This is my companion piece to Bub's fantastic Recall article this summer.
My family used to vacation in Wisconsin when I was a kid. Growing up in northern Illinois, Wisconsin seemed to us like a beautiful and exotic place full of tranquility and white people - not unlike what Montanans feel about Calgary. We would drive up and rent cabins, have a campfire and pretend to go fishing while really smoking pot and discussing 70s art house films. I can't say for sure how similar it was to Justin Vernon's Medford, Wisconsin exile that led to For Emma, Forever Ago but I have my own music memory of listening Pearl Jam's No Code for the first time during one particular trip. Reading the lyrics off the polaroids included in the booklet while listening to Hail Hail, In My Tree, Red Mosquito on a CD player late at night while my family slept is something I'll never forget. Even as a teen, I could not have told you what was happening in the state politically. Though a our neighbor to the north, it was not close enough to be a part of our media market and rarely talked about in national news.
Things have changed. Scott Walker was elected governor in the national GOP wave elections of 2010 and has become both a national hero and villain - the standout of a detestable crew of charlatans, ideologues and (in the case of Florida) outright criminals elected that year. Feeling emboldened by a four point victory and a Republican legislative majority, he began his attempt to turn Wisconsin into Somalia. Instead of a US soldier being dragged through the streets, it was public employee unions. But Madison became our Mogadishu and the unions - teachers, county workers, painters, pantheists, firefighters, polytheists - fought back instead of hastily retreating. They occupied the capital, mirroring the Arab Spring uprising and setting the stage for Occupy Wall Street. It was hard to sit inside a county government building a thousand miles away while people rallied together in a way I had not seen in this country during my lifetime. So I made the decision to leave and go work on the first recall I could find.
That led me to a state senate district in the west central part of the state. Being in the Minneapolis-St. Paul media market, the area seemingly had a stronger bond to the North Star State than its own capital in Madison or the somewhat hated bourgeois Milwaukee further east. If there was ever an area to be labeled "Minnesota, WI" it would be here. It was close enough to the twin cities that people could commute and many did. The land was beautiful and the people were unbelievably kind, like most rural areas in the upper midwest. My town of New Richmond reminded me of home - similar in population size, number of stoplights and prevalence of serial killers. It was here I met a teacher and his wife, who reawakened my faith in activism and perhaps love.
I met Scott and Heidi at exactly the right time. After a two and a half years of disappointments in Obama's America, they existed almost outside of the world I had observed. Optimistic and determined, they brushed off the the dirty looks and insults of their neighbors to form the core of a team that gathered the recall petitions for their state senator. They had two cute and gregarious boys that waited in the running, heated car while they stood outside in freezing temperatures the previous winter to begin this herculean effort. They were happy, funny, vibrant and in love with each other but certainly not their governor who had launched a vicious attack against their values and their livelihood.
The target was senator Sheila Harsdorf a sixty-something woman who hadn't seen a competitive race in years. Besides questions about her gender, there wasn't much controversial about her besides the support of Walker's right-wing agenda. The people working on the recall effort did not appear to hold personal animosity, but saw her defeat and replacement with a teacher from two towns over as vital towards stopping Walker's legislative goals. It was quite fitting that the Democratic candidate was a teacher since across the state and in our town teachers and their allies took strong leadership roles in driving the push back.
Until I came to Wisconsin last summer I understood teachers unions and unions in general but I didn't feel an emotional collection to them the way I did with same sex marriage, civil liberties or the original Planet of the Apes. But working with Scott and several other teachers changed that. I saw how passionately they felt about education and their students. I saw the outline of an administration and/or school board who, reflecting the state government's approach, thought the solution to budgetary issues was not to raise taxes, end tax breaks for corporations or spend money differently, but to simply destroy teacher's ability to bargain for themselves. Of course these unions can make mistakes and some teachers are rotten, but I think most are like the people I met during this campaign. As a country we should be ashamed of the charter school/education "reform" movement's goals even if we can have some sympathy for their motivations. I was certainly ashamed of the work I did on on my last campaign of a anti-teachers union Democratic candidate. This was my atonement.
The last few weeks of the campaign I spent there were predictably the most exciting of the whole race. The candidates debated. Attack ads saturated the airwaves at previously unseen levels. The most beautiful, well-written letters to the editors alternated with vile, reactionary notes about unions and Democrats. We worked every day to engage our supporters over the phone, at events and specifically at the doors. By the time we got to the last four days, known as Get Out the Vote (GOTV), people were annoyed and sometimes angry at how often they had been contacted by us or our allies. But it worked - turnout went through the roof. The only problem is that it worked for both sides. Anti-recall voters voted just as heavily as the pro side and the GOP registration tilt of our district easily helped Harsdorf escape judgment.
