The Walker Effect
What has our new governor done to Wisconsin?
Up north the pines stand straighter and thinner, as if God himself has reached down and given each one a gentle tug. It’s a cold, wet day, aging snow and mud bleeding out onto gray pavement, gray road fleeing the scene into gray sky. Statton’s General Store squats at the exit just off Highway 51 north of Tomahawk, a gatekeeper to the winding road to Rhinelander. Their sign reads GUNS & AMMO in print larger than the store name. It says you can get your hunting and fishing licenses here, along with live-enzyme fresh raw honey, cheese, sausage, antiques and gifts, before repeating its “guns & ammo” pledge in yellow down the right-hand side. This is not Madison, but it is so Wisconsin.
Fifteen miles east down US 8, one lane opens into two at the mouth of Rhinelander. It’s late afternoon on a Friday, which means one thing around these parts—fish fry—and the parking lot at Wolff’s Log Cabin Restaurant is already packed, the adjacent frontage road lined with cars. Thing is, very few are here for the fish.
From inside my car I hear the chants—“WHAT’S DISGUSTING? UNION BUSTING!” and “THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!”—from a crowd of 150 or so. They’re focused on a bus in the parking lot that bears a photo of recently elected Republican governor Scott Walker, author of the controversial new budget bill stripping collective bargaining privileges from public workers, among other things. The governor isn’t here, but the very sight of his picture has this crowd on fire, much like three hours south down in Madison, where record-breaking numbers of protesters have descended on the Capitol for weeks.
In response to the anti-Walker protests, Americans for Prosperity—a Virginia-based political advocacy group founded by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, with chapters in 32 states—has launched this “Stand With Walker” bus tour campaign to rally Walker supporters across Wisconsin, people AFP says are not being heard through the “chaos” in “liberal Madison.”
A handful of waitresses peek out from the windows of the faux log cabin, their faces tight with worry. I wade through the crowd and step inside where it’s remarkably quieter. A blonde woman approaches, doe-eyed, asks quietly if I’m with the tour bus. “No,” I tell her, “I’m a reporter up from Madison,” and she looks at me a moment before taking my hand—part handshake, part entreaty.
“Do you have a few minutes to get a business owner’s perspective?” she asks before leading me back out the door and across the parking lot, where her husband is pacing inside a second building, the catering shop that doubles as their office. “This is crazy,” he says as we walk in. I flip on my recorder.
For 12 years, Barb and Dave Wolff have owned the restaurant, where just about everybody in the community stops in to eat. Today, though, their customers are lighting up the phones, furious because Wolff’s Restaurant is listed on the Americans for Prosperity website as one of 10 bus tour stops across the state this weekend. (In every city all weekend long, anti-Walker protesters will easily outnumber the Walker supporters gathering inside—with the possible exception of, ironically, Madison.)
“The way it was worded on their website kind of did us a disservice,” says Barb.
“We are not hosting this,” says Dave, pushing his glasses up on the bridge of his nose. “We got a call saying these people would be coming through with a bus, and could they stop and have a place to use the restroom and get a quick bite to eat. Said they’d be here about an hour and then take off. We take tour buses all the time. I’ve been called every name in the book in the last 24 hours.”
I ask him how many angry phone calls he’s fielded since yesterday, and his cheeks puff as he blows out a guess. “I’d say it’s got to be a hundred by now.”
Dave is shuffling nervously between his computer, his cell phone, the large front window and back to the computer. The Wolffs have just released a statement on their Facebook page claiming nonpartisanship, and Dave is watching the responses roll in.
“This is awful,” says Barb. “We’re just little people trying to make a living. Times are tough. We are businesspeople and we will serve anybody. If you’ve got green dollars to spend, we’ll gladly take it. We hosted WEAC just last week!”
WEAC is the powerful Wisconsin Education Association Council, the statewide union protecting nearly 100,000 public teachers and education professionals. It is one of dozens of public sector unions that have banded together against Walker’s budget, including three that are exempt from the measures (police, firefighters and state troopers), forming an anti-Walker coalition that numbers in the hundreds of thousands—and that’s just the unions, both public and private. It’s not surprising that the Wolffs are feeling some pushback. Just last night, AFP’s Sheboygan stop was forced to reroute at the last minute because the restaurant owner there had gotten so much flack from patrons.
