More on Wisconsin (skip if this bores you)

by Harry on February 20, 2011

Today’s protests were the largest yet — the police estimate was 70,000. Not a single arrest. Tea Party people turned up in… well, force would be too strong a word — 500 maybe — and looked, to be honest, a bit bewildered. I did wonder for a moment whether WEAC had paid a bunch of out-of-work actors to make the tea party look stupid and lift our spirits, but, no, I think they were genuine and doing it themselves. Only 2 doors of the Capitol were open (the others were clear for emergency vehicles, which I was a bit alarmed hadn’t already been done yesterday). I’ve no sense of the numbers, but there are 5000 in the Capitol at any given time, and a march of protesters about 15-20 people wide and pretty densely packed is surrounding the building walking round the square.

State Street was completely packed for several blocks too. The mood was pretty jovial and optimistic (but it is not clear what that optimism is grounded in). There’s no new news today, but yesterday AFSCME and WEAC offered to accept the benefit cuts in return for the removal of the union busting provisions and Walker dismissed it out of hand, making vivid what this is all about. The Senators are still in Illinois (but some seem to have migrated somewhere more palatable than Rockford and who can blame them. My guess is that the winter storm coming tomorrow will make for a quiet day. Insofar as I can judge the mood, my sense is that teachers in Madison want to return to work Monday (there’s a mass union meeting at 2 on Sunday to decide this) and to get the Assembly Democrats to ensure that no real legislative action happens before 4.30 when large scale action can begin. Fuller coverage in the Journal Sentinel.

For those who have asked: at present not a single Democrat is wavering, and it looks unlikely that any will. There were initial worries in the Assembly, but the causus solidified pretty fast, and will almost certainly hold. People have, rightly, given them a lot of credit.

A word about the police. I’ve been brutally beaten and arrested by cops on two continents during activities in support of strikes, and have been at many, many more demonstrations and protests of this scale or larger, though not for a long time (if you watch the video, I was much fatter then, and have no memory at all of the red baseball cap I seem to have had on prior to the arrest). Bad things are always possible. But in my experience usually (as in both my cases) violence depends on incompetent or ill-willed policing (or, more rarely, the determination of agent-provocateurs or irresponsible buggers to provoke it). Often, there is considerable tension between the police and demonstrators especially when (as this week) neither side was really ready for what was going to happen. These protests have been good-natured and fun, but still it is striking how good the policing has been — a lot of cops visibly present, but low key and friendly, determined not to play any role in raising the temperature. All the more remarkable for the fact that neither the protesters (with a few exceptions) nor the cops (with even fewer) have experienced things like this before, and still weren’t anticipating anything like it 4 days ago. Several lefties of my acquaintance (including myself) have made a point of friendly contact with cops, and simply telling them how impressive it has been.

Rallies are scheduled tomorrow, but a major winter storm may make them less impressive than they’ve been. The Assembly reconvenes on Tuesday and my guess is that 5 pm first on Monday, then on Tuesday. will be the gathering times for major action. Unfortunately I’ll be out of town on Monday, but will get my family to fill me in if you want further reports.



Bill Gardner 02.20.11 at 5:40 am

Great column by Gail Collins.

In Wisconsin, the new Republican governor, Scott Walker, wants to strip state employees of their collective-bargaining rights because: “We’re broke. We’ve been broke in this state for years.” Wisconsin’s Democratic state senators went into hiding to deprive the Republican majority of the quorum they need to pass Walker’s agenda. The Senate majority leader, Scott Fitzgerald — who happens to be the brother of the Assembly speaker, Jeff Fitzgerald — believes the governor is absolutely right about the need for draconian measures to cut spending in this crisis. So he’s been sending state troopers out to look for the missing Democrats. The troopers are under the direction of the new chief of the state patrol, Stephen Fitzgerald. He is the 68-year-old father of Jeff and Scott and was appointed to the $105,678 post this month by Governor Walker. Perhaps the speaker’s/majority leader’s father was a super choice, and the fact that he was suddenly at liberty after having recently lost an election for county sheriff was simply a coincidence that allowed the governor to recruit the best possible person for the job. You’d still think that if things are so dire in Wisconsin, the Fitzgerald clan would want to set a better austerity example.

The issue here is serious, but somehow this struck me as hilarious. There is a sort of Gilbert and Sullivan quality to state-level politics in the US.


Nur al-Cubicle 02.20.11 at 5:53 am

Où sont les Bob La Follette* d’antan, because you betcha, y les neiges are a-comin’.


Eric Beck 02.20.11 at 6:03 am

Please do keep us posted on what happens Monday! The MSM is getting better at covering this, but it’s helpful to have the story from eyes and ears on the ground.


