Why Wisconsin Matters

Today could be the most important day in politics until the Nov. 6 presidential election. Today, voters in Wisconsin will decide whether or not to allow Republican Gov. Scott Walker to keep his job, or allow Democrat Tom Barrett, mayor of Milwaukee, to replace him. This recall election is a repeat of the 2010 mid-term election when Walker beat Barrett by about 5 percentage points, and Republicans swept several state houses across the country, including in WI. However, this election should have a far, far higher voter turnout on both sides than the 2010 election, as officials predict voter turnout to be around 60-65 percent, similar to a presidential election.

There are a few reasons why the Wisconsin election matters so much. It will determine the future of unions and how much power they still have. It is also a test of how well Democrats will do in the post-Citizens United world, as corporations and billionaires can now dump unlimited funds into a campaign. The election  also matters  because it will probably determine whether or not WI goes for Romney or Obama in 2012. The state has not elected a Republican president since 1984, and the GOP now believes the state is in play, and for good reason.

The political civil war that has exploded in WI began 16 months ago, shortly after Gov. Walker was sworn in. He did inherit a state with a budget crisis, and his solution to that crisis was to strip public sector unions of their collective bargaining rights. As soon as the bill was introduced, the streets of Madison and the capital building swelled with protesters. Eventually, the bill passed, and since then, membership to public sector unions in WI has plummeted. Last summer, there was a recall to replace some of the state senators that voted for the bill. Of the 6 GOP state senators that faced recall, two were replaced by Democrats, and now the state senate has an even split. More Republican state senators will be on the ballot today for recall, and it’s very possible the Dems will win control of the state senate. After the summer recall, activists succeeded in forcing a recall election of Gov. Scott Walker. They turned in petitions with over 1 million signatures.

Unions realize that today’s election matters a hell of a lot. They have spent a lot of time and energy protesting and forcing the recall. They have also poured money in to help Tom Barrett defeat Walker. If Walker does indeed win today’s election (current polls show him ahead by just a few percentage points), then Walker’s agenda will most likely go national. For decades, the GOP has wanted to dismantle unions, which traditionally help Democrats win elections through their organization and get-out-the-vote efforts. If Walker wins, he has succeeded in crushing unions in a state that used to be considered very progressive. It is likely that his tactic of stripping unions of collective bargaining rights will be done by other GOP governors, especially in Florida, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. That will lead to decreased union membership and the very real possibility that unions may not be around any longer in a few years, and if they are, they will have little to no political muscle.

This election also matters because it’s a test of how Democrats will adapt to the post-Citizens United world, the Supreme Court ruling that made it possible for corporations and billionaires to donate unlimited funds to a campaign. So far, Walker has raised over $30 million, while Barrett has only raised about $4 million, according to this article by CNN. The article also points out that about 70 percent of Walker’s donations in the last month have come from out-of-state, including Texan Bob Perry, who created the swift boat attacks on former presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004. Perry cut a check to Walker for $500,000. It’s easy to see why the race is so close. A few months ago, the passion and the energy was on the left and against Walker, but a hell of a lot of money has kept the recall election close. To win elections, Democrats need to find a way to raise Super PAC money and compete with the GOP fundraising abilities. If not, they will lose elections, just as they did in 2010 and just as they may in WI today.

Finally, the election also matters because it will have an impact on the presidential election. The recall is a test of each sides get-out-the-vote efforts. Democrats believe that if they have a lot of boots on the ground, they can defeat Walker and have more success in the November election. However, if Walker wins today, the activists in WI are going to feel demoralized. Will they want to knock on doors for Obama in November? Will they have any energy left? If Walker wins today, it is very possible, maybe even likely, WI will vote for a Republican president for the first time since 1984.

Elections matter, and state elections do have an impact on national elections and the agenda of both major political parties. I do believe Democrats could have done a lot more to help Tom Barrett. President Obama didn’t even stop to stump for Barrett. Last night, he tweeted his support for Barrett, but it could be too late. The only big gun that has assisted the Democratic candidate is Bill Clinton, who campaigned in the state on Friday, but it may be too little, too late. Meanwhile, if Walker wins today, billionaires that want to see unions totally dismantled will encourage other Republican governors to follow Walker’s path and crush unions to the dustbin of history. They will realize that they can indeed buy elections. Pay attention to the results from today’s election for an indication of where this country is headed in terms of workers’ rights and the future of unions, as well as who has the upper hand come November, Romney or Obama.

And Time’s Person of the Year Goes To…..

This is the first time in a long time I’ve agreed with Time Magazine’s decision for its annual Person of the Year story/cover. This year, the magazine has chosen “the protestor” as its 2011 Person of the Year.

The article regarding the magazine’s decision can be read here, and it gives a comprehensive overview of the year of protest in the Arab world, the U.S., and mostly recently Russia. As the magazine points out, the year of protest was ignited on Dec. 17, 2010 when Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor in Tunisia, was hassled by police. He walked to the capital building to complain and got no response. So, he drenched himself in paint thinner and lit a match that ignited the Arab Spring. His action came after the country’s dictator continued power grabbing moves and a high cost of living.

The focus of the Arab Spring, though, mostly happened in Egypt, where, after months of protests and complaints about a fraudulent 2010 national election, thousands of young activists were able to topple a dictator, Hosni Mubarak. Since then, the military has taken power, and lately, Tahir Square has been flooded with protestors again, as the country’s citizens complain that the military is refusing to give up power.

Meanwhile, while the Arab spring was forming, thousands flooded the capitals of rust belt states, including Ohio and Wisconsin, especially Wisconsin, to protest restrictions on unions, especially the right for public employees to collectively bargain. Despite the massive protests, the governors in Ohio and Wisconsin still signed anti-union bills. However, in Ohio, citizens voted overwhelmingly in November to restore the union rights. And WI Gov. Scott Walker is likely to face a recall election. The move to collect enough signatures to get him on the ballot is now underway, and activists in that state are already close to getting enough signatures.