A jingling of bells announces a customer, and Dave and Barb turn their attention to the tall man who has just entered. He’s got mustard yellow gloves stuffed in the right pocket of his cargo pants, and his clothes say Laborers International Union Local 4. He’s holding a green and gold sign that reads “Wisconsin Business Supports Workers’ Rights.”
“I stand with those people over there,” he says, pointing to the anti-Walker protesters, “and our organization AFSCME is going around talking to businesses and we don’t want boycotts. Essentially what we’re asking is businesses that will put this sign up, we will encourage our members and the people in this community to frequent these places and to remember.”
I want to ask what he means by “remember,” but I’m busy holding very still. Dave tells the man that he has a policy against putting up political signs for either side because he doesn’t want to upset any of his customers. For the next four minutes and 16 seconds, the union man argues his point and Dave and Barb repeat their position about remaining neutral, refusing to hang the sign. The union man pushes the front door open.
“I’ll give you a chance to think about it, but it would be prudent,” says the man. “This is not to make a threat, but I think that people will interpret the fact that because you didn’t put this up, that means that you side with Walker.”
“See, now it feels like you’re blackmailing us,” says Barb.
“Oh, I’m not trying to blackmail you,” he answers. “I’m just telling you the way it is.”
“But it is blackmail!” says Barb, visibly upset now. “That’s what’s frustrating! You want your rights but, by God, I want mine, too.”
“And we have the right to decide where we’re going to do business,” he says, the door closing behind him in a last-word vacuum.
There’s a long silence after he leaves. Things just got very personal in here. The Wolffs stare out the window, where the atmosphere is almost festive as the anti-Walker crowd builds and dozens of cars honk in solidarity from the highway. A woman in a black baseball cap holds a yellow piece of tagboard, the words “I give my students 100%” scrawled across it in black Sharpie. For her, it’s personal, too.
“I can’t put a sign out for anybody,” Dave repeats to himself, as if to make sure.
“They’re gonna end up putting us out of business,” Barb says quietly.
I clear my throat and tell Barb and Dave I’ll be back for some fried perch, then head out to the parking lot. There’s a screened-in pavilion where the Wolffs host large groups, and about 60 Walker supporters have gathered inside, waiting for the AFP rally to begin.
Scott Walker is not actually from Wisconsin. He was born in Colorado Springs in 1967 to a Baptist preacher father and his bookkeeper wife. The family relocated to Iowa before settling in Delavan, Wisconsin, a town of about 8,000, when Walker was 10 years old. Walker’s classmates describe him as personable, involved, friendly to everyone and not particularly remarkable in a negative or positive way. His dad was minister at the First Baptist Church, and his family was deeply involved there, typically modest, Protestant people in a typically modest, Protestant town.
During his junior year in 1985, Walker was one of two boys in all of Wisconsin chosen to represent the state as part of Boys Nation in Washington, D.C., where he met then-president Ronald Reagan. Walker told the Wisconsin State Journal in 2010 that this is when he really got the political bug, and that “there is no doubt that Reagan played a big role in inspiring me.”
In college at Marquette University, Walker ran for student body president but was cited with multiple accusations of campaign violations (he admitted to the Marquette Tribune in 2002 that he had regrets, saying, “I didn’t achieve office because I focused on personalities and egos”). The paper also says Walker ran on a platform of—wait for it—school budget reform. In 1990 he left college with a 2.59 GPA and without a diploma. That same year, he lost his first state assembly election. His decision to leave Marquette, he told the State Journal, was because “family became more important than getting a degree,” though he did not marry until 1993.
Walker wed Tonette Tarantino, and the couple had two sons, now in their teens. (In 2005 the State Journal reported that Walker “proposed to his wife, Tonette, on the night the first President George Bush gave his acceptance speech at the Republican convention—they married the next year on the late President Ronald Reagan’s birthday.”)
In 1993, Walker saw a second opportunity to run for state assembly, and moved to Wautatosa to run in a special election. He won. He was 25 years old.
