Last Saturday, when my mom and I drove into the valley where our ancestors settled more than a century and a half ago, we were greeted by a huge “Barrett -- June 5” sign.
Hand-painted with care, in Wisconsin red and white, and displayed in front of a farmhouse on the turn that leads into Wyoming Valley, it was a powerful reminder that June 5’s Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election has its roots in the rural regions and small towns of the state.
That’s where the progressive movement of a century ago took shape. This was the movement for which my great-grandfather and his friend John Blaine campaigned in Boscobel and Blue River, in Lone Rock and Spring Green and across the farm country of Grant, Lafayette, Richland and Iowa counties.
It is the progressive movement that gave Wisconsinites the power to hold elected officials to account with the recall. Robert M. La Follette spent the better part of two decades campaigning to add the recall power to the constitution, and he did so for a reason.
“The recall enables the people to dismiss from public service those representatives who dishonor their commissions by betraying the public interest,” argued La Follette.
There was an element of moralizing in what La Follette said, and that was what his rural backers wanted.
Elected officials weren’t supposed to campaign on one set of themes and govern on another. They weren’t supposed to “divide and conquer” the state. They weren’t supposed to collect $500,000 checks from billionaires, and gather most of their campaign money in other states. They weren’t supposed to have criminal defense funds.
Those were the sorts of abuses that the progressives of a century ago thought about when they campaigned to amend the constitution to allow for recall elections. They did not worry so much about high crimes and misdemeanors -- there were prosecutors and courts to deal with those issues. They worried about what La Follette referred to as “the money power, and the extremes to which crooked politicians might go to satisfy campaign contributors.”
“By the recall, a faithless public official may be retired without waiting for the evil to be fully consummated,” said La Follette.
In Thursday night’s debate, Walker said he wanted to rewrite the recall law in order to prevent accountability moments like the one he is facing. No surprise there. Walker has never understood or respected the progressive faith.
The progressives of a century ago placed their trust in the people of Wisconsin, extending to them a recall power sufficient to temper the excesses of the political careerists who would sell their state off to the highest bidder.
On Tuesday, that trust will be tested. Big money can buy a lot in politics, and Walker has the biggest money this state has ever seen. But in the small towns and the valleys where the progressive movement was born, they are keeping the faith that Wisconsin is still a righteous state. That Wisconsin is still America’s north star, the laboratory of democracy that might yet redeem the republic.