Wisconsin recall: Battleground for hearts and minds
(CBS News) JEFFERSON, Wis. - The Tea Party Express rolled into Wisconsin last week to mobilize support for first-term Republican Governor Scott Walker and defeat a recall the would remove him from office after only 18 months.
"Wisconsin is a battleground state for the nation. The reforms that we need in this country occurred in Wisconsin," said Howard Kaloogian, who heads the Our Country Deserves Better political action committee, which funds the national Tea Party group.
The reforms Walker, 44, enacted last year, with the backing of a Republican state legislature, aimed to close a $3.6 billion dollar budget gap and included, most controversially, outlawing collective bargaining by public service unions, while cutting their pay and benefits.
"Governor Walker has brought the state budget into balance, and that makes him a Tea Party poster child, in that sense, because we are all about fiscal issues," Kaloogian said. "There is a limit to how much responsible people who earn their own money are willing to give up for people who are not earning their own money, and you've reached that limit here in Wisconsin."
Conservative Wisconsin voter Gerald Harris, a maintenance engineer who attended the Tea Party rally in Jefferson, said those changes saved him money.
"It's a first time in a long time that the actual taxes went down - not for everybody, but they did go down," said Harris, who voted for Walker in 2010 and will do so again Tuesday.
"He's finally starting to do something with the radical public unions, putting them in line," added retiree Ron Froemming, who came to the Tea Party rally with his wife. "Walker is starting to clean up a lot of things here."
Walker's message is his reforms are working. The state has gained 30,000 jobs since he took office, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and unemployment is down to 6.7 percent - 1.5 percent below the national average.
"We want our children to have a better future than the one we inherited. That's what this election's all about," Walker told workers Friday at Quad Graphics, a printing plant 25 miles west of Milwaukee.
Walker's critics argue his budget policies hurt middle class and lower income residents by cutting spending for public education and planning to reduce funds for the state's government subsidized health care (known as BadgerCare).
"In two years it could be worse, if he's cutting BadgerCare," said nursing assistant Ceara Shands, a Service Employees International Union (SEIU) member who relies on Badger Care for her three-year-old son. "My son starts school next year. The class size is already too big, and if he still plans on cutting even more, it could be horrible."
Melody Evans-Walker, a home health care aide also in SEIU, said, "We need leaders and public servants that's going to help the people, not harm the people. Not cut, cut, cut, but help, help, help."
SEIU and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) spearheaded the petition drive that yielded more than 900,000 valid signatures - almost double the number needed to force the recall election.
Jim Garity, who drives a truck for the Jefferson County government and is a local leader of AFSME, said, "It was about pitting public workers against taxpayers, private unions. It was divide and conquer - that's exactly what the governor said, and that's exactly what he did."
The "divide and conquer" complaint has became a mantra of Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, 58, who would replace walker if the recall succeeds. He likes to say Walker, who has received millions of dollars from out of state donors, aspires to be a "rock star of the far right."
Barrett told a large campaign rally on Friday his goal would be "making sure the middle class is part of the solution and is not the enemy of the state, because we have a governor who has done a wonderful job making the wealthiest people the happiest people."
Barrett was accompanied by former President Bill Clinton, who won Wisconsin in the 1992 and 1996 general elections, in an effort to excite Democratic turnout, particularly in Milwaukee and Madison.
"I can just hear it now, on Wednesday - all those people that poured all this money into Wisconsin, if you don't show up and vote, will say, 'See, we got them now. We're finally going to break every union in America, we're gonna break every government in America,'" Clinton told the crowd. "You tell them, 'No!'"
The state board of elections predicts turnout of 60 to 65 percent, which would be a record for a gubernatorial election but slightly less than 69 percent turnout in the last presidential election. The prediction would yield 2.6 to 2.8 million voters, compared to the 2.1 million who participated in 2010, when Walker beat Barrett 52 percent to 47 percent.
Even if Walker survives this Tuesday, the recall may not be an indicator of how Wisconsin will vote in November. President Obama easily carried the state over John McCain in 2008 and is more popular there now than Mitt Romney. Wisconsin has voted Democratic in the last six presidential elections.
One irony of Walker's actions curbing union power is that in 1959 Wisconsin became the first state to recognize the right of public employees to collectively bargain.
"If they can get away with this here they can get away with this anywhere," said Christine Christie, a retired teacher who voted early to recall Walker. "I'd say he's out of touch with an awful lot of people who still have memories and remember when people fought and died for that right, and we can't let one governor take that away from us."
Among the out-of-state political figures boosting Walker's campaign was fellow first-term Republican Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina, another Tea Party favorite.
"I call him a leader," Haley told CBS News on Friday. "We know who we work for - it's not the special interests, it's the people of our states."
When asked by CBS News the stakes in the recall, Walker told reporters after his debate with Barrett on Thursday, "People have complained to me for years that politicians, be it at the local, state, or federal level, don't have the courage to take on the tough issues - the issues people fundamentally know need to be taken on. We took on those issues, thought more about the next generation than we did just about the next election."
"It's a powerful, powerful message for the future," Walker continued. "If it goes in the opposite direction, I think it sets aside political courage for years."
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