Walker has maintained a consistent platform of conservatism, both fiscally and socially. His campaigns claimed he was 100-percent pro-life in all circumstances, a supporter of abstinence-only education and a seeker of welfare reform. He was lead sponsor of a 2001 bill protecting pharmacists who, on moral grounds, refused to fill emergency contraception prescriptions. Walker served until 2002, when another opportunity presented itself—this time the position of Milwaukee County executive, in the wake of Tom Ament’s pension scandal. Citizens were furious and ripe for change. Walker said he would give a major chunk of his salary back to the taxpayers, and he did—$370,000 over eight years. He became the first Republican to ever serve as Milwaukee County executive.
While Milwaukee County is very familiar with Scott Walker, for much of the rest of Wisconsin he came out of nowhere when he stepped into the governor’s seat. He got our attention when, in what felt like mere hours after the November gubernatorial election, he brought high-speed rail to a screeching halt in its proverbial half-built tracks. He acted as governor before he was actually governor, canceling existing contracts, returning $800 million in federal money and politically maiming exiting Democratic governor Jim Doyle in the remaining months of his eight-year tenure. Not long after, on February 11, Walker shocked pretty much everyone else when he released his plan to reduce the state’s deficit, the now-infamous budget repair bill. It pledged to erase existing laws and contracts, and was unveiled on a Friday with intended vote four business days later, almost as if the public would not notice. But, oh, did they.
All of this felt like astonishingly bold behavior on Walker’s part. Some hailed him as a rare politician who actually does what he said he was going to do, a brave patriot who was finally standing up for the taxpayer. Others were stunned by an instant strike down of 52 years of collective bargaining at the hands of one man, one who happens to be the first Wisconsin governor in 64 years to not hold a college degree.
Perhaps the most telling evidence comes out of Milwaukee itself. When Walker ran for governor against Tom Barrett in November 2010, Milwaukee County voted nearly 2-to-1 against him—casting 62 percent of its vote in favor of Barrett. Some may call it predictable, a mostly blue county voting in a mostly blue candidate. Others call it one hell of a report-card grade. We in the rest of Wisconsin may not have had a clue who this guy was, but Milwaukee County certainly did.
"A lot of people say to me, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe the things Walker is doing,’” says Marina Dimitrijevic, “but really it’s not that different from what he did in Milwaukee County.” Dimitrijevic has served since 2004 on the nonpartisan board of Milwaukee County Supervisors. She describes the relationship between Walker and the board as uncommonly adversarial, essentially an endless merry-go-round of vetoes. “We would have on average anywhere from 20 to 30 vetoes every budget season,” says Dimitrijevic. “In fact, one year he actually vetoed the entire budget.”
The catch, according to Dimitrijevic, was that Walker claimed to avoid raising taxes, but passed the buck on to the county board to do just that. She says Walker would present his budget with “ridiculous” cuts to basic services, “things we would never be able to cut.” After volleys back and forth, the board would override his vetoes, and then the next budget session Walker would present a budget that started out at the higher, original numbers the board had countered with the previous year. “So we’re the ones, the guilty people, that have to raise the taxes,” says Dimitrijevic. “That would happen often.”
Dimitrijevic claims Walker balanced the budget in the last two sessions by counting on reductions in pensions and increases in health care costs. “So if we weren’t able to get that,” she says, “there would be a hole in the budget. Even today we still don’t have a contract with our organized labor because he was never [willing] to sit down at the table and actually bargain and negotiate with them. This is a huge cost to Milwaukee County taxpayers.”
Another cost in the wake of Walker’s tenure is a privatizing emergency move he made in the name of balancing the budget, laying off the courthouse security guard force in 2009 and replacing them with a private team from the British firm Wackenhut. In January 2011 a court ruled the move unjust, forcing the county to rehire the guards—and pony up their back pay—and reportedly could cost taxpayers about $400,000.
“He basically uses the budget deficit as this total free-for-all of having unlimited power to just do what he wants,” says Dimitrijevic. “It’s really an abuse.”
Dimitrijevic steps back a bit when describing Walker personally, though, calling him a nice guy, “not at all a bad person or mean spirited.” Instead, she says, he’s a true believer—and his beliefs are too radical for Wisconsin. “The majority of people elected and reelected him, but I don’t think they were aware of the extreme nature of his politics,” she says. “The very fundamental things that we’ve held so dearly in this state, from education to labor rights to protecting our natural resources, cuts to Medicaid and health insurance for the poor, disabled and elderly … it’s just too extreme for us.”
