Wisconsinites who have a taste for democracy are in for a treat this year, and they have Gov. Scott Walker to thank for it.
Walker’s attempt to strip state, county and municipal employees and teachers of their collective bargaining rights — while at the same time gutting public services and education and undermining local democracy — has stirred the most intense reaction Wisconsin has ever seen to a gubernatorial power grab.
The initial reaction has been in the streets, where citizens filled town, village and city squares across the state with hundreds of thousands of passionate yet mostly good-humored protesters. The crowds outside the Capitol grew and grew until in early March more than 150,000 welcomed home the 14 state senators who had left the state to try to block Walker’s bill.
The first political response came April 5, when almost 750,000 voters swept a previously unknown candidate, Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg, into close contention with Walker’s mentor, Supreme Court Justice David Prosser. Never before had a court candidate come from so far behind to a virtual tie — a result so close that it is now the subject of a state-sanctioned recount. On the same day, county executive races in three of the state’s largest counties (Milwaukee, Dane and Outagamie) pitted candidates who were supporters of the governor’s agenda against candidates who strongly opposed it. In each case, the opponents won.
Now comes the next political test, and it will be as remarkable as it is unprecedented. At least five Republican state senators who backed Walker’s assault on collective bargaining rights are now all but certain to face recall elections this summer. The number could rise to eight. At the same time, petitions have been filed to recall three Democratic senators. While serious questions have been raised about whether some of the signatures on those petitions were gathered deceitfully, at least some of these recalls are likely to proceed.
Thus, Wisconsin will experience an off-year election where legislative seats across the state are at stake. The Republicans who are being challenged represent districts that cover much of northwest Wisconsin, western Wisconsin, central Wisconsin, the Fox Valley and the Milwaukee suburbs. The targeted Democrats represent the far north, the Green Bay area and the Kenosha area. With these recalls, and special elections to fill vacant state Assembly seats in western and eastern Wisconsin, there are few parts of Wisconsin where voters won’t be voting in legislative elections.
And it doesn’t stop there. The Democratic recall drives in five Republican-friendly districts have yielded roughly 115,000 signatures. There are 33 state Senate districts. If the pattern were to hold statewide, that would yield roughly 760,000 signatures — probably considerably more when heavily Democratic areas such as Madison and Milwaukee are added to the mix.
The baseline number of signatures needed to recall Walker, in a process that can begin next January, is 540,208. Do the math and it becomes clear that, while 2011 is shaping up as a remarkable political year, 2012 could well be the year when Wisconsin shows the whole country what democracy looks like.