Voters Give Government Unions a Whopping in Wisconsin

Published June 6, 2012

The intense political brawl that was the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election came to a quick and decisive end the evening of June 5 with sitting Governor Scott Walker (R) retaining his seat by a margin of seven points.

All in all it was an excellent night for fiscal conservatives, a dismal night for government unions, and a thorough repudiation of a recall effort that many political analysts viewed as a referendum on Scott Walker and his reform agenda.


Also surviving recall efforts by comfortable margins were Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch (R), Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), and Senator Terry Moulton (R- Chippewa Falls).

Jerry Petrowski (R-Marathon) handily defeated Democrat Donna Seidel for Republican Pam Galloway’s vacated seat in the 29th senate district. The race between Senator Van Wanggard (R-Racine) and former Democrat Senator John Lehman appeared to be too close to call. A recount appears likely.

Recall Without a Cause

Over the 16-month recall process, union-backed recall proponents repeatedly changed their rationale for the recall.

Originally they said it was a response to Act 10, Walker’s hallmark legislation that forced state government workers to contribute more to their pensions and health insurance, limited collective bargaining privileges, and ended automatic withdrawals of union dues from government workers’ paychecks. Then it was about Wisconsin losing jobs under Walker. Next was Walker’s “war on women.” Near the end it was about a John Doe investigation into potential wrongdoing among Walker’s previous staff.

None of these narratives bore the scrutiny of a highly engaged and well-informed electorate. Voter turnout was huge for a Wisconsin mid-term election: 57 percent of voting-age adults, the highest voter turnout in at least 60 years.

“The recall process has been a farce from the beginning,” said Brett Healy, president of the John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy in the Wisconsin state capital of Madison. “It’s the result of one very powerful special interest group having their spigot turned off.”

Dues Drying Up

That spigot was automatic dues payments from state government workers to government unions. Act 10 made dues payments voluntary. Thousands of government workers have stopped sending dues.

“The biggest part of the problem was removing the conduit of taxpayer money the teacher’s union and other public sector unions were stealing to fund all of their political activities,” said Steve Welcenbach, owner and editor of Reality News, a Wisconsin conservative grassroots periodical. “Act 10 did this.” 

Walker’s June 5 victory—as well as victories in previous surrogate Walker referenda in the form of a state supreme court election and senate recall elections in 2011—served to validate voter endorsement of Act 10 reforms.

“The symbolic importance of this is really important,” said Marquette University Associate Professor of Political Science John McAdams. “It shows that a chief executive can take on the unions and win. Public service employee unions can be beaten.”

McAdams said he didn’t think this dynamic would necessarily apply to other states or at the presidential level. “But clearly the nation would be a lot better off if other governors could do this.”

In less than a year, Act 10 reforms have, among other things, eliminated Wisconsin’s $3.6 billion deficit without raising taxes. The state has gained more than 23,000 jobs since the enactment of Act 10. Wisconsin’s unemployment rate has dropped to 6.8 percent, well below the national average of 8.2 percent. The state and local governments have realized more than $1 billion in savings for taxpayers. Layoffs of thousands of state workers have been prevented.

Alternative Media Messaging

Making sure voters were aware of these benefits in a less-than-friendly mainstream media environment was Wisconsin’s increasingly formidable conservative alternative news media.  

I think that conservative media has been terribly important for investigative journalism [Media Trackers], policy analysis [MacIver Institute] and especially encouraging conservative voters and activists [talk radio],” said McAdams.

“Factual issue knowledge is the enemy of the Left,” added Welcenbach. “Ultimately, for the Right to win long-term, this alternative media infrastructure must continue to develop and become the dominant means by which the population becomes informed on issues.”

Recall Over Policies
Recalls of state officials are governed by the Wisconsin constitution, which allows recalls upon the submission of signatures from 25 percent of the number of persons who voted in the last election for the office in question. No reason need be provided for such recalls, said Wisconsin resident Maureen Martin, senior fellow for legal affairs at The Heartland Institute.

“Walker was being recalled due to disagreement with his policies, not any misconduct,” Martin said. “The constitution ought to be amended to require official misconduct before a recall can take place.”

Chris Kliesmet disagreed. He is executive administrator of Citizens for Responsible Government Network, a Wisconsin fiscal conservatism advocacy group that has overseen numerous recall efforts.

“The people have the right to hire and fire at will for any reason they see fit,” said Kliesmet.  “And just who gets to decide what egregious conduct is? A judge? Perhaps some other partisan? No thanks! The process is fine as is. “

High Price for Do-Over

The cost of that process to taxpayers, however, is of concern to MacIver’s Healy.

“Election officials lacked the capacity and/or the will to properly vet the recall petitioning process,” Healy said. “It cost taxpayers in excess of $16 million to hold this election which ultimately was nothing more than a do-over of the 2010 election.”

“The Walker recall election was the greatest gift the Left has ever given the conservative movement,” said Welcenbach. “After Tuesday’s Walker victory, nothing will be left; the latest union numbers showing massive membership reduction foreshadow this inevitability. Once voter ID is upheld, the Left has no chance in Wisconsin for the foreseeable future.”

Brien Farley ([email protected]) writes from Genesee, Wisconsin.