Dimitrijevic says Walker ran for governor twice while in office as county executive, and though he is governor now, he’s quite possibly got his eye on the national stage. “Half the time he was here he was running for something else,” she says.
Dimitrijevic’s fellow board member, Luigi Schmitt of the 19th district, agrees that Walker is likely focused on a future in national politics. However, he sees Walker’s political behavior as far less than sinister. “He was elected by the majority, and there’s no hiding what he stood for,” says Schmitt. “He’s been very consistent—which people like, by the way—a very conservative Republican in a Ronald Reagan mold. You are never going to have a tax increase with him. You’re always going to cut back on spending. What you see is what you get.”
Former Democratic state assemblyman Sheldon Wasserman has known Walker for years and has no doubt the man has larger aspirations. “His eye is on the prize, and his prize is personal,” he says. “I see him running for president one day.” Wasserman, an OB/GYN in Milwaukee, served with Walker from 1995 until 2002. He says because he is a doctor, he often “worked both sides of the aisle,” feeling it was his mandate to provide both Republican and Democratic perspectives to health care bills.
“I actually got along with Scott very well,” says Wasserman. “We were both young, both from the Milwaukee area. He always made a point of being very nice to me, and we had a lot of talks.” They also worked together on several health care and criminal justice related bills, compared notes on districts and carpooled on one occasion—a joint speech on prison health care—between Madison and Milwaukee. “Scott Walker is one of the hardest working individuals I have ever met,” says Wasserman. “He’s very methodical. He identifies the prize and he goes after it. He’s a true ideologue, a true believer, and I think that’s what sets him apart from other politicians, let alone other people in general.”
Wasserman recalls a moment on the assembly floor in the late 1990s, when Republican governor Tommy Thompson wanted to raise gas taxes to support transportation. Republicans were in the majority in the assembly, led by then-Speaker David Prosser. It should have been a slam-dunk, but for Scott Walker—who Wasserman says was one of a group of 10 or so Republican reps who refused to go along with the governor, bucking their own leadership.
Wasserman describes the scene: “Prosser and the other Republicans were just flipping out, it was total chaos, and I remember turning around to look back at Scott. And he was just sitting there in that seat on one of the aisle rows, and he would not budge. He was impassive as stone. I just remember looking at him getting yelled at, and he was like, ‘Nope.’ You know how he makes that smirk? Shakes his head, kind of puts his lips together real tight and moves his eyes and shakes his head no? That’s what he did that day, and he’s still doing it.
“So that’s where I kind of caught on,” says Wasserman. “Like, holy smokes, this guy’s a believer.”
Wasserman confirms Dimitrijevic’s claim that Walker consistently vetoed county budgets when he was county executive, then returned it the next year at the higher starting point the board had finally approved. “He always let somebody else raise the taxes for him,” says Wasserman. “Then they would get the blame for it. He would get the benefits. It’s this politics of division, and this is where we fundamentally disagree. Politics is the art of compromise. You bring people together. He doesn’t do that. It’s his way or the highway.”
Wasserman also says Walker’s socially conservative values drive him at his core, a claim seemingly backed up by a March 2011 article by Matthew Rothschild of the left-wing The Progressive magazine titled “Scott Walker Believes He’s Following Orders From the Lord.” In it, Rothschild pulls quotes from a 2009 talk Walker gave at the Christian Businessmen’s Committee in Madison, in which Walker gives numerous examples of all the instances in his life when he followed God’s voice. This, says Wasserman, explains things like the provision in the budget bill that would strike down the law mandating insurance companies to cover birth control.
“He doesn’t believe in compromises of what he views as religiously held deep value issues,” says Wasserman, weeks before the Rothschild piece ran. “So, why compromise when God is on your side?”
It’s this art of non-compromise that many Walker supporters praise, and Orv Seymer is among them. “You can tell by his stance here in the last weeks that he is a strong believer in what he’s doing,” says Seymer, field operations director for the fiscally conservative political group Citizens for Responsible Government. CRG is credited with bringing down Ament’s administration in Milwaukee County, and is now assisting the groups working to recall four of the Democratic senators who left for Illinois. “It’s pretty clear that there is no compromise with him. And that can be a negative thing or not, but he strongly believes in what he’s doing.”
