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Wisconsin Recall: As Voters Head to Polls, a Debate on Walker’s Record, Election Spending and Unions

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In the most expensive political race in Wisconsin’s history, voters will decide today whether Republican Gov. Scott Walker will finish his first term. The recall effort was launched last year after Walker stripped public sector unions of their collective bargaining rights and reduced their benefits. We go to Milwaukee for a debate about Walker, his Democratic challenger Tom Barrett, the role of public sector unions and what the vote means for the nation, with two guests: Richard Esenberg, head of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty and an adjunct professor of law at Marquette University, who supports Walker; and Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin, a coalition of social and economic justice groups and union locals, who supports Barrett. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: We go right now to Wisconsin, where voters are heading to the polls today for an historic recall election targeting Republican Governor Scott Walker. The recall effort was launched last year after Walker stripped public sector unions of their collective bargaining rights and reduced their benefits. The race between Walker and his Democratic opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, is expected to be close, but nearly every poll gives Walker the edge. Many analysts view the race as a proxy fight for this year’s presidential election.

On Monday, President Obama’s campaign Twitter account posted a note urging Wisconsin voters to go to the polls and, quote, “Make sure friends and neighbors know what’s at stake and help get out the vote.” While Obama has endorsed Barrett, he has not appeared in Wisconsin on his behalf. On Monday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney responded to questions about why Obama has not campaigned for Barrett.

PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: You know, you have a unique situation in Wisconsin where, you know, the event—the election is a result of a recall petition, but the president absolutely stands by Tom Barrett and, you know, hopes he prevails.

AMY GOODMAN: Last night, instead, President Obama and President Clinton were in New York at a major fundraiser. On Friday, former President Bill Clinton did go to Wisconsin to rally supporters for Barrett in the high-stakes election. He spoke at a rally in Milwaukee.

BILL CLINTON: If you believe—if you believe in an economy of shared prosperity when times are good and shared sacrifice when they’re not, then you don’t want to break the unions, you want them at the negotiating table, and you trust them to know that arithmetic rules. Show up and vote for Tom Barrett on Tuesday. If you believe in a state budget that has shared restraints, but shared opportunity, that preserves your future, investments in education and in jobs, and you want somebody who’s actually created jobs through cooperation—the only way that it works—show up and vote for Tom Barrett on Tuesday.

AMY GOODMAN: That was former President Bill Clinton. Incumbent Governor Scott Walker has had several prominent Republican backers come to his aid. High-profile endorsements include New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. On Sunday, Republican National Committee Chairm Reince Priebus sought to contrast Walker with President Obama.

REINCE PRIEBUS: Scott Walker is talking about his record. He’s talking about the fact that his reforms are working, that people are getting back to work, that businesses are coming in. You know, people’s property taxes have gone down. And, you know, you can’t keep operating a government that spends more money than it takes in. So, Scott Walker is one of these special people that have made promises and kept promises.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s RNC Committee Chair Reince Priebus, who is also from Wisconsin.

Well, Wisconsin voters also will be casting ballots for lieutenant governor and four state senate seats. With so much at stake, it’s turning out to be the most expensive in Wisconsin history, with more than $63 million spent. Walker raised more than 65 percent of his $30.5 million war chest from out-of-state donors.

For more—we are going to talk about the election, the national referendum on the future of public sector unions—we go now to Milwaukee for a debate. Richard Esenberg is president and general counsel of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty and an adjunct professor of law at Marquette University. He supports Governor Walker. And we’re joined by Robert Kraig, executive director of [Citizen Action of Wisconsin], a coalition of social and economic justice groups and union locals throughout the state.

Richard Esenberg, we welcome you to Democracy Now! We’ll start with you. Robert Kraig, as well. Richard Esenberg, talk about prospects for Governor Walker and why you think he should remain in his job as governor.

