Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Wisconsin Supreme Court election and why it matters

This is what democracy looks like.


204. Today, Joanne Kloppenburg defeated David Prosser in the Wisconsin Supreme Court election by 204 votes out of over 1.4 million ballots cast. While the number may seem small, and the Republican party will no doubt attempt to paint it as such in the coming days, it is, in proper context, staggering, and the implications are monumental. While there will likely be a recount, this election is the canary in the coal mine for the GOP.

Your run-of-the-mill state Supreme Court races get little to no attention. They attract little to no voter interest, draw little to no campaign funding, and receive little to no media coverage. Today's Wisconsin Supreme Court election, however was a historic, virtually unprecedented battle. This election received national attention and around the clock media coverage from the time results began filtering in yesterday evening until the final votes were tallied late this afternoon. Over 1.4 million voters turned out to cast their ballots, many waiting in lines for over 20 minutes before polls even opened at 7AM. Nearly $3.6 million was spent on the race.

Until a few weeks ago, Kloppenburg was an all-but-unknown Assistant State Attorney General. She barely hung on in the requisite general run-off election where she garnered a meager 25% of the vote. Prosser, her opponent, is a conservative three-term incumbent State Supreme Court Justice who had previously served as Speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly before being appointed to the court by former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson. Prosser won his last election with 99.54% of the vote. He received nearly every single vote.

Until a few weeks ago, Prosser was a shoe-in practically guaranteed to walk away with this election by another staggering margin of victory. But, a few weeks ago, Republican Governor Scott Walker changed all that. A few weeks ago, Governor Walker took on the unions and the working class people of Wisconsin.

Walker took to the media outlets decrying the $137 million projected end of year state budget deficit. He blamed the shortfall on one of the Republican party's favorite scape goats: unions. He blamed teachers. He blamed healthcare workers. He blamed government workers, bus drivers, garbage collectors and postal workers. He blamed the working middle class.

But while Walker was busy pointing the finger, attempting to distract the good people of Wisconsin with smoke and mirrors, the truth was slowly but surely coming to light. On Feb. 16, the Madison-based newspaper, The Cap Times, revealed that the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau had released a memo on January 31, detailing that the state was slated to end the 2009-2011 budget biennium with not a deficit, but with a *surplus*; a surplus of $121.4 million.

You can read the memo for yourself here: http://legis.wisconsin.gov/lfb/Misc/2011_01_31Vos&Darling.pdf

So, if not the result of greedy union workers, where was Walker getting his figures? As it turns out, Walker had just pushed through a bill containing $140 million in new spending to provide corporate tax breaks. It was Walker's bill that created the deficit from the huge surplus he inherited coming into office. Walker, elected as a platform fiscal conservative, was quickly arousing suspicions and stirring public interest, though not in the direction he anticipated.

As it turns out, an unavoidable, union-caused, pre-existing deficit isn't the only lie Walker and the Wisconsin Republicans were peddling. Walker said he wanted workers to "contribute more" and "pay their fair share" of their pensions. This was a statement he made over and over again. The truth, however, that the media soon exposed, is that the union pensions are 100% employee funded. Every penny of the union workers' pensions are bargained-for part of their compensation packages. They are deferred income the workers have both bargained for and earned; a form of deferred compensation. The key phrase in the workers' contracts is "The Employer shall contribute on behalf of the employee." You can read the labor agreements for yourself here: http://oser.state.wi.us/subcategory.asp?linksubcatid=1246&linkcatid=389&linkid=27

Rather than private investment and stock portfolios for retirement like the wealthy or privately employed workers have, union members defer a portion of their own earned wages which they essentially agree to let the state hold on to and manage temporarily, under the assumption they can draw from their own contributions at retirement.

Walker and the Wisconsin Republicans' lies aside, the unions attempted to meet with Walker to take a few cuts and make some sacrifices in order to meet him halfway. Walker refused. This is where he made perhaps his most fatal flaw. When union workers attempted to meet with Walker on the budget issues, he made it clear that he wasn't interested in just the budget, but in also stripping workers of their collective bargaining rights.