All of this preceded the largest protest movement the U.S. has seen in decades- Occupy Wall Street. What started as a dozen or so kids coming to Zuccotti Park on Sept. 17 has now blossomed into a national movement. Across the country during the fall, tents sprang up in nearly every major U.S. city. Since then, the police have shut down most of the tent cities, but the marches and protests continue.

2012 will reveal what’s next for OWS. This Sunday in NYC, the organizers are meeting to discuss where the movement goes from here. But OWS has been mighty successful in the sense it has totally changed the national conversation. Now everyone is talking about the fact the U.S. has the highest rate of economic inequality since the 1920s. President Obama has pivoted towards a more populist tone, and last week, during a speech in Kansas, he said this is a “make or break moment for the middle class.” He has co-opted some of the language of the OWS movement, and the movement has given him the space to be able to address much needed economic reforms and regulation of Wall Street.

OWS dominated the news in the last few months of 2011. The image of students getting pepper sprayed in the face at UC Berkley was all over the news, as well as images of standoffs between the NYPD and protestors in Zuccotti Park and thousands marching across the Brooklyn Bridge and also circling the New York Stock Exchange, nearly shutting it down.

I’ve worked with several OWS activists in the Scranton area, and I’ve visited sites in Philly and Boston. I’ve had my disputes with some activists over the use of tactics, and I would like to see the movement grow into real legislative reforms and people running for office, but while involved, I felt like something really profound is happening in this country and in the world. People have finally had enough, and for the first time in decades, they are finally protesting and getting involved in politics. It’s so inspiring to see young people across the globe speaking out.

Kudos to Time Magazine for acknowledging that 2011 was a year of mass protest, and since it is more than likely 2012 will feature more economic uncertainty and continued assaults on the middle class, the protests will continue.

Best Election Money Can Buy

Last night, I stayed up late streaming news channels on my computer to find out the result of the recall elections in Wisconsin. Though I don’t live in Wisconsin, I had a heavy interest in the recall election because I feel it may be a preview of the 2012 elections, as well as a test of how Democrats now compete in a political climate in which corporations can now dump as much money into elections as they want, thanks to a 2010 Supreme Court ruling called Citizens United, which basically gave corporations unlimited spending power in our election cycles. Furthermore, the election was also a test of organized labor, which normally helps Democrats. This whole recall election began in March, when Republican Gov. Scott Walker and his Republican allies in the state legislature succeeded at stripping most public employees of their right to collectively bargain. This attack on unions drew massive protests in Madison. After Walker succeeded, progressives pushed back and organized recall elections to try to gain control of the state Senate and halt Walker’s right-wing agenda

Like other progressives, I was optimistic Democrats would win 3 out of the 6 races, oust the GOP incumbents, and restore public employees right to collectively bargain. Unfortunately, the Democrats only won 2 out of the 6 races and did not flip the majority in the state Senate.  There are several thoughts I have about the importance of this race.

I want to point out this election may go down in history as the most expensive state race in the country’s history. So far, about $35 million has been spent on these recall elections, according to the Milwuakee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, which quotes the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, an organization that tracks campaign money. Unions poured millions into these campaigns, but so did right-wing organizations and right-wing billionaires like the Koch brothers. This race was a real test of the power of unions and progressive groups to compete with right-wing funding in the post-Citizens United world. Unfortunately, unions and progressives lost, no matter how they spin this.

It’s true Dems were fighting on the GOP’s turf, against GOP incumbents, and in districts that are generally Republican, but progressives had the momentum on their side. What’s alarming is that grassroots action, which was seen in Wisconsin, simply may not be enough to compete with right-wing funding and the ability of people like the Koch brothers to pour millions and millions into campaigns, thanks to the Citizens United ruling.  This race is only a preview of the money that will be spent in 2012. And I’m starting to believe our elections are indeed now bought by the highest bidder.

What will the left’s solution be going forward? This race was a test of organized labor’s power to organize and spend money to compete with right-wing groups. Organized labor and progressives lost, no matter how Dems may try to spin this story. They lost. What does the left have that can compete with the money spent by the right? How will Obama and Democrats running for House and Senate seats survive against the millions, possibly billions that will be spent by right-wing millionaires and billionaires to defeat them next year?  What answer do they have to that? Unions have always been the Democrats’ greatest fundraising tools, but unions are now being outspent drastically, as seen in Wisconsin.

What’s even more unsettling about the results of last night is the fact that Gov. Walker’s war on the middle class will not stop, and it’s likely to inspire other right-wing legislatures, especially in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida. The Republicans in some of those states, especially in Ohio ad Michigan,  have already cracked down on unions, and now they’ll see that the recall elections in WI didn’t give Democrats enough needed victories. These are also generally swing states that Democrats must win in 2012 if they want to do well overall.

Democrats need an answer to Citizens United, the Tea Party, and the general energy on the right. A movement did grow in Wisconsin, and the fact these grassroots organizers were able to even force recall elections and take away two seats from the GOP is remarkable, but there still needs to be more. There needs to be a greater pushback against Citizens United and the fact corporations now can dump unlimited funding into our election cycles. Progressives need a movement and fundraising efforts that can compete with the right. I hope what happened in Wisconsin over these last several months sparks a larger movement. And I doubt the fight in Wisconsin is over yet. There are two more recall elections next Tuesday in the state, both against Democrats. Next year, it’s likely there will be more recall elections against other Republican state Senators, and eventually Scott Walker.  Victory may come at some point against Walker’s agenda, but how much damage will be done prior to that?