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The Battle for Wisconsin: Court Strikes Down Gov. Scott Walker’s Anti-Union Bill

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A Wisconsin judge has struck down Gov. Scott Walker’s union-busting law because Republican legislators failed to provide sufficient public notice before passing the measure in March. The law sharply curbs nearly all collective bargaining rights of state employees. We speak to John Nichols of The Nation magazine on the future of the bill, Wisconsin’s repressive new voter ID bill, and Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget proposals to overhaul Medicare and Medicaid. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: A Wisconsin judge has struck down Governor Scott Walker’s union-busting law. On Thursday, Judge Maryann Sumi ruled Republican legislators failed to provide sufficient public notice before passing the measure in March. Judge Sumi had previously issued a temporary restraining order to prevent the measure from taking effect. The law sharply curbs nearly all collective bargaining rights of state employees.

Republicans pushed it through despite massive protests this March that paralyzed the State Capitol. The day after Republican Governor Scott Walker signed it into law, more than 100,000 people filled the streets of Madison in what was described as Wisconsin’s largest protest ever. Democracy Now! was there to cover the rally and spoke to Democratic State Senator Tim Carpenter.

SEN. TIM CARPENTER: I find it quite unusual that Governor Walker got elected, and in just two months he’s given $140 million in corporate welfare; he’s polarized the state, causing hundreds of thousands of people to come and demonstrate and petition for their state government to do the right thing of protecting workers’ rights; and his poll numbers are dropping faster than a rock. In 1980, Ronald Reagan, in dealing with Lech Walesa in Poland and their struggle for freedom, said, “Where free unions and collective bargaining are forbidden, freedom is lost.” And so, when Governor Walker and the Republicans go ahead and build up a wall against the working people, against the middle class, all of us senators are here to say, “Governor Walker, tear down this wall.”

AMY GOODMAN: The Wisconsin Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments next month to determine whether it will consider the case. For more, we’re going to Madison, where we’re joined by John Nichols. He writes for The Nation magazine and has been covering the uprising in Madison for many months right now.

John Nichols, welcome to Democracy Now!

We’re going to go to a break. And then when we come back, he’ll be joining us on the phone from Madison, Wisconsin. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We go right now to Madison, Wisconsin. We’re joined on the phone by John Nichols of The Nation magazine.

John, tell us what this decision means that the judge has just handed down yesterday.

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, it’s quite a big deal, Amy. Judge Maryann Sumi, who’s one of the more respected jurists in the state, was asked to rule on the question of whether the law taking away most collective bargaining rights for Wisconsin workers was passed legally. She determined that it was not passed legally, that the legislature violated the state’s open meetings laws, did not act in a transparent or appropriate manner, and so she’s ruled the law null and void. What this means is that three months into this fight over Governor Walker’s bill, it is completely off the books legally.

That doesn’t mean the fight is over, by any measure. There is a good chance that Republicans in the legislature will try to pass the law again. There will also be appeals. But what this ruling does is reinforce the message that protesters and Democratic legislators have been trying to put forward from the start of this struggle. And that is that the Republicans seem to be so hell-bent on passing this anti-union legislation that they will break any rule, violate any standard. We’ve had a little bit of a restoration of a system of checks and balances in Wisconsin. And frankly, that’s a very big deal.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And John, what about this potential for the legislature to once again pass it? Where are — what’s happening now with the recall attempts and the other political strategies of the movement to defend labor rights?

JOHN NICHOLS: That’s a great question, Juan, and it moves on so many levels. The important thing about the legislature itself is that we have had a lot of indications that Republican legislators are afraid to go forward with passing this again as a standalone bill. Their fear is rooted in something that the majority leader of the State Senate, Scott Fitzgerald, said, and that is that they believe if they bring it up again, they will have 70,000, 100,000, maybe even more, protesters surrounding the Capitol. So these people-based movements really have influenced the process. They have made at least some of the Republicans a little frightened to go ahead. That doesn’t mean they won’t do so, but it does mean that if they try, they’ll probably do it in a sneaky way, perhaps trying to insert it into the state budget. Even that will provoke mass protest.

