Feb 20, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 22 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
Meanwhile, the results of the changes began coming in. In Milwaukee, the reforms saved some $11 million, an embarrassing windfall for Democratic mayor Tom Barrett, who had predicted that the city’s structural deficit would “explode.” Localities across the state have seen similar savings. There is no disputing the central fact of Walker’s tenure as governor: His reforms are working.
That’s a huge problem for the public employee unions as they try to convince Wisconsinites that the man responsible for this dramatic turnaround should be recalled. So they’re focusing on two other issues: his 2010 campaign and an investigation into the activities of former Walker employees.
Their first complaint is that Walker didn’t campaign on the specific changes he would make to collective bargaining. Walker concedes that there is some truth to the claim. He wasn’t more specific, he says today, because he did not yet know exactly how he would make the changes to collective bargaining. But Walker is conceding too much. He didn’t provide a point-by-point proposal to restrict collective bargaining, but it was no mystery that he’d make dramatic changes. Ryan Murray, a top policy adviser to Walker’s 2010 campaign, made that clear to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in describing the changes to public employee health and retirement benefits. “The way the proposal would work is we would take the choice out of the collective bargaining process,” he said in comments published on August 29, 2010.
Did that mean an end to collective bargaining over benefits? The reporter certainly seemed to think so. “[Murray] said school districts often have some of the most expensive health benefits in Wisconsin and could receive cheaper insurance through the state if they didn’t have to negotiate with unions about who would insure their members.” Christina Brey, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the leading teachers’ union, had the same understanding. “Our members oppose taking away their rights to collective bargaining, so they would definitely raise their voices against it.” Another teachers’ union, the American Federation of Teachers, distributed flyers to its members warning that Walker would “void parts of labor contracts”—something that couldn’t happen without changes to collective bargaining laws.
In light of the success of Walker’s reforms, complaining about what he said in 2010 seems unlikely to win many votes. So Walker’s opponents want to change the subject. Last week, Mike Tate, chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic party, toured the state in an attempt to link Walker more closely to an investigation of some of his former employees. Here again, Democrats have resorted to distorting reality in order to smear Walker.
There are two separate issues. In the first, a woman who worked for Walker when he was Milwaukee County executive was found posting political comments on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s website during working hours. She resigned in May 2010.
The second involves two former Walker employees who allegedly stole money from a veterans’ organization that worked with the county on an event held at the Milwaukee County Zoo. John Chisholm, Milwaukee’s district attorney, has been investigating the claims for 20 months. There is no indication Walker knew about the employees’ activities, much less condoned them. Chisholm has said that Walker is not a target of the investigation—which only exists because Walker requested it when he was presented with the facts.
Some Wisconsin Republicans, pointing out that Chisholm is a Democrat and highlighting the steady stream of leaks coming from his office, are growing concerned that the investigation is a political witch hunt, designed to bloody the governor before voters cast their ballots. Walker, for his part, says that he believes Chisholm is an “earnest” prosecutor who will conduct a fair investigation. That’s probably overly generous.
The coming battle for Wisconsin will be a difficult fight for Republicans. Democrats have shown that they are willing to do just about anything to win. Unions are fighting this battle as if their very existence depends on a victory—and it might.
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