RICHARD ESENBERG: You know, I think that what frustrates us so much about our politicians is that they’re afraid to make tough decisions. When Governor Walker was elected in 2010, the state faced a $3.6 billion budget shortfall. It cannot deficit spend. The Constitution prohibits that. Governor Walker made the decision that he wanted to close that gap on a cash basis but not raise taxes in a state that already has high taxes and below-average national income. Rather than simply slash services, although there certainly were service reductions, he did that by trying to bend the cost curve of government, not only by reducing the benefits of public employees, but by restricting collective bargaining in a way which gave local units of government and the state government an opportunity to reduce costs without drastic service reductions. And the reason that he’s winning in every poll is it worked.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Kraig, what about that?

ROBERT KRAIG: Well, I think it was fundamentally about power. You didn’t actually have to remove the rights of workers to have a union in order to deal with the deficit. The deficit actually was not larger than previous deficits faced by previous governors. And even when the public employee unions offered to go with the painful healthcare and pension givebacks, and as long as they could keep their right to have a union, Walker refused even to talk to them. I think this was fundamentally about trying to change the power structure in Wisconsin, a key battleground state, and try to build in permanent power for conservatives.

And that’s why—by the way, he did not campaign on this at all. I know Rick talked about him making tough choices. The reason you had this uprising, which was like the Arab Spring on the streets of Madison for weeks, is because this was a complete sneak attack. And we now know it was a divide-and-conquer strategy. We know he told that to a Beloit billionaire on tape before he launched this Act 10, the attack on workers’ rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Richard Esenberg, what about the issue of money in this campaign? Talk about this unprecedented deluge of money coming into the state. Just give us the figures now between Tom Barrett and Walker, what they have raised and how much is being spent by they, themselves, and by these super PACs.

RICHARD ESENBERG: You know, I don’t have the figures at the tip of my fingers. My guess is that Governor Walker has raised more money, that both sides have raised a substantial amount of money from out of state. My take on that is a little bit different than most people’s. It seems to me that on both the left and the right, the money is coming in from out of state from people who sincerely believe that there’s a great deal at stake here. People on my side of the political aisle believe that what Governor Walker did is in the public interest, and there are people across the country who are interested in ensuring that governors in other states will feel that they’ve got the room to make this type of bold reform, and so they’re willing to spend money. People on the other side of the aisle feel quite differently and are also willing to invest in what they think the right thing is. So, you know, I don’t get upset about the fact that we spend money on politics. We spend far more money in this country selling beer and soap than we do in engaging in political discourse.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me put that question to Rick Esenberg, just the facts first, how much money has been raised on both sides and from where—Kraig.

RICHARD ESENBERG: Do you mean to—do you mean to Robert?

AMY GOODMAN: Sorry, I meant Robert Kraig.

ROBERT KRAIG: Yeah, in the general election, there’s been—it’s about eight—a little—about close to eight-to-one in favor of Walker in terms of the candidates. It’s a little hard to tell on the independent side, because the conservative groups aren’t reporting the expenditures. But it’s just an incredible blitzkrieg. And yes, of course, money has come in on the side of progressives, because it’s a rights issue. People think that there’s—that unions are crucial to having a strong middle class, and this is an attempt to do away with them, quite frankly, over time. But, quite frankly, it is people versus money power, because the amount of money on Walker’s side is much more. It’s an absolute carpet bombing. And it’s really a

AMY GOODMAN: How much?

ROBERT KRAIG: —portent of things to come, with—

AMY GOODMAN: How much is it, Robert Kraig?

ROBERT KRAIG: Well, as you said, Walker has taken in over $30 million, which blows away all records. Barrett has taken in around four—a little over $4 million. A little hard to tell on the independent side, but it’s an amazing blitzkrieg. And I think it’s the beginning of the whole post-Citizens United decision world, where the right is going to have endless money to try to win these elections. And we’ll find out in turnout today whether people power can overcome that, because you have a charismatic right-wing politician in Walker, who’s obviously hard to beat, and then just unbelievable financial resources behind him.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Kraig, what about the role of the Democratic Party in this? Where was President Obama, for example? Well, we know where he was last night. He was at a major fundraiser here in New York, was with former President Clinton. But he didn’t come to Wisconsin to campaign for Tom Barrett. The question of the Democratic National Committee giving money—all these questions that are being raised, why they haven’t given more to support the Milwaukee mayor running for governor.

