Letter From Wisconsin
I have arrived at the rendezvous point for a day of volunteering for Wisconsin’s recall elections. Sipping a disappointing coffee and staring out over Lake Mendota on Madison’s south side, my only companions are ducks preening themselves in the 9 a.m. sun in Brittingham Park. It’s Sunday morning and a Christian revival group unloads musical instruments from a van while a couple of homeless hippies huddled with sleeping bags watch them from a bench. I haven’t been in this park since I was a teenager. We used to get high here after school. Today, I’m hyper alert, under-slept, on the first day in my hometown since Governor Scott Walker started a political earthquake last February by introducing legislation to strip public sector unions of collective bargaining rights, effectively killing most of the unions in the state.
I’m here to help protect two of the “Fightin’ Fourteen” Democratic state senators who fled the state to Illinois in February and blocked nineteen Republicans from ramming through Walker’s so-called Budget Repair Bill, which they’d intended to do without public hearings—a violation of Wisconsin’s open meeting laws. Unable to get away from my teaching job, I watched the uprising in my hometown from New York.
Tens of thousands crowded into the state capitol building, a near architectural duplicate of the one in Washington, D.C., banging drums, chanting, singing, and sleeping on the floor for weeks. Solidarity messages flooded in from around the world to what’s often been called the Tahrir Square of the Midwest. But, since they were outnumbered in the assembly, the Democrats couldn’t stay in Illinois forever. The measure passed in March, over filibusters, countless amendments and hoarse-voiced denunciations from the assembly floor.
The Democrats fought back by putting six of the Republicans up for recall. The Republicans retaliated by gathering enough signatures in rightwing districts to put up three Democrats. Today, two of those state reps stand to lose their seats in the last of nine recall elections—a national record for one state. Just the week before, Democrats came an agonizing one election short of winning back a majority in the state senate. If there is any hope to stop Walker’s union-busting bill, no more ground can be lost.
Car tires crunch over the gravel behind me and I spot the Recall Walker bumper sticker on a car full of volunteers. These are the soldiers in the trenches of a battle that may decide the fate of organized labor in this country.
I shake hands with Nick, the canvas organizer for the Wisconsin Democrats who has been at this since winter. He’s in his mid-twenties, built like a lumberjack. “All the way from New York, huh? That’s awesome. We’ve had volunteers from Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee . . .”
“That guy from Los Angeles last week,” adds another canvasser.
Nick tells us that today we’re going to knock on doors for Senator Bob Wirch in Kenosha, a town of 92,000 about thirty miles south of Milwaukee. He also says that the Koch brothers, two millionaire entrepreneurs known to throw millions to anti-labor and Tea Party causes, have just bought $150,000 worth of Wisconsin air time, flooding TV and radio waves with ads that say “Wirch ran away when the going got tough.” We go over possible responses to voters who might confront us about it at the door.
The first thing I notice about my fellow volunteers, bedecked in solidarity buttons and ball caps, is that they are exhausted.
“This is, I think, the twelfth out-of-town canvas I’ve been on since February,” says Dan, as he starts the car, a state map spread on his lap. “I haven’t had a life since Walker was elected.” Dan works at the state Department of Transportation and is about to get an eight percent pay cut and lose his union under Walker’s bill.
As we leave town, Madison’s suburban box-store sprawl gives way to corn fields and cows, and we have plenty of time to talk on the way to Kenosha. The volunteers compare the towns they’ve been to over the past few months: “Osh Kosh was okay—nobody was really hostile there. Portage was mixed; some really sympathetic, actually. But Fon Du Lac was bad.” All volunteers agree that the state is deeply polarized. “You talk to people who say they support Walker and they don’t even know why. They’re broke, they can’t afford to retire, and so they resent anybody with a pension or job security. But they can’t see that unions raise everybody’s wages. They’re voting against their own interests.” Dan offers Fon Du Lac as an example. “That district has the highest per capita concentration of state workers in Wisconsin—three prisons, a bunch of hospitals, a university, if you aren’t a state worker there yourself, you at least have a friend who is—but still they scream about Socialism.”
