By DAN KAUFMAN
May 24, 2012
This past March, standing outside a Shell station in Mellen, Wis., in the state’s far north, Mike Wiggins Jr. told me about a series of dark and premonitory dreams he had two years earlier. “One of them was a very vivid trip around the North Woods and seeing forests bleeding and sludge from a creek emptying into the Bad River,” Wiggins said. “I ended up at a dilapidated northern log home with rotten snowshoes falling off the wall. I stepped out of the lodge, walked through some pine, and I was in a pipeline. There was a big pipe coming in and out of the ground as far as I could see.
“I had no idea what the hell that was all about,” Wiggins continued. But he said the dream became clearer when a stranger named Matt Fifield came into his office several months later and handed him his card. Wiggins is the chairman of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and Fifield, the managing director of Gogebic Taconite (GTac), a division of the Cline Group, a mining company based in Florida. He had come to Wiggins’s office to discuss GTac’s desire to build a $1.5 billion open-pit iron-ore mine in the Penokee Hills, about seven miles south of the Bad River reservation. The proposed mine would be several hundred feet deep, roughly four miles long and a half-mile wide; the company estimated it would bring 700 long-term jobs to the area. Fearing contamination of the local groundwater and pristine rivers, Wiggins told Fifield he planned to oppose the mine. He didn’t know at the time that the company’s lawyers would be working hand in hand with Republican legislators to draft a bill that would weaken Wisconsin environmental law and expedite the permitting process.
What followed was a drawn-out fight that resembled other statewide battles over labor, education and voter-registration laws — all of which have been introduced since the election of the Republican governor Scott Walker in 2010. The most bitter of these fights began in early February last year, when Walker proposed eliminating virtually all collective-bargaining rights for a vast majority of the state’s public-employee unions. Around the time that Walker announced the measure, similar laws were introduced in Michigan, Ohio and Florida, and a nationwide demonization of public employees caught fire. Within two months, the National Conference of State Legislators had tracked more than 100 bills, initiated across the country, attacking public-sector unions.
From the beginning, Walker, who declined to comment for this article, seemed cognizant that his move to end collective bargaining placed him at the forefront of a national conservative strategy. His attack on public-employee unions was lauded by Mitt Romney, John Boehner and Karl Rove, and he has received significant financial support from the billionaire conservative donors Charles and David Koch. In a widely publicized prank phone call with Ian Murphy, a blogger impersonating David Koch, Walker described a dinner he held for his cabinet at his Executive Residence on Feb. 10, the night before he announced the collective-bargaining measure. “It was kind of the last hurrah, before we dropped the bomb,” he said to the faux-Koch. At the dinner, Walker held up a photograph of Ronald Reagan and told his cabinet that what they were about to do recalled Reagan’s breaking of the air-traffic-controllers’ union strike in 1981. “This is our time to change the course of history,” Walker said.
Act 10, the bill that included the collective-bargaining measure, eventually passed last March despite widespread demonstrations at the State Capitol, an occupation of the building by protesters, the decamping of 14 Democratic state senators to Illinois for three weeks and numerous legal challenges. According to recent polling, Wisconsin, once known for progressive policy and upper-Midwestern civility, is now the most politically polarized state in the nation. Last June, David Prosser, a State Supreme Court justice, was accused of choking a colleague in her office after an argument over the court’s deliberations on Act 10. Bill Kramer, the Republican speaker pro tem of the Assembly, recently told a reporter that at times he finds it necessary to bring his Glock semiautomatic handgun to work, owing to the atmosphere in the State Capitol. (A new conceal-and-carry law permits concealed weapons even on the Assembly floor.) The protest movement the bill spawned, which shows no signs of abating, culminates in a June 5 recall election against Walker and four Republican state senators. If Walker loses, he would be only the third governor in American history to be recalled.