He wouldn't sit down with the unions, so the unions came to him.

Tens of thousands of union workers stormed the Wisconsin Capitol.

They came from far and wide with their signs and protest songs to stand in the freezing cold and be heard. As union workers made their entrance and presence known, Wisconsin's Democrat Senators made their exit; strategically fleeing across state borders and using Senate rules to do what their minority membership couldn't: prevent Walker's budget which would slash union workers' benefits and collective bargaining rights from passing. However the rules could only prevent budget matters from being decided while the Democrat Senators were in hiding. It couldn't halt all legislation.

Walker and the Republicans then separated the budget and collective bargaining issues, temporarily ignoring the budget matter. On March 10, the Republicans passed a bill stripping the union workers of their collective bargaining rights.

The jig was now up. The fraud on the American people became apparent as Walker's smoke cleared and his mirrors shattered; the illusion seemingly no longer necessary now that he had completed his disappearing act with workers' rights. This was never about the budget. The entire situation; the created deficit, the lies surrounding it, the "solution", were all manufactured by Walker to provide justification for union busting.

They may not have known it at the time, but Walker and the rest of the Wisconsin Republicans just put the final nail in their own coffin. And they didn't just seal their own fate; they had just launched a massive counterattack on the GOP.

Republicans will no doubt try to write off the Prosser loss as the result of poor campaign organizing. Walker will no doubt try to claim Prosser's near 50% of the vote as nearly 50% support for his attacks on unions.

In reality, these things are yet more illusions the Republican party would like people to buy into. In reality, Kloppenburg's defeat of would-have-been-shoe-in Prosser, slated to walk easily with a victory just a few weeks ago, is a direct referendum by the people of Wisconsin on Walker and the Republicans, who had just taken office and taken the majority only months ago. Prosser, with no scandal or blip in his record, could not have lost that much support that quickly without a particularly damning intervention. No campaign in history has ever been that poorly managed.

On March 18, Judge Sumi did what 14 fugitive Senate Democrats and tens of thousands of protesters had failed to: she halted Walker's law by issuing a temporary restraining order blocking the new law from taking effect.

Once the law entered the court system, it slowly dawned on the people of Wisconsin that they could still have a voice in the process that was their runaway Governor and Republican legislature yet. They could change the power balance of the Supreme Court with the upcoming election.

While the court is technically non-partisan, if Kloppenburg could unseat Prosser, a conservative, on the bench, she would shift the court from a 4-3 conservative lean, to a 4-3 liberal lean for the first time in over a decade. The ramifications this will have on Walker's bill when it reaches the court's docket were apparent. The people of Wisconsin recognized this and reacted and organized in record numbers.

You do not mess with unions and you do not lie to the American people. Not only did the people rally to support the unions in the polls yesterday, they rallied to make the statement that they are owed candor and respect from their elected officials. Walker didn't do the job they elected him to do; far from. He overstepped his bounds and, in the process, kicked the angry hornets nest that is the unions.

With Kloppenburg expected to take the bench, though there may be a recount process, and Walker's bill in limbo, it isn't clear that Walker accomplished anything in terms of dismantling the unions. What is becoming clear, however, is that Walker has mobilized the unions at levels unprecedented in recent years.

Republicans didn't just seal their fate in the Kloppenburg / Prosser election, which they had in the bag until a few weeks ago. The Republicans will pay dearly for this in the 2012 election. The GOP will suffer losses in Wisconsin, as well as in the nearby, heavily-unionized states of Ohio and Pennsylvania. While all are normally swing states, I promise you they will all be blue in 2012. They should have let sleeping dogs lie.

The people have spoken out against the travesty of worker rights and against a dishonest government who is more interested in pursuing its own agenda at the expense of the people than in doing what it was elected to do. Republicans have paid a price for Walker's assault on American workers, and in 2012 they'll keep paying.

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