Wisconsin, Inc.: New Republican Politics in the Age of the Recall

by Abe Sauer

James Smith said that, at first, he was worried about a backlash. “No one protested my house yet,” he said. “I thought that was coming for sure this weekend.”

A 25-year-old behemoth redhead, Smith works as a technician at Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center. His Facebook page says he’s a fan of Rachel Maddow. His real Facebook page describes him very differently. He’s a Republican who is running for office in Wisconsin. He’s a would-be spoiler.

What Smith doesn’t know is that he is being sacrificed, like so much else, by a rogue Wisconsin Republican Party determined to monetize as much of the state as possible before everyone gets recalled. Iron ore. Internet access. Human beings. It doesn’t matter. Welcome to Wisconsin, Inc.

To get to La Crosse, you follow Interstate 90, going northwest out of Madison, and it’s a good highway, and often new. On the banks of the Mississippi River, just across from the People’s Republic of Minnesota, it’s a wet University town that just decriminalized limited marijuana possession. It’s hard to believe that inside such a leafy quaint place some of the dirtiest politics in the nation are brewing.

The outraged thousands who descended on Madison in March have fulfilled a promise, triggering recall elections for nearly a third of the state’s senators.

With recalls certified for nine senators (six Republican; three Democratic), the impatient Republican majority has called a rare “extraordinary session” to punch through the collective bargaining prohibitions of the budget bill. But just as the session started, the state’s highest court ruled, speedily, in favor of the bill’s passage. The most surprising part of the court’s ruling was the dissenting opinion, in which the Chief Justice, in no uncertain terms, accused the majority of disinformation: that the ruling “set forth their own version of facts without evidence.”

That may sound tame by the screaming hyena standard of cable news political discourse, but in the legal world, it’s a bona fide scandal and finally confirms that everything in Wisconsin, from the highest court in the land to the dirt, has become rabidly partisaned.

To stall the recall elections, the state Republican Party has openly admitted it will run “spoiler” candidates in the Republican recalls, in order to force a Democratic primary and postpone, for a month, the general elections.

The promiscuous nature of the emergency session may also be used to pass as many bills as possible before recall elections potentially shift the power in the senate.

To stall the recall elections, the state Republican Party has openly admitted it will run “spoiler” candidates in the Republican recalls, in order to force a Democratic primary and postpone, for a month, the general elections. Those who made “consequences” a rallying cry after November 2010, are suddenly not so fond of the concept.

The spoiler candidate strategy is a move many Wisconsin voters find distasteful. And yet: the Wisconsin Democratic Party appears eager to bite. “We cannot and will not stoop to the Republicans’ level by encouraging candidates to lie about their party affiliation, or recommending that people try to deceive voters,” said Dem Chair, Mike Tate — and then announced that the party will run “placeholder” candidates to force primary elections in all six of the Democratic recalls.

Not only are the Democrats apparently so dense they think Wisconsin voters will punish the Republicans for the financial irresponsibility of “spoiler” candidates but not the Dems for “placeholders,” but also, as state Republicans have rightly pointed out, it’s pretty rich for the Dems to take the high road.

In the 2010 race for the 25th Assembly District representative, a candidate recruited by the AFSCME union got on the ballot as a Republican in an attempt to split the conservative vote against Rep. Bob Ziegelbauer. (The tactic didn’t work.)

Meanwhile, as both sides complain about how best to fix the state budget shortfall, these placeholding spoilers will cost the respective counties about $45,000 per election, meaning the forced primaries will cost Wisconsin taxpayers more than $400,000 on top of the $400,000-plus for the general recall elections.

Especially for the “fiscally responsible” Republicans, this stunt seems indefensible.

Wisconsin Republican Party executive director Stephan Thompson has claimed that the “protest candidates” are being used because GOP incumbents are disadvantaged by the fact that Democratic challengers can campaign, while the recalled senators must continue working in Madison. But in La Crosse, for example, recalled GOP Senator Dan Kapanke’s challenger is Rep. Jennifer Shilling, a current legislator. The same is true of Republican Senator Alberta Darling, who is being challenged by current Democratic Representative Sandra Pasch.