“There is tremendous frustration with the influence of out-of-state organizations and out-of-state money,” Lisa Graves, the executive director of the Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy, told me when I spoke with her this spring. “Wisconsin has an identity, the Wisconsin Idea, that is based on the notion that legislation should help as many people as possible.” In February, David Koch gave $1 million to the Republican Governors Association, which is spending heavily to fight Walker’s recall campaign, and that same month he praised Walker’s anti-union legislation in The Palm Beach Post. “We’re helping him, as we should,” Koch said. “We’ve spent a lot of money in Wisconsin. We’re going to spend more.” Walker has raised more than $25 million for his campaign, 60 percent of it from outside the state, while his Democratic opponent, Tom Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee (whom Walker defeated in a regular election less than two years ago), has raised less than $1 million. “Wisconsin used to be the beacon of clean and open and honest government,” Mike McCabe, the head of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks money in politics, told me. “We are now just a pawn on a national chessboard.”
During a late-night session in early March, I sat in the gallery and watched the Assembly debate a bill referred to as the Special Needs Scholarship Act. The bill’s lead sponsor, Michelle Litjens, is a freshman representative from the Appleton area and also a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a Washington-based organization that brings together corporations, legislators and interest groups to draft and disseminate model legislation for state legislatures around the country. Litjens’s bill, AB 110, includes key provisions of an ALEC-model bill that has already passed in Georgia. It would provide up to an estimated $13,500 in taxpayer-financed scholarships for children with disabilities to attend private schools or schools outside their districts. The scholarships would be available to no more than 5 percent of the state’s disabled children. The money for the program, as much as $80 million if the full 5 percent applied, would be drained from the public-school budget.
Of the 36 sponsors and co-sponsors of Litjens’s bill, 25 were ALEC members. Mark Pocan is one of the few ALEC members who did not co-sponsor the bill. A liberal Democrat from Madison, Pocan became a member of ALEC several years ago. He told me he wanted to draw attention to the organization’s unseen effect on Wisconsin’s legislation. In his floor speech that night, Pocan described an ALEC conference in New Orleans that he attended last summer. “I remember going to a workshop and hearing a little bit about a bill they did in Florida and some other states to dismantle public education,” Pocan said. “There was a proposal to provide special-needs scholarships. Lo and behold, all of a sudden I come back to Wisconsin, and what gets introduced? A bill to do just that.”
The next day, Pocan outlined a strategy ALEC advises its members to use: “You have to introduce a 14-point platform,” he said, “so that you can make it harder for them to focus and for the press to cover 14 different planks.” He pointed to several bills introduced in the past two sessions, including one that allows more children to enroll in virtual charter schools. “It sounds good,” Pocan said. “Kids could access virtual schools for home schooling. But again,” he emphasized, the real purpose is “taking apart public schools, drip by drip.”
Scott Suder, the Assembly majority leader and a state co-chairman of ALEC, defended the group’s work. “ALEC’s basis is free-market, Jeffersonian principles,” Suder told me over the phone. “That’s my core philosophy: getting government out of the way as much as possible.”
Besides education, ALEC maintains seven other wide-ranging task forces, like “Tax and Fiscal Policy” and “Energy, Environment and Agriculture,” which promotes, among other things, legislation opposing climate-change initiatives. The group has recently come under scrutiny, largely because of the work of the Center for Media and Democracy. There was widespread outrage over ALEC’s role in exporting the “Stand Your Ground” law, at the center of the controversy over the death of Trayvon Martin, to other states — including a related bill that recently passed in Wisconsin. Since the Martin shooting, several large corporations, Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart among them, have ended their affiliation with ALEC. I asked Pocan if the increased exposure has stopped any ALEC-originated bills in the State Assembly. “Not really,” he said. “They get really good strategic advice. The head of Shell Oil flew out to New Orleans to meet with legislators.”
After signing Act 10, Governor Walker told a reporter for The Associated Press that the bill was “innovative” and “progressive” — words chosen perhaps because they resonate with the enduring pride many Wisconsin citizens still feel about their state’s pioneering political history. The current Wisconsin Blue Book contains a 68-page essay extolling the achievements of the 1911 Legislature, which included the establishment of the first workmen’s-compensation program, laws limiting labor for women and children and the passage of a forest-conservation act. President Theodore Roosevelt described Wisconsin as a “laboratory for wise, experimental legislation to secure the social and political betterment of the people as a whole.” Native icons like the populist senator and governor Robert (Fighting Bob) La Follette and the conservationist Aldo Leopold still loom in the state’s collective consciousness and legislative record. More recently, Senator Russ Feingold cast the lone vote against the U.S.A. Patriot Act in 2001.