We get into Kenosha an hour later and find Wirch’s campaign headquarters, hastily set up in a cheap retail space in a shopping complex. Canvassers, none of whom look over twenty-two, receive clipboards and literature as organizers conduct trainings in front of city maps. Cheerful church ladies bustle in and out with fresh-baked cookies, banana bread, crockpots of stew, cold chicken, potato chips, homemade biscuits, fruit salad. “This is the best food on any canvas yet,” one volunteer says, loading his paper plate. A pot-bellied local in his fifties shows up to work. The back of his T-shirt reads, “don’t follow me, I just farted a big one.” Organizers escort him to the phone banking table.
Out on “the turf,” Dan is confronted by a cantankerous resident who won’t open his screen door. He pokes a finger to make his point.
“You guys think this state’s made of money! Like it grows on trees—how much is this recall election costing?”
“Sir, it wasn’t our idea to recall Wirch. He’s been serving this district for over twenty years. We’re only trying—”
“Who’s gonna get rid of that budget deficit? Him?”
“That three billion dollar state deficit has been there for twelve years. The way to get rid of it is not with $150 million in tax breaks to corporations. Sir, do you know anyone on Badger Care?” This is the Wisconsin healthcare program that supplements Medicare. “They want to eliminate health coverage for seniors and disabled people. Is this the way you want to see the budget balanced?”
Dan’s arguments are honed, practiced, uncomplicated. He delivers them with unfailing Wisconsin politeness and patience and a humble eloquence that moves me a great deal. It has no effect on the man behind the screen door.
“All I know is I’m paying taxes and getting nothing for it. I’ll vote for anybody who cuts my taxes . . .”
Dan’s head droops as we walk away. There is no sound now but our shoes on the sidewalk and the relentless zizz of the cicadas.
“I fucked up . . .” he shakes his head. “Pardon my French. We’re not supposed to do that—engage with them when they’re hostile. It’s just . . .” He looks up the street and sighs. “I mean, that guy wasn’t making any money. What’s he doing voting Republican?” I look around and I’m sure he’s right—nobody around here is making any money. The houses are small, some neat and painstakingly kept up, but many are in need of paint, with rusting roof gutters, junked cars decomposing in driveways, dogs tied up amid feces-strewn dirt patches that were once lawns. “For Sale” signs outnumber the green Wirch yard signs.
We split up, taking streets alone now to cover more ground. I’m more than a little bit nervous after the angry encounter behind the screen door, but I find most of the people are friendly, though more than a few of them are angry.
“I’m telling you, I like Wirch—he’s a good guy, but I’m mad,” says a man of about sixty with glasses that make his eyes swim.
“The posters, the signs, the advertising—and not even a normal election year—it’s a big waste! Unions should be spending dues on their members, not politicians!” I talk to this guy until he begins to calm down and finally admits that he admires Wirch and the other thirteen Democrats for leaving the state to stop Walker’s bill.
“So, will you vote on Tuesday?” I ask in my sweetest voice.
“Sure thing, Miss. I ain’t gonna let those SOBs win,” he smiles and closes the door. And I realize that all he wanted was for someone to listen to him. The state is probably filled with people like him.
Kenosha is far from being an all-white city. I see groups of Mexican teenagers laughing on the way to the park, get to use my Spanish a couple of times with folks at the door—they all assure me that they’ll vote for Wirch. A large African-American family hangs out on a front porch, falling silent and looking up warily as I approach their house. The name on my list is Gail, and they tell me she isn’t home. A couple of toddlers circle around my feet on tricycles.
“Well, sorry for the interruption. Here’s some information on the election this Tuesday.”
“Can’t vote if you’re a felon,” points out a young man in cornrows, giving me half a smile. I haven’t considered this before, but now that he mentions it, I think about what a shitty message that sends about the prison system’s self-declared mission of social rehabilitation.
I meet up with another canvasser to split up the rest of our turf. He’s a sweet 60-something Vietnam vet named Richard. We stand studying our clipboards between St. Anthony’s church and the Italian American Social Club. I tell him I am in need of a bathroom, and he admits he needs a glass of water. We stop into Scotty’s Bar. A sign outside advertises it as “A Clean, Well-Lit Place.” I smile at the Hemingway reference and wonder who else gets it. The bar across the street, Spanky’s, boasts “Warm Beer, Lousy Food, and Ugly Bartenders.”
