Opinion

Wisconsin politics creep into Washington | Bob Roegner

The attempted recall of Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker turned neighbor against neighbor, split many households and became one of the most brutal political battles in the country.

The controversy stemmed from Walker’s goal of eliminating collective bargaining for public employees unions due to budget shortfalls.

At its heart, the real issue in Wisconsin wasn’t the budget. It was about raw political power and who will have it.

Could it happen in Washington state? And what does it say about the polarization of our country and the future?

Walker won the test of political strength with a comfortable margin for several reasons. There is a growing concern among many voters that public employees are too well paid and their retirement systems too expensive. Evidence similar votes in San Diego and San Jose, Calif., to curtail public pension systems.

The representations of benefits received by public employees may not be wholly accurate depending on which unions, teachers, police, fire, social workers, clerks or others are calculated — but the perception is there, and it is growing.

Walker also benefited by raising significantly more money than the unions — $45 million vs. $17 million — for the campaign. But the main reason he won was a smart political move he made at the beginning. Walker claimed the state needed to eliminate collective bargaining due to a budget shortage. He did not include police or fire in the legislation. This removed the two most politically influential unions from the fight. Since they also tend to have among the most beneficial pensions, it also suggests that Governor Walker’s budget concerns may have been secondary to weakening the other unions that, not surprisingly, tend to favor Democrats.

The telling point was Walker’s effort to eliminate the unions’ ability to collect dues from the members. Part of the unions’ dues can be used to donate to candidates for office, usually Democrats. He was trying to cut off the funding source for the opposition.

Had Walker included uniformed personnel in his proposal to the Wisconsin Legislature, it likely wouldn’t have passed. Even if it had, it is likely the public vote would have been significantly different if police and fire had joined the recall effort, and Walker was smart enough to know that.

Politically speaking, Wisconsin, San Diego and San Jose have served as a testing grounds for political techniques aimed at tilting the level of the playing field nationally between labor and management. Weakening public sector unions will eventually weaken private sector unions, and unions have historically been a key Democratic constituency representing the working class.

Management is typically more well paid and, along with wealthy conservative donors, tend to support Republicans.

The disappearing middle class has been more Democratic, but out of concern for their own diminishing paycheck, appears receptive to the anti-public employee message. So do some private sector unions for similar reasons.

Whichever side of the argument you are on, objectively watch the spin and techniques used to persuade you. When Democrats wanted to tax the richest one percent in the country at a higher level, Republicans accused the Democrats of “class warfare.”

When the Republicans attacked benefits for public sector unions that generally represent working people, “class warfare” got lost in the debate over how your tax dollar is spent.

So far, Republicans are winning the message battle.

The successes of money and message in Wisconsin has emboldened political leaders elsewhere.

Could it happen here? Yes, although both candidates for governor, Jay Inslee and Rob McKenna, have downplayed any comparisons to Wisconsin in their campaigns. Labor is still pretty strong in Washington and we are still a blue state. Both Inslee and McKenna have been endorsed by some public employee unions, although the alignment with Inslee seems closer. And the latest forecast shows the state revenue on track.

Nevertheless, the Wisconsin debate has already started here. Public unions have gone through pay cuts, layoffs and during the last session, a battle over pension issues.

Whether it is Inslee or McKenna who wins the governor’s seat, they will be a “rookie.” And initially, the real power may come from whichever party controls the state Legislature. Democrats believe that after three years of significant cuts, it may be time to resist a further decline in state services. Republicans will want to continue the cuts to undermine public unions and could find McKenna more receptive.

The real battle may be in the future. The Republicans’ long-term strategy is to take public unions out of the political battle by reducing their numbers and the dues they pay that typically support Democratic candidates.

To see what may happen here, watch how the battles in Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire and New Mexico play out. If Republican governors in those states are able to weaken collective bargaining for public unions, Washington will move up on their list of targets.

Due to a difference in governmental structure, a recall isn’t likely here. The budget debate will set the framework, but the underlying issue will be political power.

Brutal as it may be, Wisconsin could not only happen here, it may be just around the corner.

 

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