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WI Recall Marks Labor Win; Election Money Raises Question of U.S. as “Democracy or Dollar-ocracy?”

StoryAugust 10, 2011
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For analysis on the Wisconsin recall vote, we go to Madison to speak with John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine. Although Republicans hold onto a slim 17-to-16 majority after the election, Nichols says the Democrats’ pickup of two seats, coupled with the moderate stance of Republican State Sen. Dale Schultz, amounts to a new “pro-labor majority” in the Wisconsin State Senate. “Gov. Scott Walker took a hit last night,” Nichols says. “Even though Democrats didn’t win, progressive politics made a real advance.” Some $30 million was spent by outside groups on the Wisconsin recall. Looking forward to the 2012 national election, Nichols says the “biggest message out of Wisconsin from yesterday” is that “we’re going to see absolutely unprecedented amounts of money coming into our politics, and we’re going to have to ask ourselves a question: do we have a democracy, or do we have a dollar-ocracy?” [includes rush transcript]

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StoryAug 10, 2011Anti-Union Law Fuels Massive Voter Turnout for Historic Wisconsin Recall
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Wisconsin’s recall campaigns drew a massive get-out-the-vote effort by local and national groups that cost some $30 million, placing these among some of the costliest state legislative races ever to take place. The Indianapolis-based health insurer WellPoint, Inc., has been critical of the new federal healthcare law and is among the top donors to Republicans. The billionaire Koch brothers have also weighed in heavily on the elections, both financially and otherwise. Absentee ballots sent out by Koch-funded group Americans for Prosperity to voters in heavily Democratic districts mysteriously claim that the ballots must be returned only by August 11th, although the recall elections were held on August 9th.

For more, we go to Madison, Wisconsin, where we’re joined by John Nichols, a Wisconsin native who writes for The Nation magazine, has been covering the political developments in Madison for many months right now.

Welcome, John. Talk about the significance of these recall elections. The State Senate of Wisconsin remains Republican.

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, Amy, thanks for having me on, and I’m so glad we’re together, because we can burrow into these results a little more thoroughly than much of the national media will. They’re missing the real story of what happened yesterday in Wisconsin. Democrats and progressive groups, labor especially, took on six entrenched Republican incumbents in districts that were drawn to elect Republicans and that, in some cases, have elected Republicans steadily for more than a century. So, this fight was played out on the turf of conservative Republicans. With that reality, you saw two Democrats win.

But here’s the really important backstory on this. When the State Senate was wrestling with these issues back in February and March, there was one Republican state senator, a fellow named Dale Schultz from out in rural southwestern Wisconsin, who refused to go along with the other Republicans on any of the labor issues. He stood on the floor alone and objected to what the Republicans are doing. If you add the 16 Democratic senators now and Dale Schultz together, while you don’t have a Democratic majority in the State Senate, you now have a 17-16 pro-labor majority. So something significant happened last night. This is not to say that everything that’s happened up to this point in Wisconsin is going to be reversed. But what people do need to understand is Governor Scott Walker took a hit last night. And depending on how Dale Schultz, this maverick Republican, operates, there is a possibility that his efforts to advance further anti-labor laws, like a right-to-work law, as well as efforts to privatize education, will be stalled because of the votes last night. So even though Democrats didn’t win, I think progressive politics made a real advance.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the Senate is now 17-to-16 Republican. Could a state senator switch parties?

JOHN NICHOLS: Yes. Absolutely he could switch parties. But I’m not predicting that will happen. Wisconsin has historically had a tradition of a lot of bipartisan politics. We’ve had rural progressives and urban conservatives. We’ve had liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. Dale Schultz, who I’m speaking of, is a throwback to that old maverick, more moderate Republican tradition. If he votes with Democrats on education issues, on labor issues, they are going to be able to stall out further initiatives by the Governor in these areas. At the very least, we have a moderate now who is in a position to wrestle with these issues and potentially temper the rest of his party. He has already shown a willingness to break with this fellow Republicans on major issues.

And so, what I’m telling you is, too often the national media and so much of our media in this country covers politics as a simple Democrat-versus-Republican fight. And let me be clear to you, there are a lot of disappointed progressives in Wisconsin, labor folks, who would have loved to have taken control, full control, of the State Senate for the Democrats last night. But what I’m saying is that as these issues play out over the coming months, my sense is it will be a different politics in the state legislature because of that much closer margin.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about Alberta Darling’s race, which caused many people to be up very late. Talk about the area, the history of the voting, just going back earlier this year, the significance of what took place there, and how she held onto her seat.

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, last night, Amy, there were a lot of people pulling their hair out at about 11:00, 11:30 at night, Central time, because Alberta Darling’s race—she’s the Joint Finance Committee co-chair, the Governor’s key point person on budget issues in the Senate. She was being challenged by a very progressive nurse named Sandy Pasch. And that race was extremely close. But Sandy Pasch was ahead, and everybody was waiting for the last votes to come in from Waukesha County. That’s a very suburban, very Republican county, a small part of which was in this Alberta Darling-Sandy Pasch district. They didn’t come, they didn’t come, they didn’t come. When they finally did, they dumped a huge total of votes for Alberta Darling.

