Madison, Wis. – Hundreds of protesters continue to occupy the capitol, and 14 Democratic state senators remain roosted in Illinois, stalling consideration of his budget-repair bill. But Gov. Scott Walker, a first-term Republican, tells National Review Online that he will not blink. “By the end of this week, we will have a bill passed,” he pledges.
Walker is confident that he can pressure the on-the-run politicians to return and secure passage of his plan, which would drastically reduce the collective-bargaining power of public-sector unions and force state employees to put 5.8 percent of their salaries toward their pensions and pay 12.6 percent of their health-care premiums.
“We are looking at legal options to compel the senators to come back,” Walker says. “They have no endgame. They don’t know what they are doing. They got caught up in the hysteria and decided to run, but that’s not how this works. You have got to be in the arena.”
Bringing up hot-button legislation while the Democrats are gone is another arrow in Walker’s quiver. Though the Wisconsin constitution requires three-fifths of the senate to be present to pass fiscal legislation, a simple majority of 17 members constitutes a quorum for other bills in the 33-seat state senate. So the 19 GOP senators who remain in Madison can pass any number of bills while their Democratic colleagues are on the lam, and Republicans are a majority in the assembly, too. “They can hold off, but there is a whole legislative agenda that Republicans in the senate and assembly can start acting on that only requires simple majorities,” Walker warns.“If they want to do their jobs, and have a say, they better show up.”
Non-spending bills and government appointments could see action early Tuesday. Walker says he will not yield as the standoff unfolds, especially since Wisconsin is facing a projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall over the next two years.
Noisy crowds of union sympathizers won’t dissuade Walker from using his bully pulpit if Democrats continue to avoid a vote. “Constituents should contact these senators,” he says. “Beyond the people who support my position, there are plenty of people in this state who may be up in the air about this bill, but firmly believe that their senators’ not showing up for work does not cut it.”
Over the past week, Walker’s crusade has stirred intense national interest. Activists of all political stripes have flocked to Madison. Washington politicos are abuzz, comparing Walker’s blunt budget fight to that of New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who became a hero to conservatives last year after he tangled with state Democrats over spending. Others have compared his showdown to Ronald Reagan’s tangle with federal air-traffic controllers. Walker does not talk up the comparisons, but he acknowledges the overlaps.
The national spotlight has not fazed him. In an interview Sunday, Walker, the 43-year-old son of a Baptist preacher, was calm and easygoing, brushing off the heated, often personal, comments from protesters as political theater. A handful of protesters have likened Walker to Adolf Hitler and Darth Vader, among other villains. “Any time you challenge the status quo, any time you are bold, you are going to get a big reaction,” he chuckles.
But Walker is dead serious about his bill. He argues that the recession has hit every nook of the state, from Kenosha to Superior, so citizens are aware of the stakes. While the state’s unemployment rate is lower than the national average, Wisconsin is not in a position to avoid hard choices, he says. With the state “broke,” he sees his budget fix as the best way to balance the books, even if it makes the unions scream.
Republicans are confident that they have the votes to pass the plan. At a Saturday press conference, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald told reporters that GOP state senators continue to back the proposed reforms, in spite of the masses surrounding the capitol. “We are rock solid,” he said.
Saturday saw nearly 70,000 demonstrators thronging downtown Madison. Thousands of red-faced union supporters — vocal University of Wisconsin undergraduates, gray-haired activists, teachers, and hordes of state employees — crowded inside the capitol, draping homemade banners and multicolored posters under the rotunda.
The capitol’s marble halls, where legislators usually roam, were chock-a-block with protesters in sleeping bags and progressives chomping down donated slices from a local shop. Some beat on makeshift drums, others simply sprawled out, using their winter coats as blankets, rooting and chanting as the afternoon drifted into the evening.
Street confrontations between the pro-Walker and anti-Walker forces were numerous, but it was a war of words: Madison police did not make a single arrest.
Saturday also saw members of the Tea Party come out in strong numbers. Tea Party Patriots and Americans for Prosperity helped organize a robust rally beneath the capitol columns, where prominent conservatives such as publisher Andrew Breitbart, author Brad Thor, and presidential candidate Herman Cain spoke. So did “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher, the man who gained fame in 2008 for questioning then-candidate Obama about his economic policies.
“This is the battle of our times,” Breitbart said to cheers. “This is history. We are going to let the American people know, in every single state, that we have every governor and every legislator’s back.” America, he exhorted, would be “community-organized no more.”