One election where a senator is, by Thomas’ definition, “disadvantaged,” is the recall election of Republican Senator Rob Cowles, who is being challenged by fake Democrat Otto Junkerman. Junkerman, who is 82 and a former Republican state representative, once described on the House floor how he had turned in his own son for using and selling drugs, after which, his wife left him.

Fake Democrat John Buckstaff hates Wisconsin so much he took out a $3,600 ad in the Wall Street Journal in 1986, complaining about the business climate and advocating people “escape” the state. That came a year after his business was sued by the Department of Natural Resources for air pollution.

The Republicans have also put up another octogenarian, Gladys Huber, formerly an Ozaukee County Republican Party board member, as a Democrat — forcing a primary and moving the general recall election of Alberta Darling to August. Other longtime Republicans who will run as Democrats include 65-year-old Rol Church and John Buckstaff. Both retirees, the former was a financial backer for “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” and the latter is a self-made business leader in that he made himself by selling the huge furniture corporation he inherited. Buckstaff hates Wisconsin so much he took out a $3,600 ad in the Wall Street Journal in 1986, complaining about the business climate and advocating people “escape” the state. That came a year after his business was sued by the Department of Natural Resources for air pollution.

What almost all of the recruited Republicans have in common is that they do not need to worry about living down their actions, even if they do have to worry about living through the campaign.

All but James Smith.

* * *

Born in 1985, it’s not difficult to see how James Smith got himself into this mess. A Republican groupie, Smith is painfully willing to please the Republican party he fetishizes. Smith’s real — as in, private — Facebook page features photo after photo of him standing alongside Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, Newt Gingrich, Senator Ron Johnson, Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen and Governor Scott Walker. And there he is next to Dan Kapanke, the recalled Republican Senator that Smith resigned his local GOP post to register as a Democrat to run against.

James Smith is what would happen if Lennie from Of Mice and Men somehow became involved in All the King’s Men.

James Smith worked on Governor Scott Walker’s election. He was a delegate to the Republican State Convention. It was a week ago that he resigned his position on the La Crosse County Republican Party Executive Committee and filed as a Democratic candidate for partisan state office. Smith admits that the candidacy was arranged by the state party. The fake Facebook page, Smith said, was done by himself, “for the fun of it.”

The most generous possible way to describe him is naive. James Smith is what would happen if Lennie from Of Mice and Men somehow became involved in All the King’s Men.

Smith told me that the state Republican office, with which he spoke before announcing his candidacy, helped him get signatures for his nomination papers. Needing only 400, he already had more than 600 on Sunday. He told me he’s shooting for 800, though, because he expects many of them will be challenged. Smith received many of these signatures thanks to a letter circulated on his behalf by the 3rd District Republican Party Chair, Maripat Krueger. The letter asking for signatures, dated June 3 and signed by Krueger, also read “Paid for by Friends of James Smith, James Smith, Treasurer.”

Yet, on June 14, Smith told me he had not raised any money. When I asked him where the money came from for “Friends of James Smith,” Smith said, “I don’t know.” He is also unsure how he became treasurer.

Neither Krueger nor the 3rd District Republican Party responded to requests for comment.

By just getting on the ballot and forcing a primary, his candidacy is already successful, which means he is no longer necessary. Like the other dull patsies, Smith has been suckered into doing something the rest of the state’s Republican leadership supports, but is too spineless and self-preservationist to volunteer for themselves.

Smith’s future political career, whatever he imagined for himself, is ruined — and Smith’s unmistakable physical stature makes it impossible for him to blend in anywhere.

A lifelong resident of La Crosse, James Smith’s name is mud. The local newspaper has a steady stream of letters to the editor, such as June 10’s “Smith should be ashamed of actions.” At 25, he’s a local villain in a town of 50,000, the kind of small place where people traditionally try and keep a low profile. A Willie Stark who never quite figures out what Tiny Duffy is up to, Smith’s future political career, whatever he imagined for himself, is ruined — and Smith’s unmistakable physical stature makes it impossible for him to blend in anywhere.