Scotty’s, it turns out, is not at all well lit. The bar is huge and U-shaped. I’m the only woman in there and grateful for my escort. Richard immediately strikes up a conversation with the guy next to us, who turns out also to be a Vietnam vet. They exchange stories about where they were shipped and when. After that, talk moves naturally to the election.
“Hope you guys can make a difference. God knows we need it. These damn Republicans—everything’s about money now. This isn’t even a democracy anymore.”
A younger guy from the other side of the bar overhears. His voice is loud enough to fill the room.
“You here for Wirch?”
“Yep. Gettin’ out the vote,” Richard answers.
“Where you guys from?”
“New York?” All heads turn to me. “If you’re from New York, what are you doing here?” His face is hard to read. He’s big—about six-foot-three, black-haired, and beefy.
“Well, I grew up here. But the whole country is watching this election. If they can kill unions here they can do it anywhere. It’s not going to stop here. We have to do something if unions are going to have a future.”
The young man takes a swallow of beer. “They don’t.”
The rest of the bar is silent, watching this face-off.
“We still have to fight.” I don’t know what else to say.
“If we go down, we’ll go down fighting,” adds my Vietnam vet.
The man’s eyes shift from Richard to me. Then a slow smile spreads across his face and he raises his beer to us. “Damn right. I’ll be out there on Tuesday!”
We walk back out into the blazing sunlight and I feel like I’ve passed some sort of test, but I’m not exactly sure what.
The next day we go to Merrill, two hundred miles farther north in pine woods country. It’s not nearly as friendly. The Democrat we’re defending today is Jim Holperin, the only state senator in the country to be recalled twice. The first time was in 1990, after he defended Native American treaty rights in a bitter controversy over spear fishing. A group of white hunters had decided that Indian treaties, which guaranteed fishing rights, amounted to special privileges. Spear fishers who were practicing a centuries-old tradition were shot at, called “timber niggers,” and had holes punched in their boats. I was a student activist at the University Of Minnesota at the time. Memories flood back to me of a late night solidarity protest, standing on the banks of a lake with a contingent of Lakota Sioux organizers from Minneapolis. I still remember the freezing night air, bottles whizzing over our heads thrown by carloads of drunks driving by yelling “Indian lovers!”
That was the last time I was in this neck of the woods, I reflect, and suddenly feel chilled, despite the hot August day.
Merrill is an old sawmill town, spread along the winding Wisconsin River, surrounded by thick green forest that used to carpet the entire state. The days when lumber brought in cash are long gone. The sense of desolation is palpable as we pass boarded up businesses on Main Street. It’s hard to tell what’s keeping open the ones that are there. There is almost nobody on the street, but every face we do see is white. Old 7Up and Pabst Blue Ribbon signs rust and bleach in the hot sun. Our rental car stands out with its Illinois plates, and we get suspicious stares.
But many of the dirty looks, our organizers remind us, are because the state has been flooded with Tea Party activists in the last two weeks. Looking at the houses we are to canvas, I’m guardedly encouraged to see Holperin’s green yard signs outnumber Simac’s red, white, and blue ones by at least two to one. Just coincidence, maybe, but both Wirch and Holperin’s colors are green—a good color for Wisconsin, particularly for this area, surrounded not by cornfields but by dense forest stretching as far as the eye can see.
Kate Simac from Eagle River is the one true Tea Party candidate running in the Wisconsin elections. Her candidacy is a litmus test for how deeply the rightwing current runs in Wisconsin. She self-publishes children’s books with titles like With My Rifle by My Side, and a pro-life fetal memoir called This Is How I Began. She’s a home-schooler who compares public schools to Nazi education camps. I can’t help picking up the flyers her supporters have left at people’s doors, tearing them up, and stuffing them in my bag.
The doors here are plastered with NRA stickers; the walls are decorated with stuffed fish and deer heads, the lawns with kitschy statuettes. A young woman stands in her doorway, holding a squirming kitten as she talks to us.
“I don’t know—I wasn’t planning on voting, to tell you the truth. I just got home from the Navy last week. They wanted me to do another tour, but I said no.”
Kathy, my co-canvasser, asks her how she feels about the economy and if voting might make a difference. The woman admits she’s worried budget cuts will hurt her college.