Christopher Phelps 02.20.11 at 6:58 am

Harry, magnificent pictures. Too much national coverage still projects this as about “austerity” when the union-Dem stance and Walker’s response has now clearly made it solely about collective bargaining rights. Is this understood clearly in Wisconsin?

Straight back to the Gilded Age. Next they’ll repeal the Wagner Act, though that may be superfluous since in the epoch of replacement workers it means nothing anyway.

Pessimism of the intellect suggests it is unlikely that the big vote on Tuesday will go the right way, but last night I received a letter from Rep. Hulsey, who says the following are the legislators who especially now need contacting (readers living in Wisconsin or knowing Wisconsin voters, get off the sofa, please):

Contact friends, relatives, and supporters of collective bargaining rights around the state, and urge them to contact their Republican representatives. If you know anyone in Appleton or Neenah (Senator Ellis), the LaCrosse area (Senator Kapanke), the Hudson area (Senator Harsdorf), the Ripon area (Senator Olsen), Waupun or Beaver Dam (Senate Majority Leader Fitzgerald), Platteville or Dodgeville (Senator Schultz), Sheboygan or Manitowoc (Senator Leibham), the Green Bay area (Senator Cowles), Fond du Lac or Oshkosh (Senator Hopper), communication from the constituents of these Senators would be especially helpful. You can find contact information on the Legislature’s website at


Christopher Phelps 02.20.11 at 7:00 am

PS I did read that three of the Republican Senators were elected by only 51 percent of voters. I’m not sure who they are but they are the ones who might tip if they heard from enough voters.


Myles 02.20.11 at 7:37 am

PS I did read that three of the Republican Senators were elected by only 51 percent of voters. I’m not sure who they are but they are the ones who might tip if they heard from enough voters.

Were there third-party candidates? Because I thought elections in the U.S. were mostly by plurality, rather than majority?


Christopher Phelps 02.20.11 at 8:28 am

These are Wisconsin state Senators, not national-level. I doubt third-party candidates were much of a factor.

The main point is that if they were elected by such very slender majorities they are the most likely to be trying to gauge constituent sentiment and are less likely to follow the governor purely out of shared party ties alone, especially if they think it is a suicide mission. The marginal districts are the ones where votes might be plucked away, which is the main conceivable advantage that the time bought by the momentum from below has bought.


Christopher Phelps 02.20.11 at 8:36 am

Or put it this way: Gov. Walker cannot back down, but individual Senators in swing districts that went Democratic last time around are under no obligation, necessarily, to follow him. That’s why emails right now may have an effect, especially from constituent voters from within the district.


Myles 02.20.11 at 8:37 am

The marginal districts are the ones where votes might be plucked away, which is the main conceivable advantage that the time bought by the momentum from below has bought.

The marginal districts might not be very responsive to the momentum or whatever in any case, because if they were that responsive to public-sector employees they wouldn’t have been marginals taken by Republicans.


Myles 02.20.11 at 8:40 am

Or put it this way: Gov. Walker cannot back down, but individual Senators in swing districts that went Democratic last time around are under no obligation, necessarily, to follow him. That’s why emails right now may have an effect, especially from constituent voters from within the district.

I find it extremely doubtful that the people who pushed the marginal Republican state senators over the edge, as it were, would be very responsive to public-sector employee persuasion. If anything, they might want to maximize base turnout by sticking it to the unions, because they know whatever they do, by virtue of being Republican their goose is already cooked in that regard.


Christopher Phelps 02.20.11 at 8:42 am

That might be true in ordinary circumstances, but the 2010 election was a sweep for the Republicans based on demoralization of the left and an energized right in the context of a severe economic crisis. The swing districts are the very ones most likely to go back to being Democratic when the recovery kicks in and the Senators probably know it quite well. If pols in those districts want to be re-elected they’ve got to be seen as representing everyone. Therfore they are most likely to be the ones to say, I was for cutting the budget and making public workers sacrifice, but I thought workers should have the right to collectively bargain. The compromise offered by the unions is right up the alley of such pols. Of course some of them, given the nature of the Republican Party, may be ideologues willing to slash and burn regardless of constituent interests. But voter mail can make a real difference right now, conceivably, for some.


Myles 02.20.11 at 8:45 am

(I think it is perfectly obvious to anyone answering emails or phone calls that the sort of people who are motivated enough to contact their GOP state senator about this precisely the people who would never have voted Republican in the first place. If there are Republican voters who are persuaded by the public employees’ action, they are much more likely to be ambivalent than expressive.)

Of course, we are talking about state-level Republican politicians here, so logical analysis might not be a perfectly developed faculty.