Smith plays a far larger role in the Republican strategy than he probably understands. Dan Kapanke, the senator for whom Smith is throwing himself on a grenade, will be removed by a grenade coming soon after. Kapanke is the most vulnerable of the recalled senators, and he knows it. During the height of the Madison protests, Kapanke claimed that protestors had smashed his windshield, despite police reports that noted the small chip was “consistent with a stone being picked up from another vehicle tire and launched into the air.” More recently, Kapanke was recorded saying “We’ve got tons of government workers in my district. Tons…. We gotta hope that they, kind of, are sleeping on July 12th. Or whenever the date is.” As expected, Kapanke’s continents didn’t take kindly to their elected representatives pinning hopes on their sleeping habits.

In what was largely seen as a referendum on Governor Walker in April, La Crosse County went for unknown challenger Joanne Kloppenburg against sitting Supreme Court Judge David Prosser. Just after that, a special election to fill the seat of 16-year incumbent Republican Representative Mike Huebsch was won by a Democrat.

At a “chicken Q” fundraiser at the Concordia polka hall in La Crosse, I listened as Shilling, alongside new rock star, state Senator Jon Erpenbach, addressed hundreds and banged away on the Democrats’ latest winning strategy: Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan. Tying Kapanke to the Republican plan to gut the entitlement will play no worse in Wisconsin than it did in Buffalo. Even the Republicans know this — fellow Wisconsinite Paul Ryan was suddenly removed as a guest at a Kapanke recall fundraiser in May.

Three of the ten people I spoke with at the “chicken Q” admitted they had voted for Walker and Kapanke. La Crosse County — Democrat from the waist up, Republican from the waist down — went for Walker in the 2010 gubernatorial election. It won’t do it again.

The most telling example of Kapnake’s future is the yard signs. Throughout La Crosse, I saw Shilling for Senate signs everywhere. After several days in town, I had counted only four Kapanake yard signs. During my visit to the La Crosse Republican Party’s office, I spied piles of Kapanke signs piled up in the back room, gathering dust. Meanwhile, a month before the July 12 election date, the Shilling campaign posted on its Facebook page that it was currently out of yard signs, its second batch, but that it was printing more.

For the current herd of Republican legislators, James Smith is just a resource. Dug from the ground, sucked from a river, recruited via a conference call, it’s all just a natural resource that desperately wants to be capitalized. This new strain of Republican is not one Wisconsin, nor the United States, has ever seen. Gone is the Republican who, in genuinely wanting the best for Wisconsin, cut corners and chomped cigars with captains of industry, rolling the silk purse strings in his fingers in an attempt to balance the sort of corporate patronage that had ever been. The new Republicans are corporate wrecking crews, given a sledgehammer, a piece of legislation and a command to “make it fit.”

They’re making it fit. All of it.

* * *

Madison. Since election, Governor Walker is fond of saying the state is now “open for business.” But Wisconsin isn’t just opening up to business, it’s becoming business, where human and natural resources are valued only immediately as commodities.

Late in the draft process, the University Omnibus legislation suddenly swelled with provisions that would force the University of Wisconsin system to cease support of WiscNet, a high-speed Internet network started in 1989 and now servicing schools, hospitals and municipal governments statewide. The provision forces the UW to return more than $37 million in federal funding to expand the service, including hundreds of miles of new fiber-optic cables. Republican legislators and the Wisconsin Telecommunications Association point out that the UW can use BadgerNet, a state-run network supplied by private providers such as AT&T. UW administrators estimate that the $2 million it would spend on WiscNet services by 2016 would amount to payments to BadgerNet over the same period of $27 million. That doesn’t even count the schools.

Three-fourths of public schools and nearly every public library in the state accesses the Internet via WiscNet. The new language will require them to contract with private providers, multiplying schools’ ISP costs just as Walker cuts their budgets and expands access, and state payments, to private charter schools.