“School is my only way out. A lot of my friends are in Afghanistan. I joined the Navy ‘cause I didn’t want to end up there. Just get my degree and get out of this town—that’s all I want.”
“Why do you want to leave?” I ask. She looks surprised by the question.
“No work. I mean, just look around you. No, ma’am, I’m headed to Milwaukee.” She tosses the wiggling kitten in a room behind her. “Or at least Racine,” she amends, as if Milwaukee might be aiming too high.
Something about this town of 20,000 scares me, and I’m not sure what it is. The silence, the endless wind through the trees, the way so many of the streets just stop, ending in an impenetrable bank of woods. I agree to split the next section of turf, but I don’t like being alone here. I climb the stairs of a porch littered with broken fishing poles, mildewy couch cushions, and disintegrating clothes. All I can see through the window is a jumble of filthy junk covering a floor of rotted linoleum. In a milk crate by my feet I identify a dog’s skull with four neck vertebrae still clinging to it. I break out in a sweat. I cannot bring myself to knock on the door. I leave a Holperin flyer and walk quickly away.
I pause on the corner to gather myself, remembering that over the past six months, I have felt something I’ve never felt before. I’ve been proud to tell people I’m from here. Yes, 150,000 protesters in the streets. Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and yes, Wisconsin. But at this moment, I am sure more than ever that I cannot live here. I also realize that I am a lousy canvasser. I mix up the addresses, get waylaid, have to backtrack a million times, put the wrong mark on the sheet next to the wrong name, but mainly I am a lousy canvasser because I am afraid of the people in my own state. I came here wanting the answer to one question—how is it that Wisconsin, with its proud history of progressive politics, the first state to have worker’s compensation, the home of four Socialist mayors, fightin’ Bob Lafollette of the Progressive Party, could be ground zero for the most serious political attack against working people since the Taft-Hartley act? But Wisconsin is also the home of Joe McCarthy of the House UnAmerican Activities committee. It’s also the home of Jeffrey Dahmer and people who keep dog skulls on their front porch. Which is the real Wisconsin?
It turns out that Governor Scott Walker, in a bizarre twist of history, has offered the state a unique opportunity to bridge its deep identity crisis. As the protesters emptied the capitol to be mobilized into groups of road-trippers heading to Wisconsin’s remote reaches, the educated, urban progressives have a chance to meet face-to-face with the isolated, rural and backwoods folk who the Tea Party appeals to as its base. Will it work? I realize that it has everything to do with whether people like me have the guts to actually knock on the doors.
We head back to the garage on Cedar Street, serving today as the eighth staging area for Stand With Wisconsin, a union coalition sending door-knockers like us throughout the state.
“We just got word today that our volunteers are outnumbering the Tea Party by five to one!” they tell us, handing out bottles of water. For the tenth time, they thank me for coming all the way from New York. I don’t know if I deserve it.
As I write this, six other states are considering legislation similar to Walker’s disastrous bill. The Republican Party is watching closely. If they succeed in killing public sector unions in Wisconsin, it will create a domino effect, finally bringing to reality Grover Norqist’s call in 2000 to eliminate labor unions from the political landscape. Only 11 percent of the US labor force is unionized; seven percent of the private sector, but 36 percent of the public sector. We are hospital workers, university employees, human services workers, sanitation workers, fire fighters: the last stronghold of organized labor in this country. In Wisconsin, six months of marching, resisting, organizing, fighting to defend the right to a decent job and work with dignity comes down to this: the sighing wind and the cheep of crickets in a depressed lumber town. Walking, knocking, asking, will you vote tomorrow? Will you vote.
We get back to Madison as the first returns begin to come in—Wirch with a comfortable lead, Holperin with a narrower one. Both Democrats won. The final tally in the recall elections: Democrats picked up two seats, and held on to all the seats the Republicans challenged. Republicans now hold a one-seat majority in the Wisconsin state assembly, but one of those seats belongs to a Republican who voted against Walker’s bill, opening the possibility to block key parts of Walker’s agenda. Organizers are guarded, but hopeful.
“Will you be back in town for the Walker recall?” the volunteers all want to know as we say goodbye. Before I know it, I’m promising that I will.