The law that Act 10 overturned had been in place since 1959, when Wisconsin became the first state to recognize collective-bargaining rights for municipal employees. Senator Fred Risser, who began his legislative career in 1956, is the country’s longest-serving state legislator, and he was on the committee that introduced that measure. “That bill was bipartisan, or it would have never gotten through in the first place,” he said. In 1967, collective bargaining was expanded under the Republican governor Warren P. Knowles to include state employees. The Senate voted 31-0 in favor of the expansion. “For 50 years we had relative labor peace,” Risser said. “Not in 50 years was there ever a partisan vote on those contracts. They were almost always unanimously accepted.”
Some Republicans also lamented the end of the long bipartisan consensus on labor rights. Dick Spanbauer, a former Marine and self-described “pro-life, pro-family Christian,” was one of four Republican Assemblymen to vote against Act 10. “The leadership told me, ‘Dick, we don’t need unions anymore,’ ” he told me. “Really? What’s changed? Is a company going to say you don’t need to work 12 hours?” Spanbauer, like his father, had worked much of his adult life in factories in Oshkosh. “They don’t understand anything about the working class,” he said about his Republican colleagues. “They thought you could just go crush somebody’s voice and get away with it.” Spanbauer is retiring this year.
Like most other states, Wisconsin was hit hard by the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession. Walker inherited a budget gap of $137 million and a potential $3.6 billion shortfall over the following two years. Before he introduced Act 10, however, he passed a series of future tax cuts worth $142 million. Shortly after the budget bill was announced, nearly all the unions agreed to implement the financial concessions Walker requested in exchange for keeping their bargaining rights.
When Tracy Fuller, a state patrol officer and the president of the Wisconsin Law Enforcement Association, first heard about the collective-bargaining ban, he was shocked. “It went far beyond what I thought Walker campaigned on,” Fuller said. “You want to freeze our pay? It’s been frozen for six years. You want to freeze it again? O.K. But don’t take away our bargaining rights.” Fuller’s union, which is self-run and focuses almost entirely on workplace issues, represents the state patrol, Capitol police, University of Wisconsin police and some Department of Motor Vehicles employees. The union faces an unusual predicament: two-thirds of its members lost their bargaining rights, while those in the state patrol retained theirs. “The other members were resentful of the troopers for a while,” Fuller said. “Their morale is so down.”
The protests against Act 10 inspired opposition to similar laws in Michigan and Ohio and marked the first significant push back to the surging Tea Party. Few in Wisconsin are more identified with the grass-roots resistance than Lori Compas, a 41-year-old wedding photographer and mother of two. With no assistance from the state Democratic Party, Compas led an unlikely yet successful drive to recall the Senate majority leader, Scott Fitzgerald, Walker’s most essential and visible ally. Compas lives in Fort Atkinson, a small town 30 miles east of Madison, and has never run for office before. She is now Fitzgerald’s improbable opponent in the coming June recall election.
In early March, I met her for lunch at the Cafe Carpe, a sunny restaurant and folk club that doubles as the town’s informal community center. Compas majored in agricultural journalism in college and moved to Fort Atkinson five years ago with her husband, a geography professor at a small state university nearby. “I had never paid attention to state politics until about a year ago,” she said. “I started paying attention, and I got really upset at what I saw our senator doing.”
For Compas, the pivotal moment came when the collective-bargaining measure was passed. On March 9, 2011, Scott Fitzgerald led a hastily called meeting of the Senate and Assembly leadership. A few days earlier, the Assembly voted on the budget-repair bill that included the collective-bargaining measure, but the Senate had been unable to pass it because of a rule requiring a quorum of 20 members to vote on fiscal measures. At that point, the 14 Senate Democrats were still in hiding in Illinois, leaving the Republicans with just 19 votes. After attempts at persuasion and withholding their paychecks failed to bring the Democrats back, Senate Republicans decided to separate the collective-bargaining measure from the budget bill and vote on it immediately.