R.Mutt 02.20.11 at 11:34 am


Christopher Phelps 02.20.11 at 1:13 pm

Myles, I am a Midwest boy by origin–my uncle lives in Wisconsin, actually–and recently had 10 years in an Ohio county that goes 70 percent Republican normally, so I can attest that you are not appreciating the magnitude of contradictory consciousness out there in the white working class. You are assuming that a Republican voter is one thing and a public worker another, but this is just not true. One can be a firefighter and Reagan Democrat who has voted Republican since 1984, who will be really pissed about the Wisconsin governor’s decision to strip you of collective bargaining rights. Or a garbage worker. Or an evangelical third-grade teacher. Or a clerk at the DMV. There are going to be plenty of people of this kind of profile who voted for these Senators in these localities who are going to be steamed about this aspect of the budget–conservative union members whose families depend on their bread and butter. My sense is that the union leaders trying to buy themselves time with this week of action are mostly doing so to give themselves time to get to reach their members in these precise districts and get them active. Here’s another thing about state Senate offices: Every time you hear from someone cranky, you assume there are 10 people who feel the same way but didn’t bother calling.


Christopher Phelps 02.20.11 at 1:34 pm

PS Here, for whatever it’s worth, was my attempt to sum up the kind of locality we are talking about:


Mark 02.20.11 at 2:11 pm

Just to follow up on Christopher’s point, I have the dubious honor of living in a district where I am represented by both Fitzgerald brothers (Scott in the Senate and Jeff in the Assembly.) The area is a mixture of rural agricultural land and small towns which are for the most part built around manufacturing industries almost all of which have unions (I believe I’m right in saying that the John Deere plant in Horicon is the largest single employer in the district.)
Through our jobs my wife and I both come into contact with a lot of people from the area and our anecdotal evidence suggest that Christopher is right on this. Electorally this is a consistently Republican area (hence the basis for the Fitzgerald family political machine.) McCain won here in 2008 and Walker won big in 2010. Having said that there seems to be real misgivings about this among many of my neighbors. I think the union offer on Thursday reflects that majority opinion of this area as far as I can gauge it – that is, accept the cuts in benefits but not the anti-collective bargaining provision. We’re hearing a lot of vocal opposition to union-busting tactics.
These are the people the media likes to call Reagan Republicans – they are working class, union members who have supported Republican candidates over the last 20-30 years. It will be interesting to see if this is a step too far by Walker which begins to unravel the Republican coalition which they’ve built up over recent years.


Mike Otsuka 02.20.11 at 3:56 pm

Regarding the Youtube video to which Harry links: If I’m not mistaken, the footage is from June 15, 1990. This is how violent the LAPD were when they knew they were being filmed. Nine months later, when the beating of Rodney King was caught on amateur video, we all learned how sadistically they wielded the same batons when they didn’t know they were being filmed.


Paul K. 02.20.11 at 4:22 pm

The article in the New York Times this morning is pretty pathetic ( “The demonstrations have been more organized than organic…” Of course there has been some organizing, but you don’t get tens of thousands of people day-in and day-out without tremendous bottom-up enthusiasm of the sort Harry mentioned a couple of days ago. In light of that, I don’t know what it means to say that it’s been “more” organized than organic.

The article also reports that “At times, the two sides seemed to talk past each other. The governor’s supporters said state workers needed to accept increases in their pension and health care costs, just as other Americans have.” It then immediately goes on accurately to report that Union folks have said they’ll accept the pension/benefits cuts in order to protect collective bargaining. So what is said to be two sides talking past each other is really just misinformation on the part of Tea Partiers. Thanks for calling ’em like you you see ’em, NYT!


Russell L. Carter 02.20.11 at 4:30 pm

Give ’em hell, Harry!

I am so hoping we get this stuff going in AZ.


Harry 02.20.11 at 4:40 pm

As they were beating the hell out of me, Mike (mainly, though, aiming for the woman next to me who was a union organiser and spoke spanish, so I made sure I was in the way since i) she was actually useful and ii) the organizers had specifically asked me to come to the front because I was the only english-speaker there with experience) I kept telling them there were cameras everywhere, and that they would lose their jobs, etc. Mark you, it did put one slur to rest about the LAPD — they don’t restrict their brutality to blacks and hispanics, white folk are fair game too.


Mike Otsuka 02.20.11 at 5:19 pm

Incredibly brave, Harry, to try to shield her while the batons were flying. Is the woman you’re referring to the grey-haired woman at around 3:10 min, right after some of the other protesters try to pull you to safety?