ROBERT KRAIG: Now, the Democrats in the state have been wonderful ever since the uprising began. But there’s been an issue with people at the top of the party, and they either don’t understand how crucial this fight is for the future of the middle class in this country, or they’re simply trying to politically position themselves, they’re worried about how it will turn out for the general election. I think that’s the wrong call to make, because I don’t think there’s a real economic alternative, if you want a vibrant middle class, to having unions, having workers have a voice at the table. That’s how we built this middle class in the 20th century. So I think it’s problematic.

The only silver lining, though, is that this is a people movement, it’s a flat movement without charismatic leaders, and that that’s the new kind of social movement we need to have on the left. As you know, the Occupy movement in part was inspired by what happened on the streets of Madison. So, in a way, the movement doesn’t rely upon these national leaders, but it is disappointing that they don’t all seem to understand the stakes or aren’t willing to take a stand.

AMY GOODMAN: In January of 2011, Governor Scott Walker was recorded on tape telling billionaire businesswoman Diane Hendricks, a top donor of his, about his plan to divide and conquer the unions in Wisconsin. The comment is featured in the documentary, As Goes Janesville.

DIANE HENDRICKS: Any chance we’ll ever get to be a completely red state and work on these unions?


DIANE HENDRICKS: And become a right to work?

GOV. SCOTT WALKER: Well, what—in fact, the big thing we’re—

DIANE HENDRICKS: What can we do to help you?

GOV. SCOTT WALKER: Well, we’re going to start in a couple weeks with our budget adjustment bill. The first step is, we’re going to deal with collective bargaining for all public employee unions.


GOV. SCOTT WALKER: Because you just divide and conquer.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Walker was asked about his comments during the debate last Thursday. This was his response.

GOV. SCOTT WALKER: A year-and-a-half ago, what I was talking about was the fact that somebody needed to stand up and take on the powerful special interests in this state. I saw it for eight years as a county executive. I’ve seen it all across the state, that before our reforms, a handful of special interests dictated, at both the state and the local level, what was going to happen. Instead, we drew a line in the sand and said we’re going to put the power back in the hands of the taxpayer.

That’s one of the fundamental differences between the two of us. The mayor has said repeatedly throughout the primary he wants to go back and restore collective bargaining. That means undoing a billion dollars’ worth of savings. That means higher property taxes. That means higher property taxes on working families, on seniors and others out there. That’s documented out there. First time in a dozen years that property taxes have gone down on a medium-valued home. Those—

MODERATOR: Who were you trying to conquer, though? When you say—use those words, what do you mean?

GOV. SCOTT WALKER: The special interests, the ones that—

MODERATOR: So that’s who you’re trying to divide and conquer?

GOV. SCOTT WALKER: No, in our case, it’s literally about standing up and finally having someone that’s willing to stand up with the hard-working taxpayers in the state.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Scott Walker. Richard Esenberg, continue that point.

RICHARD ESENBERG: Well, you know, I think this idea about, you know, money and people power is just sloganeering. I mean, you have public employee unions in this state who make—and the average public employee makes a lot more money than the average worker and has a benefit package that the average worker could not manage to dream of. And so, maybe you believe that it would have been appropriate to raise taxes on average working people to preserve the status quo. The governor felt otherwise. He believes that prosperity comes from growth and not micromanaging of the economy by the state.

And so, for people on—for conservatives, this is important, but it’s not important because we believe that the middle class is preserved by unions. The middle class is not preserved by unions. Over 90 percent of the private sector workforce, middle-class people, are not unionized. I think that the view that unions are necessary in order to preserve the middle class is an anachronistic view. It might have been true in 1930. It certainly isn’t true in today’s global competitive economy.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me get a response from Robert Kraig of [Citizen Action of Wisconsin].