And it will all come in the context of a fight over recall. Right now, we have three recalls against Republican state senators that have been certified. They will go forward, probably to be held in July. Additionally, there are three more recalls of Republican senators that are likely to be certified in the next week. They may also occur in July. And there may be a couple efforts to take down Democratic senators.

At the end of the day, what it all adds up to, Juan and Amy, is that in July and August, this people-based street movement that has been so very effective in stalling the Governor’s agenda will come to the ballot box, and if three State Senate seats switch from Republican to Democrat before they pass this bill, you will have a check and a balance on the Governor. At the very least, even if they do try to pass the bill, once the Democrats are there controlling the chamber of the legislature, which is genuinely possible — this really can happen — once they’re there, they are able to battle against the implementation of this law. So, amazingly enough, for all this long struggle, which you folks have reported on so very well, we continue to be in the thick of it in Wisconsin, and the Governor still does not have his agenda implemented. More significantly, there are now several routes that suggest that it might be possible to either — [no audio]

AMY GOODMAN: John, are you there? We may have just lost —

JOHN NICHOLS: I can hear you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: OK, we’ve got you, John. Keep going.

JOHN NICHOLS: I’m sorry. I don’t know where we cut out, but what I was saying is that with these recalls, there is the very real chance that we can either stop the Governor’s agenda or, if it is momentarily implemented, to have a legislative counterbalance that can slow down its implementation and perhaps begin to restore union rights. It’s really quite a remarkable situation that has developed, where —

JUAN GONZALEZ: But John, meanwhile, the Governor and his allies are not just cooling their heels. They’ve actually moved on, on other aspects of the agenda. Could you talk about this move on the voter ID legislation, the elimination of public financing of elections?

JOHN NICHOLS: Yeah, it’s a really ugly thing, Juan. What has happened is that the state legislature, with the Governor’s support, has passed, and now the Governor has signed, the most draconian voter ID law in the country — makes it much harder to vote. It changes the period of time you have to live in a district, rewrites all sorts of rules, both with the purpose of creating confusion at the ballot box but also with the purpose of discouraging low-income folks, elderly folks, others who don’t — aren’t as likely to have an ID, from going to the polls. It’s a bad law.

It costs a lot to implement, around $7.5 to $8 million. And in a final insult to injury, the legislative Joint Finance Committee this week raided the funds for the state’s public financing of judicial and other elections and shifted them over to paying for this voter ID bill. Effectively, they’re taking the money that is supposed to be set aside to assure that we have clean government, open and fair elections, and using it to make it harder for people to vote. It’s about as ugly as you get.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us about the judge who made the ruling, Judge Maryann Sumi, John?

JOHN NICHOLS: Sure. Maryann Sumi is a senior judge on the Dane County Circuit Court. She is a very well regarded jurist who has served there for quite a long time. Intriguingly enough, she’s not some big liberal Democratic appointee. She was appointed to the court by former Governor Tommy Thompson, a Republican, and she has served on the court with a lot of respect from Republicans and Democrats.

The ruling that she has written is a very thoughtful one. I’ve read all the way through. And it’s really written to stand the test of legal challenge. It will be challenged in the State Supreme Court, perhaps as soon as next week. But this is a sound ruling that goes back to core Wisconsin values. And it’s not surprising that Sumi would do that. She’s deeply rooted in the legal community, not just of Madison, but of Wisconsin. And this ruling reflects a lot of the Wisconsin progressive tradition, which is very, very committed to the idea of open meetings and transparent and accessible government. I think she hit the mark very, very well. Judges that I’ve talked to, as well as lawyers, say this is a ruling that’s written not merely for political purposes to send a message, but to stand the legal test as it goes up the ladder. But I do think that there’s a decent chance that, even with our very divided and very complex State Supreme Court, it will stand a legal test.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And John, could you comment on the polls that indicate that Scott Walker, Governor Walker’s popularity has plummeted to such a degree that, for instance, that voters would choose Russ Feingold, the progressive senator who lost his reelection, as the new governor of Wisconsin if the election were held today?