During the meeting, a heated argument erupted between Fitzgerald and Peter Barca, the Assembly minority leader. “I said I wanted an explanation of what’s in this document, so I can at least know what I’m voting on,” Barca told me. He had been handed a 37-page summary of the bill, not the bill itself. Fitzgerald ignored his request and, five minutes later, called the roll. By a 4-0 vote the committee separated the measure from the budget bill. It was then passed by both houses within hours. “I said, ‘I just want to make you aware that this meeting is a violation of the open meetings law,’ ” Barca said he told Fitzgerald, who called the meeting less than two hours before. (Under Wisconsin law, a government body is generally required to give 24 hours notice to the public before it meets.) The exchange was captured on WisconsinEye, a local version of C-Span, and went viral.
“Barca’s standing there yelling, ‘This is a violation of the law!’ ” Compas said. “I just sat there, and I cried. I’ve never felt so powerless and so frustrated. Regardless of where you stood on this issue, the complete contempt that Fitzgerald was showing for his legislators was unacceptable. That night I think I tweeted: ‘I will recall Scott Fitzgerald if I have to crawl on my hands and knees through the snow to every house in his district.’ ”
When I met with Fitzgerald in March and asked him if, looking back, he would have done anything differently during the long collective-bargaining fight, he said: “I felt like I was flying by the seat of my pants. We handled events as they evolved.”
Wisconsin law allows for the recall of elected officials if they have served at least one year in office and if petitioners gather signatures equaling one-quarter of the total votes cast in the previous election. Despite Fitzgerald’s prominent role in shepherding Walker’s agenda through the Senate, the Wisconsin Democratic Party chose not to pursue a recall campaign against him. Fitzgerald’s district is solidly Republican, and he won his last election with two-thirds of the vote. Most political observers maintained that it would have been a waste of resources to try to get the more than 16,000 signatures required to force a recall election.
“I just decided I’m going to start looking into this,” Compas said. “My husband takes the kids to school on Friday, and that’s my day to just be home and focus on my business. They all left, and the house got quiet.” She decided to call the Government Accountability Board. “I asked: ‘What does a person need to file recall papers? Do they need a team of attorneys and accountants and all that?’ ” She learned that any citizen could file for a recall, and that afternoon, Compas designed her petition and set up a Web site, a Facebook page and a Twitter account. When her husband came home, he was startled to find the change in her. “He was actually a little upset,” she said. “He was saying, ‘I left for work and it was a normal Friday, and I come home and you’re recalling the Senate majority leader.’ ”
A few days after we met, I watched Compas speak before a large rally at the State Capitol in Madison. The rally marked the one-year anniversary of the passage of Act 10, and organizers estimated that more than 60,000 people attended. Standing halfway up the building’s steps, I could see the surrounding streets filled with protesters and signs. The most ubiquitous was a clenched blue fist in the shape of the state map, the movement’s unofficial symbol. One of Compas’s friends had written her speech, but the day before, Compas decided to start from scratch. She told the crowd that Fitzgerald’s recall election had been certified the day before, and then she talked about how she had seen the first sandhill cranes of spring the same day. “Every year their return tells me that even after the most difficult winters, new life is stirring,” she said. “Those two things just kind of came together in my mind overnight.”
A few days later, Compas appeared at the public library in Fort Atkinson. She’d held eight public meetings over the past two weeks, and one of them, in Lake Mills, was fairly contentious. “I’m not used to hatred being directed at me,” she said. “There were 10 people in that room who hated me, and they never met me.” She was relieved to be back home, and with the exception of some polite but pointed questions from several College Republicans, the event seemed almost sedate. After the session, Compas and a few of her supporters wandered over to the Cafe Carpe. A community meeting was finishing up in the back, and one of the people leaving was Barbara Lorman, the district’s former Republican state senator. In 1994, Lorman lost in a Republican primary to Scott Fitzgerald.