Seymer says he’s supported Walker since his assembly days, and he says people on the left don’t understand that “people are just as angry on the right. Maybe they’re not as vocal, not as out there. They’re not gonna go up and sleep at the Capitol all night long for three straight weeks. But they’re just as angry, maybe even more.” Seymer was a union member in the late 1970s, “a very large union supporter,” but feels that public sector unions have since overreached. He says people are starting to realize that’s why their taxes are so high, and that Walker is fighting for those people today.
“I think he’s the real deal,” says Seymer. “I mean, let’s face it, he’s a politician—but he’s the best politician that I’ve ever seen.”
I’m looking at a 1985 Delavan-Darien High School black-and-white yearbook picture of a group of boys, with a caption that tells me they’ve just returned from leadership camp. Third from the left, sporting a dark mop of a mullet, is Scott Walker. To his left is a guy named Bill Huisheere. It turns out Huisheere lives in Madison today and, like Walker, says he has “a lot less hair.” He remembers Walker as being very average, not extreme in any way. “He wasn’t Bible thumping,” he says. “He was a nice guy. We were in band together. We went to his dad’s church. He was just your average kid in school.”
Huisheere, a lifelong Democrat, is a Dane County Human Services social worker. Though he declined to voice his political views on the record, he admits he did send Walker an email this year, just after Walker moved to the governor’s mansion on Madison’s north side, where Huisheere resides. “I said, ‘Hi, Scott, it’s Bill from high school,’ and I congratulated him on becoming governor. I said, ‘I completely disagree with what you’re doing, but welcome to the north side of Madison. If you’re looking for a good pizza joint, Café La Bellitalia is where you should go.’ But I haven’t heard back from him yet.” Huisheere and I talk for a good long while, but in the end I can’t get his email out of my head. It’s just so … Wisconsin.
Later that night, on Huisheere’s recommendation, I give LeAnn Williams-Ely a call. She’s another classmate of Walker’s and, being a Williams, her locker was alphabetically close to his. They also shared the same homeroom for four years. She now lives in Iowa. Like Huisheere, Williams-Ely has only positive things to say about her memory of Walker way back then. “He was always friendly,” she says. “He was pretty outgoing, everybody knew who he was. He was just an involved person. A positive person.”
Williams-Ely’s husband’s military career took them out of Wisconsin and all over the country, but she and Walker became Facebook friends and caught up at class reunions. She followed his career from afar like any small-town classmate might and was happy for his success. Plus, she’s an independent voter and tends toward fiscal conservatism—so most of the time, his politics sounded pretty good to her. “But when he was suddenly eliminating collective bargaining,” says Williams-Ely, “well, I’m troubled by that.”
She grew even more troubled by the growing protests and says people outside of Wisconsin don’t realize how unusual all this tumult is. “I mean, these are farmers, people whose parents have been in unions or who’ve worked in factories or as teachers. It takes a lot to ruffle their feathers, and to have them, week after week, protesting at the Capitol, it just speaks volumes. It really breaks my heart. This just doesn’t happen in Wisconsin.”
She says politics aside, if this many Wisconsinites are so deeply affected, it would have been in Walker’s best interest to listen to them and to “try to appear to have met in the middle.
“The kind of people we’re talking about here are the kind of people we grew up with in Delavan,” says Williams-Ely. “It makes me sad. I almost wonder if he forgot where he came from.”
I blow crisp, visible puffs of air into a half-full Styrofoam cup of thin, watery coffee. I can barely hear the woman speaking over the chants of the protesting crowd outside, one that has crossed the parking lot now, creeping closer and closer to the screened-in pavilion out back at Wolff’s Restaurant in Rhinelander.
“Like our Capitol right now!” the woman says loudly, over the din. “$7.5 million of damage! And there’s Tea Party people that were trying to organize to go there on Sunday so that we could start cleaning it up, but guess what? We can’t. Because the taxpayers are going to have to pay $7.5 million to have the union people clean up the mess they made.”
Her name is Kim Simac, and she was introduced as being from the Northwoods Patriots. The admission by the Department of Administration that damage caused by adhering blue painters tape to marble is more likely in the $300,000 range, has not come out yet; that story will be in papers tomorrow. Today, it’s a hot topic at the rallies. Simac looks over her shoulder at the protesters outside, who are chanting now, “SHAME, SHAME, SHAME.”
“It really discourages me to think that those are the people that are influencing our children these days,” she says.
