Republican redistricting proposals.)
At a Milwaukee union hall Saturday morning, Alicia C. Treadwell was making phone calls to fellow union members, because recent knee-replacement surgery prevents her from walking door to door. Treadwell is targeting voters in Darling's district, even though she does not live there. The election, she says, is "affecting my whole union family. So if you get one shop, you're going to get them all. It's one nation under a groove. We all stand together."
When she talks to fellow union members, their concerns are not limited to collective bargaining. People worry about classrooms getting more crowded. They fret about cuts to health services for seniors. Many people have been laid off, or have experienced layoffs in their families.
In her campaign office, Darling sees another reason for all the union activity. The collective bargaining bill, she says, threatened the very existence of public employee unions. It requires, for example, that employees sign a pledge opting to pay union dues, rather than having the dues automatically deducted from their paychecks.
"The reality is that the teacher's unions and the special interests are the bank for the Democratic Party," Darling says. "The unions knew what a big threat it would be if we actually carried out what the governor put out in the budget. What it will do is change the funding for the Democratic Party nationally and for a lot of local candidates."
Still, Darling says the point was not to target the Democratic Party, but to save taxpayer money. Reducing public employee benefits, she argues, gives elected officials a way to save money, at a time when most governments face a budget crunch, without having to lay off employees or slash programs.
The Republican senator says the outcome of the Wisconsin recalls will affect state-level politics throughout the country. If unions and their allies succeed in Wisconsin, she says, they will use similar tactics in other states. "The special interests drew their line in the sand in Wisconsin," Darling says, "because they thought, if they stop it here, it will stop it throughout the country. And it hasn't."
Pasch, her Democratic opponent, acknowledges that a Democratic takeover of the state Senate will not lead to a reversal of the Republican policies that generated so much controversy. But she says a change in party control would "balance" Wisconsin government. "I'm hopeful that it will enable some dialogue, which has been totally missing since January," Pasch says. "It has been an incredible example of the tyranny of the majority every step of the way: no discussion of amendments, no dialogue on anything."
But Mordecai Lee, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and former Democratic lawmaker who lives in Darling's district, says the flurry of political activity — including the recalls - has done little to change people's minds. "The political situation is frozen," he says. "If people were happy in February, they are happy in July. If they were unhappy in February, they are unhappy now."