The Times Visits 'Polarized' Wisconsin, Equates 'Civility' to Support for Unions, Ignores Gov. Walker's Success

The latest Times Sunday Magazine featured a 5,000-word story keyed to the Wisconsin recall election pitting Republican Gov. Scott Walker against Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, who Walker beat in the actual election in 2010. Contributor Dan Kaufman proposed to explain how Wisconsin politics got so rancorous: "Land of Cheese and Rancor – How did Wisconsin get to be the most politically divisive place in America?"

Yet he left out a lot, including the nasty tactics against Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who was compared to Hitler by the left-wing union protesters who took to the state capitol, after Walker moved to take away the collective bargaining rights of public-sector employees. Kaufman shied away from actual details about the union-instigated Walker recall election, like its $18 million price tag and the fact that Walker has a substantial lead in most polls. Instead he focused on tangential stories supposedly representative of Republican corruption and the decline of civility in the state. He ended with a lesson in Times-worthy political decorum, as one Republican state senator regains his civility (i.e., votes with the Democrats).

There's little doubt what side the Times is on. Times reporters once ludicrously suggested Wisconsin could become "the Tunisia of collective bargaining rights." More like a Waterloo. A Tuesday editorial characterized Walker's "well-deserved recall vote" in Wisconsin.

In the May 30 Weekly Standard, Stephen Hayes fills in some of the details Kaufman and the Times leave out:

....Walker took office with a projected deficit of $3.6 billion, and in two years he's erased it. The Wisconsin Department of Revenue projected last month that the state will have a budget surplus of $154 million by the summer of 2013....Before the reforms, most public employee union members paid less than 1 percent of their salary toward their pensions and contributed 6 percent of the cost of their health care premiums. And in fact, Wisconsin public employees still have a good deal -- with most contributing 5.8 percent of their salary toward their pension and up to 12.6 percent of their health care premium, well below the averages for the private sector.

Kaufman focused on sympathetic liberal activists victimized by Republicans, including Mike Wiggins Jr., who had "a series of dark and premonitory dreams." They came true in the form of (gasp!) Republican legislators out to poison the water.

....But he said the dream became clearer when a stranger named Matt Fifield came into his office several months later and handed him his card. Wiggins is the chairman of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and Fifield, the managing director of Gogebic Taconite (GTac), a division of the Cline Group, a mining company based in Florida. He had come to Wiggins’s office to discuss GTac’s desire to build a $1.5 billion open-pit iron-ore mine in the Penokee Hills, about seven miles south of the Bad River reservation. The proposed mine would be several hundred feet deep, roughly four miles long and a half-mile wide; the company estimated it would bring 700 long-term jobs to the area. Fearing contamination of the local groundwater and pristine rivers, Wiggins told Fifield he planned to oppose the mine. He didn’t know at the time that the company’s lawyers would be working hand in hand with Republican legislators to draft a bill that would weaken Wisconsin environmental law and expedite the permitting process.

What followed was a drawn-out fight that resembled other statewide battles over labor, education and voter-registration laws -- all of which have been introduced since the election of the Republican governor Scott Walker in 2010. The most bitter of these fights began in early February last year, when Walker proposed eliminating virtually all collective-bargaining rights for a vast majority of the state’s public-employee unions. Around the time that Walker announced the measure, similar laws were introduced in Michigan, Ohio and Florida, and a nationwide demonization of public employees caught fire. Within two months, the National Conference of State Legislators had tracked more than 100 bills, initiated across the country, attacking public-sector unions.

Kaufman emphasized that Walker's "attack on public-employee unions was lauded by Mitt Romney, John Boehner and Karl Rove, and he has received significant financial support from the billionaire conservative donors Charles and David Koch...." Then he suggested that "progressive policy and upper-Midwestern civility" once went hand in hand in Wisconsin, before being ruined by Republicans.

Act 10, the bill that included the collective-bargaining measure, eventually passed last March despite widespread demonstrations at the State Capitol, an occupation of the building by protesters, the decamping of 14 Democratic state senators to Illinois for three weeks and numerous legal challenges. According to recent polling, Wisconsin, once known for progressive policy and upper-Midwestern civility, is now the most politically polarized state in the nation. Last June, David Prosser, a State Supreme Court justice, was accused of choking a colleague in her office after an argument over the court’s deliberations on Act 10. Bill Kramer, the Republican speaker pro tem of the Assembly, recently told a reporter that at times he finds it necessary to bring his Glock semiautomatic handgun to work, owing to the atmosphere in the State Capitol. (A new conceal-and-carry law permits concealed weapons even on the Assembly floor.) The protest movement the bill spawned, which shows no signs of abating, culminates in a June 5 recall election against Walker and four Republican state senators. If Walker loses, he would be only the third governor in American history to be recalled.

The election is next Tuesday. The article didn't cite polls, but most show Walker leading by five or more points. Kaufman did have room to point out how much outside money Walker has raised (60 percent of it from outside the state.")

A sidetrip to cast aspersions on budget-cutting proposals from the right-leaning American Legislative Exchange Council included the inevitable Trayvon Martin reference:

There was widespread outrage over ALEC’s role in exporting the “Stand Your Ground” law, at the center of the controversy over the death of Trayvon Martin, to other states -- including a related bill that recently passed in Wisconsin. Since the Martin shooting, several large corporations, Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart among them, have ended their affiliation with ALEC. I asked Pocan if the increased exposure has stopped any ALEC-originated bills in the State Assembly. “Not really,” he said. “They get really good strategic advice. The head of Shell Oil flew out to New Orleans to meet with legislators.”

At the end Kaufman returned to Wiggins and the mining controversy, and made a hero out of Senate Republican, Dale Schultz, solely for voting with the Democrats.

The previous evening, I stood with Mike Wiggins on the coast of Lake Superior and talked about Schultz’s role in staving off the mine. The civility that he demonstrated, the willingness to try to understand a different point of view -- it all stood in stark contrast to what has transpired in Wisconsin politics over the past year and a half. “When I woke up this morning, I was thinking about Dale,” Wiggins said as I was leaving. “I probably shouldn’t be saying this, but I had tears in my eyes.”