In the 10 cities—Kenosha, Milwaukee, Sheboygan, Green Bay, Wausau, Rhine-lander, Eau Claire, Hudson, La Crosse and Madison—the Americans for Prosperity Stand With Walker tour bus visits over four days in March, the formula is the same. The bus with only the four organizers on board serves as a mobile office and giant billboard marking rally destinations for Walker supporters in each town.
At each presentation Matt Seaholm, the young upstart Republican from Chippewa Falls, welcomes the crowd. He presents AFP as a “grassroots organization with 100,000 members in Wisconsin.” But the larger picture shows it’s part of a powerful political machine funded by the Koch brothers (infamous after Walker took a prank call from a blogger pretending to be one of them). The out-of-state billionaires were not only the second largest contributor to Walker’s gubernatorial campaign, but their PAC poured millions in pro-Walker advertising into Wisconsin. No one from AFP mentions the Koch brothers here.
After Seaholm’s introduction, next up are three or four speakers—a local Republican Party or Tea Party leader, sometimes a Republican state senator or representative. They are the warmup bands to the main act, a man from Ohio who follows the bus in his own vehicle (so he can smoke and listen to his own music, he tells me in La Crosse) and speaks at each stop. He is always introduced—and received—like a celebrity. “His name is Joe Wurzelbacher,” Seaholm always says, “but you might know him as Joe the Plumber.” The crowd erupts.
“We’re here today because we can’t all go to Madison,” says Seaholm, numerous times in numerous cities. “We’ve gotta pay the taxes to support the guys that are outside.”
The messages are the same: The state is broke and it’s time for the public sector to feel the pain the private sector has endured for a while now. We’re tired of paying for you. Somebody needs to stand up for the taxpayer, for limited government, for free-market principles. The crowds in liberal Madison are violent, angry mobs wreaking havoc on our historical Capitol landmark. Madison does not represent Wisconsin. We are the silent majority. You lost in November, we won; get over it. Don’t like the hard-line tactics, or the surprise items sneaked into the 144-page budget repair bill? How do you think we felt about 2,000-page Obamacare shoved through the senate on Christmas Eve? At least our senators didn’t flee their seats.
These groups aren’t festive, though, like the ones outside can be. There are no drums, and I hear only one chant all weekend, in Wausau, and it dies off awkwardly. These people seem quieter, like they’re really listening, and there are lots of very emphatic nods. The occasional burst of applause. Someone collecting signatures for petitions and recalls, and at the end a call to action: Stand strong with Walker. He’s standing strong with you.
For many of the AFP tour attendants, this is the first time at a political rally. I talk to an older farming couple in Wausau who missed the indoor presentation because they didn’t know it was happening; instead they walked slowly up and down the sidewalk alongside the anti-Walker protesters, holding their “Stand With Walker” signs up high. In Eau Claire I find six or seven Walker supporters gathered at a side entrance of the Holiday Inn, wondering why their numbers are so small compared to the opposition. I take them inside and show them the way to the presentation they didn’t know about.
The meetings typically take place in small hotel banquet rooms, with chairs lined up facing a podium or stage. AFP organizers solicit members of the crowd to stand behind the speakers so their faces and signs will be visible in photographs.
In Wausau, state senator Pam Galloway thanks the crowd for “putting yourself at risk with these mobs.” She says she couldn’t be in senate today because a “Dane County judge made a ruling giving people unrestricted access to the Capitol.” She says it’s been “quite a challenge” getting her work done because “for about the first week and a half we weren’t sure about our safety,” and mentions her colleague, Senator Glenn Grothman, who was “engulfed by the mob.” She encourages everyone to YouTube it.
In Eau Claire the speaker is supposed to be Republican state representative Warren Petryk, but he’s a no-show. “Maybe he wasn’t able to get through the gauntlet,” says Seaholm with a friendly smile. But I find Petryk outside, surrounded by a crowd of 30 or 40 people. It’s a bitter cold day, the coldest of the weekend, and he wears a black knit stocking cap pulled low. He’s listening as person after person waits to plead with him. One woman’s voice breaks as she tells him about her 30-year-old daughter’s car accident and how BadgerCare has been her only insurance.
“There’s not another company in the state of Wisconsin that will insure her,” says the woman. For an instant Petryk’s own eyes look teary to me. “We’re going to do everything we can to keep that strong,” he tells her. “Being on that committee, I can tell you that safety net will be there.”
