A protester targeting Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker: Matt Schilder/Flickr
It was Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's surprise assault on public-employee unions in 2011 that set in motion the statewide recall campaign to oust him from office. But don't expect Wisconsin's Democratic Party to make workers' rights a central focus in their quest to oust Walker.
In an interview, an official with the Democratic Party of Wisconsin downplayed the importance of the anti-union provisions in Walker's "budget repair" bill in the Democrats' broader recall strategy. "Collective bargaining is not moving people," says Graeme Zielinski, a Democratic Party spokesman. And in the party's new strategy memo (PDF) for defeating Walker, there's little mention of collective bargaining or organized labor in the Democrats' messaging plans.
Walker's controversial anti-union legislation, known as Act 10, curbed collective bargaining rights for most public employees and made it harder for unions to recertify and collect dues from their members. (A federal judge later ruled that the recertification and dues provisions weren't legal.) When Walker introduced the bill—"dropped the bomb," as he put it—and threatened to sic the National Guard on angry public workers, tens of thousands of protesters poured into the streets of Madison, the state capital; thousands more occupied the Capitol rotunda.
The most potent anti-Walker messages, the Dems' strategy memo explains, slam Walker for pushing policies harmful to the middle class, slashing education funding, and grabbing power via a secretive redistricting process. What's more, Zielinski continues, Democrats' anti-Walker strategy will center on two key issues: the secret "John Doe" investigation targeting Walker aides and what Democrats calls Walker's "war on women."
As Mother Jones has reported, the John Doe probe, led by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, is a 23-month investigation that has so far resulted in criminal charges for more than a half-dozen people connected to Walker when he served as executive of Milwaukee County from 2002 to 2010. Prosecutors allege that Walker staffers planned fundraisers, edited press releases, and did other political work for Walker's 2010 gubernatorial campaign while on the county clock. Prosecutors also discovered a secret email network in the Milwaukee County executive's office allegedly used to do political work.
In February, the state Democratic Party launched the website WalkerInvestigation.com to highlight the John Doe probe and raise money off of it. The site features a photo of Walker with "Ringleader?" written next to it. However, Walker has not yet been directly implicated. He insists he hasn't done anything wrong and isn't a focus of the probe.
Zielinski also said Democrats would hit Walker for a raft of bills that would disproportionately impact women in Wisconsin. They include legislation on restrict pay equity, put "abstinence only" sex education class back into schools, and block insurance companies in Wisconsin's health care exchanges under President Obama's Affordable Care Act from being able to cover abortions. Zielinski also pointed out Walker's silence on a recent bombing at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Grand Chute, Wisconsin.
"Scott Walker didn't have the balls to come out and comment on a bombing at a Planned Parenthood clinic he tried to close," Zielinski said. "The gender gap is something we can exploit." (The Walker campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)
Charles Franklin, a visiting public policy professor at the Marquette University Law School, says the Democrats' decision not to zero in on bargaining rights mirrors their strategy in Wisconsin's 2011 state Senate recalls. Then, Democrats hammered Walker for cutting $800 million* in public school funding and for deceiving the public about his agenda before he won his 2010 gubernatorial race. "The reason we're doing this whole recall thing is certainly the whole bargaining issue," Franklin says. "But I think it's plausible that voters are pretty well set on their opinion of bargaining. You're not going to move opinions on that."
Wisconsin Democrats aren't totally abandoning the issues of bargaining or labor rights in the recall fight. Zielinski says they'll highlight how Walker campaigned on working with unions to help tackle the state's short-term $137 million budget deficit, only to surprise them a month into his first term by taking aim at bargaining rights and the political power of unions in Wisconsin. But the focus will be on Walker, not labor rights. "The most effective anti-Walker message," the party's strategy memo says, "focuses on the fundamental fact that he lied to the people of Wisconsin about what he would do as governor."
* This sentence was corrected to reflect that public education cuts were $800 million, not $800 billion. Return to the story.