Political losses are nothing new - to me or the country. I commonly say November 3rd, 2004 was the worst day of my life while tempting the gods to top it. The difference between previous losses and this one was seeing it in the faces of people that worked so hard for such a good cause. I only came in for the last few weeks; they had been working here for months. I would leave after the election; this was their home. This wasn't New York or Miami - it was a small community where they had to go to the grocery store and recognize the same people who slammed the door in their face during canvassing. I was brought in as a paid staff person to help run the area but it was their campaign and always had been. I did my best to help organize people, recruit volunteers and prepare walk lists. When the loss hit, it was like Bon Iver says: "at once I knew, I was not significant." This was about them.
The core of the campaign volunteers assembled in Scott and Heidi's backyard for our own campfire as the results for the six Republican recalls started coming in. We needed three to take back the state senate and symbolically (if not actually) "win" the day. We hoped for at least four and some of the biggest dreamers thought maybe five or six. I shared the optimism for the minimum of three seats, held no perspective on our race until the results started coming in. It soon became obvious we would suffer a blowout defeat, yet we held hope that Wisconsinites of three other districts would replace their Republican senators with Democratic challengers. Another teacher, Jarrod, dutifully watched the statewide results come in on a laptop while everyone attempted to stay in good spirits. I sulked. We won only two of the races, delivering a crushing blow not just to the Wisconsin Democratic Party and the labor unions, but to the 64 year old retired teacher for the first time in her life became politically active - canvassing every single day, multiple shifts, during GOTV. These people had worked too hard to see their efforts fail.
Fast forward to last night when Scott Walker magnified the calamity of August 9th, 2011 by defeating Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in a rematch of the 2010 election. I shouldn't just say "Scott Walker" alone because had a lot of help: an estimated $15 trillion dollars (the entire US debt) from the Koch Brothers, the national GOP, and other rich people who hate unions and love budget priorities that explicitly favor the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. Since I wasn't on the ground, I never had to disabuse myself of the common wisdom that Walker would indeed win in a close race as all the polls predicted. It also means I can't deliver any specific insights as to why it happened. The progressive campaigns have to email their lists today talking about how close we came, the disgusting amount of money that can influence elections now and the pyrrhic victory of finally taking the state senate. All true, but I prefer the analysis of Charles Pierce, who's been covering Walker extensively over the last year and a half and speaks in a voice I could only hope to one day mimic:
The people of the winning electorate last night have a Wisconsin in their minds and hearts that is radically different from the Wisconsin that exists in history, that great catch-basin for all the dissidents and political bounders who fled Germany and Scandinavia and the revolutions of the mid-19th century, only to come to Wisconsin and organize the mills and the factories, or become prairie populists who raised hell with the railroad bosses and the timber barons, the people who thought Fightin' Bob LaFollette should have been president of the United States, until, of course, he resisted the entry of the United States into World War I. Then a lot of them drew cartoons of LaFollette wearing an Iron Cross, or suggested, quite seriously, that he be hanged. The political emotions in Wisconsin have always ranged freely and very close to the surface; this state elected two LaFollettes, and the second one, Fightin' Bob's kid, lost a primary to Joe McCarthy. The political emotions of Wisconsin are not easily controlled, but they can be channelled, and that's what happened here. The anger on the capitol lawn, which now seems a relic of a distant age, was overwhelmed by the emotions of people who felt as though the very ground had been stolen from beneath their feet. That I believe they're wrong is of no matter. The inescapable conclusion from last night's election results was that, with a big assist from the new dynamics of campaign finance, their view of Wisconsin won out. They got back again the Wisconsin they see in their minds.
My girlfriend and I were at a concert of an average indie pop band when Walker was declared victorious. After the polls closed the Twitter conversation about the race began to darken, mirroring that night around the campfire. When the race was called, I could not stand to enjoy the show any longer. Normally the concert experience of bands I like (or better, love) is what help sustains me through this sometimes painful existence. So we left - hoping the above average indie pop of tonight's Bon Iver will be a better experience. The subdued/atmospheric/bittersweet/serene feel of the music will certainly be a more appropriate backdrop to the aftermath of Scott Walker being allowed to terrorize the state of Wisconsin until at least 2015.
"Someway, baby, it's part of me, apart from me"
You're laying waste to Halloween
You fucked it friend, it's on it's head, it struck the street
You're in Milwaukee, off your feet
We probably can't extrapolate the Walker's victory to the rest of the country for November - we could easily see another Democratic wave or aftershocks of the 2010 GOP tsunami bringing us even closer to fascism and nuclear catastrophe. Or maybe even something in between! Whatever the future holds, what happened last night was truly heartbreaking. I wanted better for the state, better for the journalists who have to fight over a media narrative and most of all better for Scott, Heidi and the people who fought so hard to make right what the voters in 2010 made wrong. They are the ones who made my Wisconsin experience so rewarding even as we suffered the agony of defeat. Though the last chapter of the recall fight has been written, what gives me hope is what happened between these two losses. Scott, Heidi and the other core members of the New Richmond team used the resources and skills from the state senate campaign to elect two progressive school board members to office: allies in the never-ending fight over education and the budget. A small step, but today let's take what we can get.