Petryk tells her what’s unfair is there’s no easy answer to a $3.6 billion deficit without raising taxes. “And maybe that’s what has to happen,” he says, “but that is not what the people wanted when they voted.”
“I’m willing to pay more taxes for all of this!” says the woman.
“And, see, this is what I wasn’t hearing,” Petryk answers. “I hear that and I appreciate that comment. I’ll pray for you and your daughter.”
Another woman steps up and then breaks down. Her voice rises as she sobs, her desperation palpable. “Please talk to Walker!” she says. “I’m 60 years old and this is the first time I’ve been afraid for democracy in my state in my whole life! He’s young, he’s inexperienced, he’s rigid, he doesn’t listen! You’ve got to have him listen to the people! Please help us! No one is hurting anyone! We are trying to do this as peacefully and democratically as we can!” She starts sobbing on Petryk’s shoulder and he embraces her.
I ask Petryk then why he has chosen not to speak inside at the AFP rally as scheduled.
“I chose to stay here and speak with the people who elected me, and that want to have their voice heard. I just feel that this is where I needed to be in the moment.”
Four days later, in a surprise vote on a version of the bill with its fiscal items stripped, Petryk will again stand with Walker.
There’s something about the AFP bus tour that makes me uncomfortable, in a morning-after-in-the-mirror, fluorescent-light kind of way. Before this trip I couldn’t fathom how anyone could characterize the protests in Madison as angry or violent, when what I saw with my own eyes met the very definition of peaceful, civil disobedience. But up here, the anti-Walker protesters assume I’m with AFP, and I have a front row seat to some pretty uncomfortable moments. In Madison, most are in agreement—it’s not hard to be friendly. Up here, I watch the two sides meet and I witness the way the air changes. In Wausau, a woman pulls up next to me and asks for my help, as if she needs directions. I smile to oblige, and that’s when she says, her face tight, her voice pitying, “How can you actually support Governor Walker?” and I feel more than a little defensive. In that same parking lot, I watch an elderly couple trying to leave the rally in their car, as the anti-Walker crowd comes closer and closer to their windows, pointing and shouting, “SHAME, SHAME, SHAME.” Violent? I guess not. But I don’t know if they’d answer in the same way. These kinds of things happen at every stop, in varying degrees. It’s not like these people are stupid, far from it. They’re being validated by their own personal experiences, not to mention the words of people like Senator Pam Galloway, who testified that she feared for her safety. It occurs to me that if this was all I knew of what was going on in Madison, I might believe there are palm trees there, too.
Inside the pavilion in Rhinelander a man in a union jacket stands out like a sore thumb. Since the AFP rallies are on private property, they don’t have to let anti-Walker protesters in; it’s rare to see a union man sitting and listening so intently.
So we talk, and he tells me his name is Joe Priebe Jr., retired teamster, 36 years with UPS. He says he’s a lifelong Republican, that the Democratic party is just too liberal, and that his views tend to be pretty conservative. He says he and his wife both voted for Walker, but the collective bargaining move stopped them short.
He leans in close. “We came here today because we want to understand. We thought he would be here. We’re disappointed in how he’s handling this, and we just wanted to hear his point of view. Had I known he was going to circumvent the bargaining process, I wouldn’t have voted for him. Follow the contract. Negotiate it out. Just do it the right way. Sit down and iron it out. We just want to understand.”
I watch the couple listen to the presentation. They look less than satisfied when it’s over. And I guess I’m less than satisfied, too. And I’m worried. There is so much anger out there, so many people feeling hurt, confused, scared. What happens to the people of Wisconsin when the politicians have moved on? What are the ripple effects when a large chunk of the population feels marginalized, personally attacked, whether it’s the Tea Party taxpayers or 100,000 teachers?
I dump what remains of my cold coffee and walk back to the building where I first met Barb and Dave Wolff, ready to collect my dinner and hit the road. They’re not there, but my food is waiting for me. It’s a lightly breaded, flaky fried perch, nestled with seasoned potato wedges, coleslaw and rye bread, the butter packets already melting out and making the box sticky.
It’s delicious. The best fish fry I’ve had in months.
It tastes like Wisconsin.
Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz is a frequent contributor to Madison Magazine.