JOHN NICHOLS: Absolutely. It’s quite a remarkable poll. It just came out the other day, and I think it’s caused a lot of fear, frankly, on the Republican side. This poll suggests that the Governor’s approval rating has dipped down into the very low forties, and with many key constituencies, much lower than that. The gender gap has opened up very wide, but also white working-class men, shifting away from the Governor in remarkable numbers.

What it all adds up to is that in hypothetical pairings, the Governor is now defeated by a landslide by former Mayor Tom Barrett — or current Mayor Tom Barrett of Milwaukee, the guy he beat just last November. So you have a reversal of last November’s election result. But as you point out, Juan, if the Governor were to face a challenge by Senator Russ Feingold, former Senator Russ Feingold, perhaps in a recall election as soon as early next year, according to this poll, he would lose by more than 10 points. And in Wisconsin, a very closely divided state, that’s a landslide. That’s a very significant number. And remember that Feingold hasn’t given any indication that he might run for the governorship, but just the prospect, he comes out way ahead of Governor Walker.

AMY GOODMAN: And John Nichols, Herb Kohl has also announced he’s not going to be running either, your Wisconsin senator. Do you think Feingold would try to return to the Senate or run for the governorship, if either?

JOHN NICHOLS: I can tell, without a doubt, that Russ Feingold is wrestling with this question. There are not many politicians who were recently defeated for their seat who suddenly are confronted with the prospect of running for another seat or the governorship. Wisconsinites would clearly like to see Feingold get back into the process. And the fact is, he’s wrestling with it. He’s trying to determine what to do. I don’t say that with any great insider knowledge, so much as just it’s quite clear from what he has done over the last few weeks. He has not made an announcement, but I do think he’s considering both prospects and looking at the possibility. If he doesn’t run, however, I think it’s important to point out that there are a number of other people who are interested in stepping up to these races, including Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin from Madison, who’s very much in the Feingold political tradition.

AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols, another Wisconsinite, extremely controversial, Paul Ryan.


AMY GOODMAN: The Senate has voted to reject the Republican budget plan, approved by the House last month, drafted by Paul Ryan, bill calling for gutting Medicare and Medicaid programs serving the poor, serving senior citizens. Talk about Paul Ryan and what he means for this nation right now.

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, Paul Ryan actually means a lot for this nation, because he’s proving the fallacy that the American people are ready to cut their entitlement programs in order to balance a budget that’s thrown out of whack by three undeclared wars and by the bailouts of big banks and big corporations. Ryan, who’s very, very close to Wall Street, has pushed that argument, not as transparently as I just stated it, but in a very real sense, for the last several years. He’s become a very popular figure in Republican circles, and frankly, in media circles. They became an obsessed with the guy, that this handsome, articulate — there’s a notion that this handsome, articulate young congressman from Wisconsin could really transform the political discourse and make America buy into the idea of getting rid of Medicare or Medicaid, Social Security. In reality, when confronted with the actual Ryan plan, the American people have rejected it at overwhelming levels. Some polls show as much as a four-to-one opposition to it, especially on the Medicare section. And now we have this New York result, New York special election for Congress, where you see a Republican district flip, basically on opposition to the Ryan plan.

What this all adds up to is that Paul Ryan has become a real symbol of a Republican extremism that Americans don’t buy into. And what’s very significant is that just as people across the country are really becoming quite unsettled by and opposed to this guy, there’s new polling in Wisconsin that shows that, for the first time, his disapproval levels outstrip his approval levels. So, Wisconsinites are waking up to this guy, and I think he’s going to face a very significant challenge next November from a Democrat who is going to run very hard, very passionately against the Ryan agenda and in favor of a vision of American fiscal policy that says: we don’t balance our budgets on the backs of poor and working-class folks and the elderly; we look for the people who really can pay the freight, and that’s our wealthiest individuals who are undertaxed, as well as our corporations that so frequently avoid paying their fair share.

AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols, thanks so much for being with us, of The Nation magazine, a many generation Wisconsinite, speaking to us from Wisconsin’s capital, from Madison, Wisconsin.

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