By Stanley Kutler
The tea-party-enabled Wisconsin Legislature is working overtime to protect its governor. On the same day that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that protests at military funerals are protected speech, two of the more benighted majority Republican state legislators offered their version of protected speech. They introduced a bill to prohibit telephone callers from lying about their identity as well as giving a false number, subject to a $10,000 fine. The Wisconsin legislators said that “while the use of spoofing is said to have some legitimate uses, it could also be used to frighten, harass and potentially defraud.”
The bill’s authors predictably insisted the proposal was unrelated to last week’s now-viral prank call to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in which the governor, believing he was talking to David Koch, the prominent moneyman for conservative causes, bragged about his unwillingness to budge in his stand against public employees. “I would be willing to sit down and talk to the [Democratic and Republican legislative] leaders. ... [T]alk, not negotiate,” he emphasized. The governor is not reticent about his anti-union credentials. He thanked “Koch”—“one of us”—for “all the support,” and added that “it’s all about getting our freedoms back.” There we have Scott Walker unplugged, defrocked just as the Wizard of Oz.
Walker also urged the “Koch” brother to urge other newly elected Republican governors to advance similar agendas for “our freedoms.” This is their moment. “You start down the list,” he said, and “there’s a lot of new governors that got elected to do something big.”
Elected “to do something big,” Walker said. How interesting. Are we now to believe that Walker campaigned in 2010 to destroy public employee unions; that he would have public employees contribute more to their pension and health insurance plans; that he would “take” $28 million from the Group Health Insurance fund, a $1.1 billion segregated fund used to pay state employees’ insurance premiums, in order to meet the state’s obligations for its share of insurance premiums through June 30; that he would privatize state-owned power and heating plants, without requiring public bidding; that he would launch a study to essentially privatize the state’s healthy pension plan? No, indeed—Walker simply never offered such fare as an electoral platform.
Nevertheless, there is his “Budget Repair Bill.” Wisconsin now more readily can understand why the governor took 144 pages of dense statutory language to do more than simply destroy public employee unions and to require such workers to contribute more to their pension and health plans. Walker’s “shell game” is merely the second chapter to follow his successful stealth electoral campaign.
Wisconsin could be the poster state for the Republican advertising and game plan in the 2010 elections. For more than a year voters confronted commercials and an enabling media informing them that they were “angry,” and that it was time for a political sea change. Angry about what? At the outset, “angry” had no clarity or focus; nevertheless, tell a lie often enough and eventually it will be believed. Thus, Wisconsin changed governors; overwhelmingly elected a conservative legislature, determined to undermine the state’s century-long tradition of progressivism; and defeated the most progressive U.S. senator, Russ Feingold. Enough of politicians, the voters seemed to say.
The unknown Republican senatorial candidate, Ron Johnson, offered two basic campaign platforms: First, he said, “America is in peril”—and right he was, but for all the wrong reasons; second, he urged voters to reject the incumbent, a “professional politician,” a “Washington insider” with controversial ties to lobbyists. None of which was remotely true. The winner soon will be seen in Mitch McConnell’s hip pocket, and, ironically, he promptly hired a prominent lobbyist, Don Kent, as his chief of staff. Wisconsin got “change.”
Republican gubernatorial candidate Walker was exactly the kind of career politician the electorate supposedly rejected in the senatorial race. Walker left Marquette University in his first year after he lost an election for class president. He promptly ran for the state Assembly, where he served a number of terms before becoming Milwaukee County executive. In other words, a lifetime spent in politics. But who would label voters as rational or consistent?
Walker told the “Koch” caller he was elected “to do something big,” and it is clear he intends to make further challenges to undermine Wisconsin’s more than century-long tradition of leadership in progressive public policies. He contends that Wisconsin’s pioneering civil service system—the “best” in the nation—makes public employee unions unnecessary. If so, then why does the governor now wish to alter that system? For starters, why does he propose new laws to discharge state employees and transfer career executive employees?
How things change. In 1967, Wisconsin Republicans controlled the Assembly, 53-47, and the state Senate, 21-12. Warren Knowles, a longtime Republican state politico, was governor. And this triumvirate granted state employees the right to bargain collectively. So much for current Republican charges that Democrats pander to unions.
The telephone call from the “Koch brother” was a prank, but the governor for certain was all too serious. Union-bashing and union-busting always have been high on Walker’s agenda, just as they have been for the Koch brothers. The Kochs have contributed substantially to his campaigns. Their front groups, such as Americans for Prosperity, have flooded state television stations with ads on his behalf, and they are sponsoring a statewide bus tour to bring out his supporters. Walker assuredly did not need encouragement for his anti-union posture, but Tim Phillips, who heads up one of the Koch front groups, told The New York Times that he had encouraged Walker to move against the public employee unions.
The brothers’ spokesmen insisted they are not in the market for the purchase of what promises to be newly emancipated and privatized state powered heating plants. Spokespeople do denials. (Like Mike Huckabee’s flack who said Huckabee “misspoke” when he claimed President Barack Obama had grown up in Kenya and had undergone Mau Mau indoctrinations.) Two weeks before the election, the Kochs’ state lobbyists opened a Madison office, and then recently increased their group from three to seven. As the governor gleefully said upon taking office, “Wisconsin is open for business.”
Wisconsin prides itself on its triumphal progressive tradition, but there are dark trails as well. Sen. Joseph McCarthy left a strong legacy for the denial of civil liberties. But more pertinent to the moment is the memorable Kohler strike, which lasted from 1946 until the early 1960s. For decades, labor strife had marred the idyllic town of Kohler and the adjoining community of Sheboygan, home to one of the world’s largest producers of plumbing supplies. Labor unrest accelerated during the Depression and World War II, and in 1946 the UAW won an election to represent the workers. When company President Herbert V. Kohler Sr. rejected the outcome, more than 2,800 of the company’s 3,300 employees joined the picket lines, but he insisted that “his” workers loved their company union.
As the strike continued, Kohler carried his anti-union views to like-minded audiences across the nation. “Who runs this country?” he asked. “That is the basic issue at Kohler. That is the potential question for all industry. We must meet this issue fighting.”
Fight he did until he succumbed to retirement and the rulings of the National Labor Relations Board. Surviving workers were reinstated and received $3 million in back pay and $1.5 million restored to their pension fund. His sons and heirs repudiated Kohler’s labor views, and today Kohler’s labor policies are among the most progressive in the nation. But make no mistake: The 1930s Kohler laid down the anti-union gospel, framing its dispute in terms of power, power not to be shared but to be imposed.
The Koch brothers have assumed that very mantle and that fight, and Walker is their willing, useful instrument. He has not crossed the Rubicon to some new land, as Charles Krauthammer has lamely argued; instead, Walker is solidly tethered to an old, tattered, repudiated page of his state’s history.
Stanley Kutler is the author of “The Wars of Watergate” and other writings.
AP / Morry Gash
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks at an inauguration ceremony at the Capitol in Madison in January.