These excerpts from the Warren Christopher Commission Report in the wake of the King beating probably shed light on why the policemen weren’t too worried about losing their jobs:

“There is a significant number of officers in the LAPD who repetitively use excessive force against the public and persistently ignore the written guidelines of the department regarding force.”

“The failure to control these officers is a management issue that is at the heart of the problem. …The Department not only failed to deal with the problem group of officers but it often rewarded them with positive evaluations and promotions.”

“Ugly incidents will not diminish until ranking officers know they will be held responsible for what happens in their sector, whether or not they personally participate.”


cyn 02.20.11 at 5:33 pm


You are being silly. While it is likely true that the people who actually call and write their reps weren’t going to vote Republican anyway, it does not follow that the only people who are going to be pissed off about this – and who thus decide to turn out for Democrats in the next election – are people who always vote, and always vote for Democrats.


christian_h 02.20.11 at 5:55 pm

Paul K., at least the NYT didn’t write that union supporters were “bussed in. ” But yeah their reporting is stuck in the usual he said – she said mode of “balance”.


joe koss 02.21.11 at 3:09 am

I’d actually be much more interested in how the local media is covering it, throughout the state the public perception of this coverage.

Wisconsin residents get their news predominately from local and regional newspapers and the local news channels. There are still many regional and local newspapers, but much less than before and most I would venture have downsized considerably the past decade. How many of these newspapers have ‘reporters on the ground?

The local news programming have probably even more influence — alas, the demise of reading the newspaper. Most families in Wisconsin I know watch the local 10 o’clock news with regularity — it is their main source of new coverage. It is almost certain most are watching now more than ever before (the ratings I am sure are somewhere on the web). What has their coverage been like?

I am just now starting to see some local news channel clips pop up on facebook from the political stunt Republicans tried to pull Friday night.

Wisconsinites are not lazy political observers. You will here political talk in every tavern, at fishing hole, after Sunday mass, and during lunch breaks. Although I think many love to give Fox News, or MSNBC credit where no credit is due, and even in this hyper digital age, it has never been my perception that the many people from many different walks of life I have interacted with watch with any regularity these cable “news” programs, or twitter/ facebook/ etc. Maybe they are now, but I doubt it for some reason.

If the middle is to win out on this, if three Senate Republicans are to be found, and a compromise is to be reached, there may be believe to believe it will mainly be because of local news coverage doing very good reporting — not liberal or conservative reporting, but the kind of reporting that we seem to have forgotten is probably the most important in the US: plain Jane, non-sensational, local, reporting. You know, the kind your parents had.


Christopher Phelps 02.21.11 at 8:11 am

A hopeful bit from this morning’s NYT:

“As the protests went on through falling sleet and snow, some lawmakers suggested that a compromise might yet be possible over the cuts that Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, has proposed. A spokesman for Dale Schultz, a moderate Republican senator, said that Mr. Schultz supported Mr. Walker, particularly in his assessment that the state budget situation was dire, but that Mr. Schultz also hoped to work to preserve collective bargaining rights.”


joe koss 02.21.11 at 3:47 pm

WSJ is reporting a possible compromise being floated by the former Republican Senate Majority leader.

Also, the Wisconsin State Journal came out yesterday with an op-ed supporing the compromise.

I doubt it will be found acceptable to union leadership — it would be quite easy to revoke the “sunset” provision in two years time if Republicans continue to hold majorities in the legislature.


joe koss 02.21.11 at 5:22 pm


Alan White 02.21.11 at 11:30 pm


What a shock! After all we’re talking about “Walker: Taxes Ranger”, who sees himself as the Chuck Norris of the TeaPublicans. And with all the comparable talent in his respective vocation.


kathy 02.22.11 at 5:54 am

as if!


Adam Streed 02.22.11 at 9:32 am

I’d actually be much more interested in how the local media is covering it, throughout the state the public perception of this coverage.

I was just at home in WI over the weekend, and got a few hours of local news in. Every story I saw about the protest mentioned collective bargaining rights as a major point of contention, although not the only one. Once the news of the Tea Partiers’ counterprotest broke, that got some coverage, too, and the news stations got some sound bites from protesters and counterprotesters alike. On Saturday night, at least one station had a clip of Walker reacting to the unions’ proposal to accept cuts but retain bargaining rights—he said something vague about collective bargaining obstructing local governments’ ability to balance their budgets.

There were also two ads in pretty heavy rotation. One (which I can’t seem to find on youtube) was funded by the Wisconsin Club for Growth, and painted public workers as having gotten away with fat paychecks and health benefits while everyone else in WI made tough sacrifices. The other was funded by the AFL-CIO, and specifically mentioned Walker’s effort to strip bargaining rights.

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