Even those who barely follow politics couldn't avoid seeing Wisconsin constantly in the news last year. It started with Governor Scott Walker's much-needed Budget Repair Bill, which curbed bargaining rights for many public-sector employees. A state Supreme Court race (considered a referendum on Walker's bill) and state Senate recall elections followed. But despite tens of millions of dollars and hours of drum beating (literally-by protesters), the public sector unions failed on all three counts to gain the upper hand in Wisconsin.
But give them credit for trying yet again in 2012, as it appears an actual recall of Gov. Walker will take place. The implications of that election reach far beyond Madison: If Walker loses, it will have a chilling effect on much-needed reform. Either other responsible governors and state legislatures will address the massive burden of public-sector salaries and pensions, or they won't. Wisconsin continues to be ground zero in the battle between the right and the left over the proper role and size of government.
Tim Dake, leader of the Wisconsin Tea Party group Grandsons of Liberty, is well acquainted with the excitement. His introduction to the Tea Party movement was actually somewhat humorous: "My wife and I attended the 2009 Tax Day protest in Madison, Wisconsin, fully expecting to get arrested—that was the first event in which we got involved. We attended a few more around Wisconsin after that but were surprised that none took place in Milwaukee," Tim told me. "We decided that as the state's largest city, Milwaukee needed to host an event, so in late July we got four people together and began planning for a Constitution Day rally. We drew between 10 and 15 thousand people to the lakefront in what is still the state's largest rally." But afterward, Tim realized that Wisconsin needed more than just sign-waving. "We were looking to create change and not just protest. That change means legislative and electoral change." So he helped organize a conference of likeminded groups that created a legislative agenda—a wish list that eventually grew to about three dozen items.
And then the drama hit. "We knew that the union fight would be messy. In anticipation of their dis-pleasure with Walker's agenda, we secured the permit for April's Tax Day in the week following the No-vember 2010 election. So we saw the reaction coming, but not the timing, with the union protests in February and March of 2011," Tim said. "As a group, Wisconsin Grandsons of Liberty worked with the other groups (and American Majority) statewide on the 'I Stand With Walker' rally." But that was just the start of the Tea Party's efforts. Within days, Tea Party leaders began collecting signatures to recall three Democratic state senators who abdicated their responsibilities and fled the state in hopes of denying Republicans a quorum. And it just kept going. "We set up a PAC to raise funds for the recalls of the Democrats. We ran radio and television ads for not just the recalls but also for GOTV [get out the vote] for the April elections. We worked on the recount for Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser," Tim said.
Despite a hectic 2011, the movement is not backing down in 2012. When the public sector unions claimed to have collected more than a million signatures to recall Walker (roughly twice the number needed to trigger a vote), Tim and others decided they weren't going to simply sit back and take it. "In response to the unions' and Democrats' efforts to derail the Walker agenda through the recalls, we created, in partnership with another Wisconsin group and a Texas group, the Verify the Recall online effort," Tim told me. "This project was created to provide citizens a method of participating in the recall process and to ensure clean elections.…We no longer trust government agencies to carry out their tasks without bias." Using the project's website, people working from their own homes can enter petition signatures into a database that checks their validity.
More than 12,000 people signed up to participate as of February. "Conservatives believe that protecting Walker translates into protecting the conservative agenda and movement," Tim said. "Lose Walker and his momentum, and the unions and socialism reign supreme; protect Walker, and treat it as a public mandate to forge ahead."
When I asked what he thought about the Tea Party movement, Tim said, "The movement is in a precarious transition state presently, nationally and in Wisconsin. It is under pressure from the GOP, the media and some national organizations. The GOP was both impressed with the ability of the Tea Party movement to exert pressure successfully in 2010, and it was concerned because of the choice of some candidates that were not in line with the GOP message and were therefore 'rogue,' and because of the ability of the movement to 'go its own way.'" He added, "Since the 2010 elections, two key developments have changed the relationship between the Tea Party and the GOP: attempts by local groups to 'take over' their county GOP chapters—either amicably or hostilely—and counter-attempts by the GOP to co-opt the local groups. A showdown is inevitable."
To make matters worse, as Tim relates, "Some national organizations have begun to exercise more influence over the local groups through funding, providing speakers and candidates, and through con-tractual efforts. Consolidation for the purpose of securing funding and electoral victories in 2012 is driving the competition between these organizations. The local groups are getting caught in the crossfire and being pushed to take a side."
Of course the national media is doing the movement no favors by all but cheering for its demise. "The media is looking for a guarantee from the Tea Party of the same electoral success as in 2010. If this is not promised, the media writes that the Tea Party is dying or is already dead. If the success is not delivered, then the same pronouncement will be made. This is causing some to think that their groups have to justify their existence by focusing on the elections," Tim said. "The lack of an acceptable conservative presidential candidate appears to be, in the eyes of the media, a reflection on the strength of the Tea Party and is therefore a failure of the Tea Party and yet another harbinger of the movement's demise. In Wisconsin, several groups, ours included, have written off the presidential race to focus on the all-important open U.S. Senate seat and the ongoing recall efforts."
Because of Tim and others like him, the Tea Party movement in Wisconsin is robust. It's moved from simply rallying, to doing legitimate political work that will bring real change. As more and more Tea Party leaders head in that direction, the movement will continue to evolve. But one thing is clear: Tea Parties will have an impact for years to come.