In less than a month, Wisconsinites will go to their polling places to cast a vote in the gubernatorial recall election. If you are unaware, Governor Scott Walker came under intense criticism for a series of bills he supported that weakened unions. Of specific note, collective bargaining rights were stripped from unions. A non-trivial section of the populace, supported by unions from within Wisconsin and from other other states, staged large protests at the capitol in Madison.
Additionally, the "Wisconsin 14", fourteen Democrats from the state senate, fled the state to stall passage of the bills. The protests and senatorial hijinks continued for months, with counter-protests forming and the political tone in Wisconsin becoming increasingly venomous and partisan. While I did not return to Wisconsin, I did attend a support protest at Los Angeles City Hall.
Even there, the tone was often mocking and negative. When I talked to people back home, I was dismayed by tendencies to demonize and belittle. Even though I supported blocking Governor Walker's bills and maintaining unions' collective bargaining rights, it was painful for me to see my home's political climate, so moderate and civil in my lifetime, turn bitter, inconsiderate, and zealous.
My mother's parents were union folks. Her father helped form a machinist's union and both he and my grandmother served as local presidents. My father's father was a shoemaker and a farmer. There were no unions for him. No unions for my father (sculptor) or me (game designer). I'm fine with not being in a union. I'm glad I am paid very well and receive good benefits, but I understand that not everyone has it so easy. I'm glad that unions can be formed and can collectively bargain for rights. I also understand that, like any organization, unions are made of people, and people can be bad. Some unions are terrible, locally and nationally.
For me, the issue was never to place unions in a position superior to businesses; I don't think there's anything inherently virtuous about either group of people. I just thought Walker's bills pushed the balance too far. Maybe those who supported them thought they were fine, but certainly they could see why unions exist... right? Certainly those who supported unions could see why some would criticize some union practices... right? This is the state that produced "Fighting Bob" La Follette, and Russ Feingold, but elected Tommy Thompson governor for four terms and historically has a fair split of Democrat/Republican presidential results (excepting 1924, when it went Progressive). We enacted the Wisconsin Idea, La Follette and the Progressives' vision of the UW system working with the government to produce better lives for all Wisconsinites. We've been a state of farmers, cheesemakers, manufacturers, brewers, fishers, and miners. To me, Wisconsinites have always seemed on board with working things out and using common sense. I may have been mistaken.
When I visited Wisconsin for two weeks in February of this year, I saw more hostile political billboards, lawn signs, and bumper stickers than I had in the twenty-three years I lived in the state. The recall primary, which took place yesterday, was months away and the protests were almost a year in the past, but people were still mad. Mad about everything. A family friend came over to the house. When he walked in, he pointed to everyone in the room and said, "We're all Democrats here, right? Right?" He was joking, but not really.
I don't feel my expectations are too high. I don't expect people not to be mad. I don't expect them not to yell, not to protest, not to rally. I just expect them to not shake and sputter with hate, not to threaten and insult those who disagree with them, not to belittle physical or other personal characteristics of their opponents. Maybe they do that in other states, but not in Wisconsin... right?
There's a little less than a month to go before the recall. I support Tom Barrett even though he is not "the union" candidate. I don't feel Wisconsin needs "a union" governor. In my opinion, it needs a governor who understands that there should be a balance between the power of unions and the power of corporations. If you disagree in any way, that's fine. It's all fine. We can talk about it and vote about it (well, you can vote about it, I can pay property taxes and complain if Barrett loses). We can be civil. We can earnestly accept the other side is trying to do the right thing. In the end, I'm less concerned with who winds up in the capitol and more concerned with how the electorate winds up, how we see each other and treat each other. Though I've lived in California for thirteen years, I've always considered Wisconsin to be my home. I don't want it to be just another place where partisans spit fire and tear each others' throats out.