Madison-based journalist and Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine.
The Republican-controlled Wisconsin State Assembly has passed Gov. Scott Walker’s budget repair bill that would eliminate collective bargaining rights for most public employees. The measure has sparked an unprecedented 11 days of protest in the capital city of Madison and across the state. Broadcasting from the Capitol Rotunda in Madison, we speak to The Nation magazine’s John Nichols. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: Now we go back to Amy in Madison, Wisconsin. We were having a little problem there with the sound, but I think we fixed it now. Amy, can you hear me?
AMY GOODMAN: We can. And here at the State Capitol, it’s absolutely astounding, Juan. We’re talking about the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison. Hundreds of people have slept overnight, but during the day tens of thousands of people keep a 24-hour vigil here. Last night, just a few hours ago, after more than 60 hours of debate, the State Assembly voted — all the Republicans — voted to pass Governor Walker’s budget bill, what many here call the union-busting bill, to the chants of Democrats, "Shame! Shame!" It now goes to the State Senate. But all 14 Democrats have left the state, so that they can’t be taken to the State Capitol for a quorum.
I’m joined right now by John Nichols. He is the correspondent for The Nation magazine, a seventh-generation Wisconsinite. A lot of people are sleeping all around us. Some people are just waking up now. But they certainly were up last night at 1:00 and 2:00 in the morning when the vote took place, a surprise to many.
Explain what’s happening here, John.
JOHN NICHOLS: Absolutely. As regards what’s happening in the legislature, well, what happened last night was that they had been in a 60-some-hour session. It’s the longest session in the history of the state of Wisconsin. It’s also the longest debate in the history of the state of Wisconsin. So, quite remarkable. And there had been a sort of behind-the-scenes agreement between Democrats and Republicans that they would debate for many more hours. And then, at the darkest point of the night, the Republican leadership suddenly popped out from behind the Speaker’s chair and announced that they were having the vote right then.
The Democrats were furious. Everybody was running wildly around the chamber, after having been quite exhausted. And they did do the vote. It was a party-line vote. This was expected. Remember, what happened in the Assembly is not a shock. And no one here, not a single person in this building, was expecting the Assembly to vote against the bill. But the rapid final vote was very, very frustrating. Clearly, they did it at night because they didn’t want the literally tens of thousands of people who will be here today to be present while they were voting.
AMY GOODMAN: So now let’s go to this bigger issue of what this bill is, why so many people have taken up vigil here, why 100,000 people are expected tomorrow here in this capital, Madison, and all over Wisconsin. Give us the bigger context of what’s taking place.
JOHN NICHOLS: Two weeks ago today, Governor Scott Walker, newly elected Republican governor, took office in January, announced that he would do a budget repair bill. Budget repair bills are very minor, often pass within a few hours by the legislature, of little concern. It’s just basically adjusting where the money is. But he announced that in addition to budget repair, he would add in what he said were minor items.
Those minor items included a total restructuring of how the state operates as regards its cabinet-level government. The Governor would take over, essentially, most agencies and appoint dozens of new officials who are completely responsible only to the Governor, effectively ending our cabinet-level government system. That would give him the power over Medicaid, Medicare and all sorts of other programs in his office, rather than putting it through the traditional legislative and regulatory process. In addition, the Governor announced that he wanted to have the power to barter off state properties, including power plants and public lands, again, without any negotiation, without any bids, to whatever company he wanted in the private sector. And finally, he said that he wanted to totally restructure the state’s collective bargaining agreements, not just at the state level, but at the county and municipal level, meaning effectively that the governor would, almost by fiat, set most of the pay and benefit standards. And the most critical thing was that the Governor wanted to end most collective bargaining rights for public employees in Wisconsin.
About 11 days ago, people started to rally en masse. I want to say, actually, it was 13 days ago, the very — within hours, the Teaching Assistants’ Association, which is students who teach at the University of Wisconsin and other schools around the state, were already out. But by last Monday, you started to see thousands. By Tuesday, the better part of 20,000 people were out at different times during the day. By the end of the week, we had crowds numbering 50,000. Last Saturday, 70-80,000 people were out. And this has really turned into something that you know, Amy, and I know to be one of the most remarkable popular uprisings that I’ve ever seen in 20 years of reporting.
JUAN GONZALEZ: John —
AMY GOODMAN: Last night was blue-green night. It was the teachers sleeping here, as well as the environmentalists. But Juan, you’ve got a question for John Nichols?
JUAN GONZALEZ: Yeah, I wanted to ask John — I happened to catch Newt Gingrich on Fox, on one of the Fox shows last night. And Gingrich was claiming that those who are opposing these changes don’t want to heed the will of the people that was expressed in November when they elected a two-thirds majority of Republicans in both houses and elected Walker, and that everyone knew that this was going to be Walker’s program. Your response to that?
JOHN NICHOLS: Thanks, Juan. It’s good to be talking to you. And I want to tell you that I’m really sorry that Newt Gingrich is so incredibly uninformed about what’s going on in Wisconsin. It’s not surprising. He wasn’t all that informed about what was going on in Washington.
But here’s the bottom line. I’ve known Scott Walker for more than 20 years. His dad pastored my in-laws’ church, and Scott was in my office within three or four months ago, sitting and talking about his whole program. We did hours of discussions about it. He never mentioned going after collective bargaining. He never mentioned any sort of takeover of cabinet-level government. Nothing that he’s doing was mentioned during the campaign. That’s why people are furious, including an awfully lot of Republicans. Additionally, it’s important to understand that what this governor was elected to do was to try and, you know, basically govern as a mainstream conservative. He beat the real right-winger in the primary.
And this idea that democracy ends on Election Day is maybe something that Newt Gingrich likes, but it’s very foreign to Wisconsinites. Our great political leader in this state was a guy named Robert M. La Follette. He was our governor back in the — part of the last century. His statue stands directly opposite us. And La Follette said, "Democracy is a life." And his explanation of that was that Election Day was the beginning of the democratic process. Wisconsinites understand it as such. And when an elected representative acts in direct conflict with what the people of the state want, the people will rise. They will come, they will assemble, they will challenge. And this is significant, Juan.
Polling shows that overwhelming majorities of Wisconsinites support collective bargaining. Overwhelming majorities are very upset with what the Governor is doing. And here’s the most important thing: these polls were done before it was exposed in a phone call that you folks have talked about on the show that the Governor had joked with someone he thought was a billionaire Koch brother about doing all sorts of things that were completely against the Wisconsin way, including sending thugs into the street to disrupt peaceful demonstrations where people had brought their children. So, Newt Gingrich is simply wrong. The popular will of the people of Wisconsin does not say that their governor should try and secretly disrupt peaceful demonstrations at the risk of causing violence.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to a break. I also want to say, speaking to lots of people here yesterday, I mean, just thousands crowded into the Capitol — and this is going on 24 hours a day — I was speaking with some Wisconsin Oshkosh correction officers, who are Republican, who said they had no idea that Governor Walker was going down this road and that they were here now protesting the Governor that they helped to elect.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’re in Madison, Wisconsin, in the Capitol here. When we come back, we’ll be joined by the head of the firefighters’ union, the head of the police union. We’ll also be speaking with one of the Wisconsin state senators who is in Illinois right now, all 14 Democrats, so that the Republicans in the State Senate can’t get a quorum. This is Democracy Now! It’s "Uprising in Wisconsin." Stay with us.