Whatever the final result of the recall election for the Wisconsin governor next Tuesday, the fact of the recalls themselves and the huge grassroots campaign to achieve them – in the face of the reluctance of the Obama administration and Democratic establishment to give support until the last minute – is a major victory. The first round of recalls last year reduced the Republican senate majority to one, and on Tuesday there are four more senate recalls together with the governor’s and lieutenant-governor’s.
Cap Times editor John Nichols points out that “this is the most sweeping set of recalls in American history. We’ve never had a situation where on a single day a state could change control of both its executive branch and the dominant house of the legislative branch. … if just one seat is picked up – the Democrats gain full control of the state senate. That in itself is a pretty big deal.”
If Walker were voted out of office, or even if the Democrats were to regain control of the senate, it would curb his attempts to sell the resources of the state to the super-rich – his slogan “Wisconsin is open for business” is code for “The public property of Wisconsin is up for grabs.” It doesn’t matter to him if the natural beauty and ecology of the state is destroyed by strip-mining, or that people sink deeper into debt. He just wants to keep his wealthy donors rewarded with whatever tax breaks or immunity from legal control they can profit from.
As Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne noted: “Wisconsin has become the most glaring example of a new and genuinely alarming approach to politics on the right. It seeks to use incumbency to alter the rules and tilt the legal and electoral playing field decisively toward the interests of those in power. … This recall should not have had to happen. But its root cause was not the orneriness of Walker’s opponents but a polarizing brand of conservative politics that most Americans, including many conservatives, have good reason to reject.”
Walker’s huge spending on attack ads is not aimed at changing the minds of independents – it’s to keep his base fired up. He needs to keep his potential voters motivated because otherwise some of the scandals surrounding his political career will cause them to doubt his suitability for any kind of government responsibility. The frenzied media blitz helps to keep partisan divisions at fever pitch.
John Nichols in the interview cited above explains that “aides for the governor, and perhaps the governor himself – that remains to be seen – set up a secret campaign operation in the [Milwaukee] County Executive’s Office where people were paid out of the Treasury for pretty much just full-time campaign work for Scott Walker and his favorite candidates. It was effectively a recreation of an old-style political machine without any rules. It appears to have been illegal. That’s why his deputy chief of staff, his scheduler, his former deputy chief of staff have all been charged. … It’s also why the governor is now represented by four separate law firms, including two of the top criminal defense law firms. … The guy is looking at major state and potentially federal investigations into his activities.”
What Walker’s regime means for ordinary people is made clearer by another series of scandals surrounding the state environmental agency, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). According to an investigation in the Wisconsin State Journal, a former Republican state legislator, Scott Gunderson, who was appointed as executive assistant to DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp by the Walker administration, “chose not to send a complaint against an Oconomowoc waste hauler to the Department of Justice for prosecution despite findings by agency staff that the company was treating fields with so much human waste from septic tanks it risked poisoning nearby wells … Instead, Gunderson decided to ask district attorneys in Waukesha and Jefferson counties to issue five citations against Herr Environmental and fine the company $4,338 — the minimum forfeiture for the permit violations, which the lead DNR investigator called ‘among the worst’ he’d seen.”
Also implicated is the local state representative, Joel Kleefisch, who is the husband of Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefish who is facing recall on Tuesday. According to a DNR investigator who spoke to the State Journal, he argued that five citations were too many and should be reduced by two or three “as a show of good faith.” At a public meeting, concerned homeowners in the area were told that neither the DNR nor the hauler would pay for tests on the water quality of their wells and they should do it themselves.
The Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch explained that the story was “the second part of a two-part series by the State Journal, the first part having revealed that the DNR’s environmental activity has dropped dramatically in the past two years under the Walker administration and that the number of permit violation notices from the department hit a 12-year low last year. The DNR’s Secretary Cathy Stepp, appointed by Walker, is a former Republican state senator who ran her family’s construction business after leaving public office. Before her appointment, Stepp was an outspoken critic of the DNR, calling its employees ‘anti-development, anti-transportation, and pro-garter snakes, karner blue butterflies, etc.’ Walker said that his controversial decision to appoint Stepp was because he was looking for a DNR chief with a ‘chamber-of-commerce mentality’.”
At the same time, the landscape in northern Wisconsin is being devastated to feed the growing appetite of the natural gas fracking industry for high-grade sand. Rolling hills containing the sand are being leveled and the valleys filled with dumped industrial waste water. The DNR has done nothing to monitor how much crystalline silica – a carcinogen like asbestos – is released into the air by sand mining, and it recently denied a petition by people living in the region that it control the amount being dispersed by mining operations.
Given the appointment of Cathy Stepp as DNR Secretary, one of the petition’s signatories, Ron Koshoshek, wasn’t surprised. “For 16 years he was a member of, and for nine years chaired, Wisconsin’s Public Intervenor Citizens Advisory Committee. Created in 1967, its role was to intercede on behalf of the environment, should tensions grow between the DNR’s two roles: environmental protector and corporate licensor. ‘The DNR,’ he says, ‘is now a permitting agency for development and exploitation of resources’.” Instead of being able to protect the public good, state environmental professionals are being overruled by Walker’s political appointees.
All this could be overturned in Tuesday’s election. As John Nichols put it: “… this mass mobilization, which the unions have put a lot of their resources and energy into, has the potential to produce a sufficient number of new voters. The traditionally unpolled voters such as young people, people of color, and rural people can make this a close and potentially very winnable race not just for Tom Barrett but for the incredible movement that developed last year.”