As with every naked quest for profit, the collateral damage will be significant. For beginners, UW officials have pointed out that the provision will require the UW to resign from its partnership in federal research networks like Internet2 and BOREAS-net.

Another new proposal offered by the corporate-controlled legislature is a relaxing of the state’s child labor laws, essentially allowing 16-year-olds to work the same schedules as adults.

Another new proposal offered by the corporate-controlled legislature is a relaxing of the state’s child labor laws, essentially allowing 16-year-olds to work the same schedules as adults. Michelle Kussow, the grocers association’s vice president of governmental affairs and communications, told The Cap Times that “the limited number of hours they could work” was “tough on teens.” Those “limited” hours? 26 during school weeks, 32 during partial weeks, and 50 during vacations and summer break.

This new unrestricted work schedule dovetails perfectly with the administration’s massive cuts to education. It doesn’t take a formal understanding of geometry to understand how groceries best fit into a paper bag.

Proving that the Wisconsin Republicans are such in name only, the legislature has also raised the ire of conservatives, with a proposal limiting the rights of individual land owners. A proposal receiving unanimous Republican Budget Committee support makes it easier for the state government to appropriate private land to build highways and power lines. No surprise that there is a corporate power line contractor backing the rule: American Transmission Company. A testament to how unengaged with true conservative values the current legislature is, even blindly pro-Walker right wing radio host Vicki McKenna slammed the proposal as “Bad policy. Period.”

This change to eminent domain policy comes just as ATC gets ready to buy up property for a $400-million power project linking Madison and La Crosse. Sounding a lot like a socialist, ATC’s attorney recently said the policy is fair “because in the long run it benefits all of us.”

The fair price of land in eminent domain? A Marathon County family was offered $7,750 for a piece of land appraised at more than $40,000.

The fair price ATC wants to pay land-owning Wisconsinites? Wisconsin’s conservative Journal Sentinel, which endorsed Scott Walker, notes that ATC offered a Marathon County family $7,750 for a piece of land appraised at more than $40,000.

Then there is the “venture capital” bill which would create a Wisconsin Venture Capital Authority tasked with extending hundreds of millions to out-of-state insurance firms in exchange for slighly more than those hundreds of million in in-state investments. Known in the corporate world as a “CAPCO,” the investment plan is better known in the real world as a “Ponzi Scheme.” Literate Wisconsin conservatives should even know this, seeing as the Journal Sentinel reported on the disaster of Missouri’s CAPCO program in December of 2003, noting that the majority of the initial funds had been immediately swallowed by the corporate partners, leaving only 34 percent for any actual business development. Republican Senator Glenn Grothman even described the plan’s out-of-state organizers as “bunko artists.”

Once discovered, Walker’s CAPCO proposal stank of such cronyism that Walker himself backed off and asked for a rewrite. But the plan will go forward.

Meanwhile, impatient with even this progress, corporations have just started advertising their own legislation.

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s most powerful corporate lobby, has begun airing a radio campaign supporting the “Jobs for Generations Act,” even though no such bill has been introduced. The spot praises the legislation for creating 2000 $60,000-a-year jobs in an iron ore mine that would last 100 years. In her district, the ad even mentions recalled Republican Senator Alberta Darling, even though Darling admitted surprise at hearing her name attached to the bill. This is the real world equivalent of sending out invitations announcing the wedding of yourself and Angelina Jolie — and then expecting her to show up.

Defend Wisconsin has put togethera heartbreaking list of the legislature’s other plans to return “fiscal sanity” to the state. Even if you assume that three-fourths of the very biased Defend Wisconsin’s list is inflated, the remaining measures cannot be mistaken as anything short of an attempt to skin the state for as much immediate profit as possible, with no thought to its long term welfare.

Much like with its tear-down of public education, the Wisconsin legislature is not building business: it is finding ways to privatize existing public services so that they may become bullet points on the annual reports of private corporations.

* * *

But after Kapanke, the Democrats need only pick up two more of the five other recalled seats, defend their own three recalled seats — and they will have wrestled control of the state senate.