The frustration with that is that in April, when we had a Supreme Court election here in Wisconsin, at that point the same thing happened. People were waiting and waiting and waiting for results, and finally Waukesha County dumps in a big total for the Supreme Court justice who was very close to Governor Walker. And even then, that wasn’t enough. Then, two days later, the Waukesha County clerk found another 7,300 votes in favor of the conservative candidate. There’s beeen a pattern in Waukesha County—

AMY GOODMAN: And so, David Prosser kept his judgeship.

JOHN NICHOLS: —that has raised a lot of concern. Yeah. There’s been—and this pattern didn’t start with David Prosser, either. There have been legislative races in that county, there have been local races in that county, where the county clerk has not delivered the vote in anything akin to a timely manner and has actually had severe screw-ups, to the extent that the conservative Republican county board there has condemned her and told her to stop doing many of the things she’s been doing. So we’ve got a very controversial local election official, and it’s almost beyond comprehension that this incredible battle, where you had all this fighting for the last five, six months, came down to this one county, and once again we had what was clearly a frustrating and messy, at the very least, if we’re very generous, messy count in this county.

AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols, Congress Member Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin has called for that area to be investigated, the polling places there?

JOHN NICHOLS: Yes. In fact, she—Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, back in April, wrote a very detailed letter to the U.S. Department of Justice saying that, in her view, the counting in Waukesha County was such a mess, and there were so many controversial and unexplainable developments there—votes being found two days after elections that were just enough to put a candidate outside of the recount margin, things of that nature, election results that actually had to be reversed because the count was so screwed up—that she asked the U.S. Department of Justice to open an investigation. And these investigations are not uncommon. The Department of Justice has a team of election fraud experts, who are very, very good at going in and looking at problems in areas around the country. The Obama administration and the Department of Justice has not chosen to open that investigation. And I have to be honest with you, I think there are a lot of Wisconsinites that are quite frustrated by that fact, because there is a sense that something is amiss in Waukesha County.

AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols, I wanted to ask you about what these recall elections mean for Governor Scott Walker. Could he face his own recall election next year? Last week, Governor Walker was booed off the stage at the opening ceremonies of the Wisconsin State Fair. Protesters chanted, “Recall Walker!”

JOHN NICHOLS: Yes. Look, there’s no question that there’s an immense amount of energy for—

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s take a listen to what happened there.

JOHN NICHOLS: Oh, I’m sorry.

GOV. SCOTT WALKER: On behalf of the entire state of Wisconsin, we now officially declare the 2011 Wisconsin State Fair open for business.

CROWD: Recall Walker! Recall Walker! Recall Walker!

AMY GOODMAN: “Recall Walker!” they are chanting. John Nichols, is that possibly going to happen? And what does this mean that the Republican State Senate remains Republican?

JOHN NICHOLS: Sure. Amy, I think we have to look at the results from last night and recognize that these races last night took place in some of the most Republican districts in the state, and Democrats still picked up two seats, held their own, very close margins, in a number of the other districts. Additionally, we’re going to have two recall elections next week where Democratic senators are going to face challenges. If the two Democrats win next week, and you combine them with the results from this week, there are going to be an awfully lot of folks in Wisconsin who say, look, you know, even in rural areas, you saw significant votes against this governor’s agenda. If you combine those rural areas with heavily Democratic areas, like Madison and Milwaukee and some of the other cities around the state, there really is a base there where you could talk about recalling the Governor.

It’s an incredibly tough task. To do a recall of a governor in this state would require something in the range of 750,000, 800,000, maybe even a million signatures to be gathered. That’s an incredible number. But I have to tell you, Amy—I’ve covered politics for a long time—the grassroots energy in Wisconsin, this desire to hold this governor to account and to reverse his agenda, particularly on labor issues, is very intense. And so, they would start with the ability to get the signatures, I suspect. But it would be an incredibly intense, brutal battle. And, you know, I guess the best way to say it is, it would be in character with what we have seen for the last five or six months here. This state is deeply divided, but the polling suggests to us that Governor Walker’s personal approval rating is down to only about 34 or 35 percent. So if you’re looking at somebody who would be a prospective recall target, he remains very much in that zone.

AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols, we just have a minute to go, and I want to talk about the national implications of what has just taken place in Wisconsin and the amount of outside Wisconsin money that was poured into these races. We’re talking about millions of dollars.

JOHN NICHOLS: Yes. This could end up being about a $40 million competition for six rather small state legislative districts. That’s absolutely unprecedented at the national level. And I think we have to say this was the first Citizens United election, obviously referencing that Supreme Court decision that allowed corporations and very wealthy people to basically do whatever they want in politics. So much money flowed into Wisconsin, and I have to tell you, Amy, I think that may be the biggest message out of Wisconsin from yesterday. That is, that as we look toward 2012, we have to acknowledge that we’re going to see absolutely unprecedented amounts of money coming into our politics, and we’re going to have to ask ourselves a question: do we have a democracy, or do we have a dollar-ocracy? In Wisconsin, in some of these recalls, it was a dollar-ocracy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we will leave it there. John Nichols, thanks so much for being with us, writes for The Nation magazine, maintains the blog “The Beat” at

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