Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker pulled ahead of his Democratic challenger in the recall election scheduled for June 5, according to the Marquette Law School poll last week. It showed Walker beating the Democratic candidate, Mayor Tom Barrett of Milwaukee, by 7 points.
The entire recall saga has been a true circus with sit-ins and demonstrations in the state capitol and Democratic state senators fleeing the state and hiding out at the now infamous Clock Tower Resort in Rockford, Illinois. Evading their constitutional responsibilities, they aimed to deny their chamber a quorum and block a vote on Walker’s public labor union reforms.
Mayor Barrett won a contested primary beating organized labor’s candidate in a hotly contested race. This is his second try at defeating Governor Walker, to whom he previously lost two years ago.
Walker has mobilized donors nationally in what has become a signature battle over public labor unions and their long-standing control over state and local budgets distorted by overly generous, and unsustainable, pension and health care plans. His most controversial action was to roll back collective bargaining for public employees, a privilege which even federal workers do not have.
The inevitable firestorm in Madison, the state capitol, and a union-led petition drive led to this recall election costing the states millions of dollars.
Fortunately for Governor Walker, Wisconsin’s school districts and local governments have been experiencing the concrete benefits of his labors, e.g., reduced budget outlays and the avoidance of layoffs of teachers and other staff. This has resulted in pretty good karma for the Walker campaign in recent months. Cost savings also resulted due to liberation from a monopoly union insurance carrier with uncompetitive rates.
Over the course of this recall election, and understanding that the labor controversy was not a winner, at least with the dwindling number of undecided voters, the Democrats pivoted to the jobs issues. They saw an opportunity in a statistical downturn in job creation in the Badger state early on. However, even on that issue, newly released data indicate increased job creation and allowed Governor Walker to regain the offense.
Adding insult to Mayor Barrett’s injury, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, his hometown paper, endorsed Governor Walker.
“It’s time to end the bickering and get back to the business of the state,” opined the paper’s editorial. “We’ve had our differences with the governor, but he deserves a chance to complete his term. We recommended him in 2010. We see no reason to change that recommendation. We urge voters to support Walker in the June 5 recall election.”
A consequential development, and a telling indicator that public employee union members are either voting with their pocket books, or presenting symptoms of electoral fatalism, is “a dramatic drop in membership — by more than half for the second-biggest union” in the wake of reforms enacted by Governor Walker and his Republican state legislature, as reported by Douglas Belkin and Kris Maher in the Wall Street Journal.
A new law signed by Walker eliminated involuntary automatic dues collection by the state and resulted in declining membership for the state’s second-largest public-sector union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Membership “fell to 28,745 in February from 62,818 in March 2011” according to Belkin’s and Maher’s sources. The union declined to comment.
“Much of that decline came from Afscme Council 24, which represents Wisconsin state workers, whose membership plunged by two-thirds to 7,100 from 22,300 last year,” write Belkin and Maher.
Some may have dropped their membership because of their increased costs or contributions to health insurance and pensions necessitated by Walker’s reforms. These were designed to bring state employees more in line with private sector workers. At the very least, this attrition of dispirited or alienated members is evidence of serious trouble within the ranks of the public employee unions.
Given the polls, the cost savings for school districts and local governments, Walker’s awesome fundraising ability (over $30 million raised) and, now, this telling decline in public union membership, one may be forgiven the perception that the 2012 Wisconsin recall election may become labor’s Waterloo or at least its high water mark in the event they defeat Walker. But failure in high-tax, intermittently liberal Wisconsin, would be a huge blow to its old, preferred model of public finance.
Even liberal states such as Rhode Island, New Jersey and Michigan are now implementing labor and budgetary reforms. California and Illinois, on the other hand, unreformed and unrepentant, continue to slide into the abyss of high taxes, debt and bankruptcy.
It remains to be seen if a Walker victory will mean “lights out” for President Obama as claimed by the Republican National Committee, which might be guilty of hyperbole. But a win or even a narrow defeat would certainly present an opportunity for Mitt Romney to put another state in play in the Great Lakes region.