At the rally, Gadsden flags and Old Glory clashed with union banners under a clear blue sky. Vicki McKenna, a Madison-area talk-show host, led the assembled in a rousing rendition of the Pledge of Allegiance before the speakers began. Signs cheered on Walker: “Stop leeching, start teaching!” read one; “Walker 2012” read another. The most popular were variations on this theme: “I went to work yesterday.” The two biggest chants were “pass the bill!” and “enough is enough!”
Walker appreciates the Tea Party showing, but is even more invigorated by the thumbs-up he is getting from Wisconsinites. “We are hearing from the vast majority who supports this bill,” he says. “I received 19,000 e-mails on Friday alone from people who could not afford to skip out of work but wanted us to know that they’re behind this. The calls, the e-mails, the texts — the message from them is that they want leadership.”
Saturday’s showdown was preceded by a busy Friday in Capitol Square. Rev. Jesse Jackson appeared, rocking and swaying with demonstrators, who sang “We Shall Overcome” and a medley of labor-friendly tunes in unison. Richard Trumka, the president of the national AFL-CIO, also took a bullhorn into the belly of the capitol.
Even President Obama waded into the unfolding drama late last week when he called Walker’s efforts an “assault on unions.” Over the weekend, Madison saw scores of Obama supporters join the sign-toting parades. Some were associated with Organizing for America, an outfit that comprises former Obama campaign workers.
Walker tells NRO that Obama should butt out. “The president of the United States should worry more about balancing the federal budget, which he certainly isn’t doing right now,” he says. “Whether it’s him, or these national political leaders busing people in, we are not going to be intimidated by people from outside the state of Wisconsin.”
“The other day the president rattled off a number of people not even included in the bill. He doesn’t have the facts right,” Walker scolds. “The president is wrong: Workers will be protected and this is the right thing to do.” House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, for one, agrees. He issued a statement last week chiding the president for being associated with “Greece-like protests.”
By late Sunday, as snow dusted the capitol dome, the protests quieted down, if but for a moment. Ice and slush glazed Madison roads. Lingering protesters huddled inside the capitol. The grand square, once packed, was barren. Cardboard signs soaked up water in street-side trash cans. Most college students returned to campus; others powered up laptops at Steep & Brew Coffee on State Street, racing to finish papers.
More protests are expected Monday, regardless of the frigid weather. Rallies are planned for midday and the late afternoon, with high-profile music personalities slated to attend. Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, an alternative-rock band, will perform, among others.
The real drama this week, however, could occur miles from Madison. Thousands of teachers plan to call in sick on Tuesday, when classrooms reopen after the long holiday weekend. This will likely force numerous school closures across Wisconsin’s 424 districts.
For parents and students, such inconveniences are quickly becoming the norm: School shutdowns hit the state hard late last week, when countless teachers joined the Madison protests. Wisconsin state law prevents teachers from striking, but many relied on phony diagnoses of illness from union-friendly physicians. Doctors in white coats dotted Saturday’s festivities, and many openly offered to jot down their signature on “sick notes” for educators.
Still, Mary Bell, the president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council (the state affiliate of the National Education Association), told reporters Sunday that she hopes teachers will show up to work Monday if their school is not off for Presidents’ Day. “It is time for educators to be back in the classroom with the students,” she said, while simultaneously urging teachers to show up in Madison if their school is closed.
“[Teachers] will see incredible backlash,” Walker predicts. “They have gotten a lot of parents upset. Parents who may have been open to their argument realize that it’s not about the children [for the teachers’ union].”
Meanwhile, on the political front, things continue to boil as Walker stands his ground. State senator Jon Erpenbach, a leading lefty spokesman for the escaped legislators, told the Wisconsin State Journal that his merry band will not return unless Walker blinks. He urged the governor to accept the offer from the unions, which would see public employees contribute more to their benefits but retain their collective-bargaining rights.
“How long we stay out is totally up to the governor,” Erpenbach says from his Chicago hotel room. “There is a very serious offer on the table. If he says no to that, then that means his intent from the very beginning was to bust the public unions in Wisconsin.”
Walker, of course, will not budge. He calls the union’s so-called compromise a “red herring” and will not be influenced by activists on the capitol lawn.
“These tens of thousands of protesters have every right to be heard,” he tells us. “But there are 5.5 million people in this state, and those taxpayers also have a right to be heard. I, for one, am not going to let the protesters overshadow, or shout out, the interest of the state’s taxpayers. And I believe that they are with us in trying to balance this budget.”
Indeed, Walker sees his brawl with union bosses as an important testing ground for other governors grappling with in-the-red budgets. “I was talking to former governor Tommy Thompson about this the other day,” he says. “Wisconsin set the table back in the Nineties on welfare reform. We were a leader there and we were a leader on education reform. Now we are talking about budgetary and fiscal reform. Wisconsin, in many cases, sets the pace.”
So does Scott Walker.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.