ROBERT KRAIG: Well, it’s just an historic fact that the rise in inequality the last 30 years is parallel the decline of private sector unions. I mean, that’s an historic fact. The problem is the divide-and-conquer strategy of Walker, it’s played out in the attack on public employees as the problem. So, rather than saying the banks are the problem or people, the 1 percent, who have made most of the money out of economic growth, we say it’s public employees. The fact is, public employees, if you adjust for education level, make less, slightly less, than private sector employees in Wisconsin. But instead, we focused on things like their healthcare benefits, which private sector employees have lost, rather than saying that everyone should have a right to good, affordable healthcare, everyone should have a good pension. But we’re going—it’s a race to the bottom. And the idea that teachers and janitors and snowplow drivers are the problem, our fiscal problem, is just a divide-and-conquer strategy. And that’s what we’re having a referendum on today in Wisconsin.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Kraig, I want to ask you about the John Doe investigations that we’re not hearing very much about. Can you explain them to a national audience?

ROBERT KRAIG: Well, we’re still a pretty clean state in Wisconsin. There have been scandals before where legislative leaders were thrown out over using public money and public employees in order to campaign. And Walker, as county executive, that was going on. There were two different deputy chiefs of staff who were involved. There are now 11 people who have been granted immunity. It’s very close to the governor. There are rumors that the governor might even be the target of the investigation. We’re not going to know before the election. But I think the whole—him having a number of people indicted that worked closely with him, and the secret email system that was found, has helped keep him around 50 percent. And I think that’s probably made it much more possible that he could lose today with great turnout and a great get-out-the-vote operation that progressives are trying to pull off here.

AMY GOODMAN: The other races and—but start, Richard Esenberg, by responding to what Robert Kraig just said about these investigations.

RICHARD ESENBERG: Well, you know, as a lawyer and a legal academic, I’m really disturbed when people try to take a legal proceeding and make it into a political football. You know, one of the things—notwithstanding everything that Robert has said here today, here in Wisconsin, we’re not hearing anything about collective bargaining or public spending, because it doesn’t resonate with the public. There’s this attempt to take a John Doe proceeding, which is secret—there is absolutely no evidence that the governor has done anything wrong, but nevertheless the Democrats are running ads filled with innuendo and speculation about things that they can’t possibly know. And I have to say that as someone who studies, loves and practices the law, I think that is extremely irresponsible.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Kraig?

ROBERT KRAIG: Well, we know that if the situation was reversed, if Governor Walker was running against someone who was being investigated in a John Doe investigation and people around him had been indicted, he would use it. So I don’t think there’s any difference in the ethics. The reason it plays, in part, is it gets down to the whole credibility issue around Governor Walker, who, by the way, if you look at PolitiFact, nationally, the fact checkers, is the least truthful governor in the country, of any place where there’s a PolitiFact. And so, I do think it plays into that whole question about him and his character. I know that there—we have a divided state, though. Republicans—he’s the most popular governor in the country among Republicans, the least popular among Democrats. So that also reflects the divide-and-conquer kind of strategy of Governor Walker. But it’s important to realize this is part of a national conservative strategy, and what happens here will come to other states if Governor Walker survives today. And so, that’s important to understand, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, the other races, the significance of them for the state legislature and lieutenant governor?

ROBERT KRAIG: Well, the Senate’s in play, in other words, so whether—even if Governor Walker is reelected, if there’s a one-seat pickup, then there would be a check on his power. And they’re all fairly close. There’s one in particular in Racine that’s probably the closest, but that’s also part of this whole dynamic. It could go either way. You could have a pickup of Senate seat by the Democrats and Walker winning; you could have Walker losing a pick and still have the Senate in Republican hands.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we will certainly follow up on this tomorrow. It’s a very big day in Wisconsin. I want to thank you both for being with us, Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action, and Richard Esenberg, president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, adjunct professor of law at Marquette University. That does it for our show. Tomorrow, Joe Stiglitz will join us, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, and we’ll talk about what happens in Wisconsin.

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