Unfortunately, it’s clear that many of the newly politicized think that the recalls will pave the way to reverse the collective bargaining abolition. With the bill passed, and the most significant challenge struck down by the Supreme Court, a Democrat-controlled wing of the legislature will only be able to stop the bleeding. Even if the Senate passed a repeal of Walker’s bill, it would never get through the House, and if it did, which it won’t, Walker would veto it. Following the ruling, the state chapter of the AFL-CIO immediately filed a federal suit, claiming the bill violates the 1st and 14th amendment — but that’s a long shot.

Collective bargaining in Wisconsin is dead.

The tent city that has surrounded the Madison capitol each night for the last week was called “Walkerville.” It’s an odd name but not as odd as the one the pro-Walker camp came up with when the right-wing, phony news organization The MacIver Institute ran a poll: “Entitledtown.”

A recent stunt where protesters dressed as zombies interrupted Walker’s address to Special Olympics athletes was the PR equivalent of a shotgun in the mouth.

The second round of Madison protests have been angrier, more aggressive and more desperate. Some are unreasonable. A recent stunt where protesters dressed as zombies interrupted Walker’s address to Special Olympics athletes was the PR equivalent of a shotgun in the mouth. The footage from that screw-up was broadcast, in outrage, around the state for days afterward.

Following the Supreme Court ruling on Tuesday, general strike signs were rumored to be circulated. By Wednesday afternoon though, the capitol grounds were largely empty of protesters. The Sentinel’s All Politics Blog reported that “demonstrators and public in the Assembly gallery have thinned out.” “Of course it’s thinning out. They’re out of munchies and pot…” wrote one commenter. Another: “Quitters.”

After a month where hundreds of thousands occupied the capitol, not a single arrest was made, despite the protesters being slandered by Republicans as “thugs.” Now, on Wednesday, three were arrested for disorderly conduct in the assembly gallery. Even the Democratic minority is fed up; Wednesday night on the Assembly floor, Democratic Representative Cory Mason blankly admonished the Republicans, “Don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining.” On Thursday morning, after the budget was passed, a women in the assembly gallery locked her head to the railing.

In the coming days, several major events will take place. These were planned in advance of the ruling, and expected to confront the extraordinary session. With the bill passed though, they’ll likely be ignored by the media. Just more Madison hippies acting like Madison hippies.

It’s noteworthy that Russ Feingold, completely absent both in spirit and voice and presence during the massive March protests, has, after Senator Herb Kohl’s announcement to not seek another term, suddenly become a very vocal presence at Walkerville. Feingold’s statement at Walkerville? “We will not stop until we win.” He was not more specific.

Governor Walker, for his part, appears to know that he has overstepped. Recent statements by the Governor have attempted to make peace with state workers, calling them reasonable and respectable, calling Wisconsin’s teachers the nation’s best — all while blaming the protests and strife on “out of state” forces and agitators. But most recent polling puts his approval rating at an all-time low of 43 percent, with 50 percent now favoring a recall. November is a long time away though, and Walker, and the Republicans, are hoping the already-recovering economy provides a credit-taking opportunity, after which everyone will judge results but not process.

Walker hopes Wisconsin will forget the labor when they see the baby.

But those in it for the long haul, like the Teaching Assistants’ Association members who were some of the first capitol occupiers three months ago, hope that energy will shift to the recall elections, including the one that has been promised for Walker himself in November.

More months of this. More rhetoric. Exhausting rhetoric.

But then, that’s also part of the plan: an exhausted electorate sweltering in the summer heat is unlikely to vote, let alone twice in a month.

Back in La Crosse, Dan Kapanke doesn’t have to worry about exhaustion. He has no future. The corporations to which he now belongs have mined their stake, and will continue to wring him of his usefulness over the next two months until they cast him aside, just like James Smith, just like Wisconsin.

Update 6/16 pm: The link to James Smith’s Facebook page is not incorrect. In the hours after publication, Smith deleted both his real and fake Facebook pages.

Abe Sauer can be reached at abesauer at gmail dot com.

Photo of Feingold via @DefendWisconsin