“There’s always partisanship,” Lorman said, as Compas and her entourage gathered around her. “When I was first elected in 1980, I thought: It’s them against us. These Democrats are the enemy, so I need to stay cool about them. Then you see them all going out for dinner together and drinking together and sitting in each other’s office, and I thought, What’s the deal here?It was quite collegial. You go to the floor, you have your issues, you have your rhetoric and your disagreements, but at the end of the day you leave it behind. Things are not like that now.”
Like many other Wisconsinites, Lorman was surprised when the collective-bargaining measure was introduced. “It was like being blindsided,” she said. “Walker’s agenda, which was always there but nobody knew it, really came from somewhere else, like the Koch brothers, the national party and ALEC. I don’t think it was a local agenda, frankly.” Lorman used to own a scrap-iron plant and years ago fought an effort by the Teamsters to unionize her small group of drivers. “I might not be a union lover. There’s a lot wrong with unions — a lot. But I do believe in a right to bargain collectively. In a lot of cases it’s what you need, it’s what works.” Lorman said she felt that Walker should have accepted the unions’ financial givebacks in exchange for keeping their bargaining rights. “He had everything he wanted,” she said. “They were making the concessions that everybody was asking for. Pay more for your retirement, pay more for your benefits.” Lorman says she is supporting Compas in the coming election.
In March, Fitzgerald told me he wasn’t taking Compas’s challenge lightly, and he has raised more than $700,000 to defend his seat. Though he was leading comfortably in the most recent poll, last week he appeared a bit flustered, telling The Wisconsin State Journal that he believed Compas’s husband and the unions were behind her effort. “I don’t for one minute believe she is the organizing force behind this whole thing,” he said. In response, Compas posted an irreverent, sepia-toned video featuring herself as an obedient 1950s housewife asking her husband, “What’s a senator?”
Over the past year, the mining bill that Mike Wiggins was intent on stopping became increasingly significant to the Walker administration. During his campaign for governor in 2010, Walker promised to create 250,000 private-sector jobs, which he recently reaffirmed. According to the most recent monthly survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the state has lost more than 21,000 nonfarm jobs since April of last year. Despite Wisconsin’s economic struggles, Walker has defended his decision to turn down $810 million in federal stimulus money for a proposed high-speed rail link between Madison and Milwaukee. By last summer, the economic situation in the state was continuing to deteriorate, and the mining bill had become a top priority in Walker’s jobs program. It also managed to create a rare split in his broad-based opposition.
After GTac promised that most of the mining equipment would be built in Milwaukee with union labor, many of the large private trade unions backed the bill. Randy Bryce, the political coordinator of Milwaukee Iron Workers Local 8 and one of Walker’s most tenacious opponents, reluctantly supported the legislation. “They’re trying to divide us,” he told me, “but my members need work.”
To Wiggins, a large open-pit mine in the Penokee Hills was a life-or-death matter for his tribe. The headwaters that feed the river would be in the footprint of the mine, and the Bad River reservation lies downstream. Wiggins was also worried about the tribe’s sensitive wild-rice beds, which lie on the coast of Lake Superior. Cyrus Hester, who works for the tribe’s Natural Resources Department, raised the possibility that sulfuric acid might contaminate the groundwater and harm fish populations in the area’s rivers and streams.
“There’s a very good reason this area has never been mined,” George Meyer, the director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and former head of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, told me. “A lot of mining companies looked at it and walked away.” For Meyer, one of the biggest problems with the site is that the ore sits at an angle, which when mined generates a much larger amount of “overburden” that needs to be discarded.
When I spoke with him in March, Wiggins detailed several meetings he had with Walker, in which he tried to convey how dire the mine would be for his reservation and the surrounding environment. Their last meeting, in September, turned particularly acrimonious. Beforehand, Wiggins held a news conference inside the Capitol outlining his opposition to the mining legislation. The Assembly bill would impose a 360-day deadline for the permitting process, where before there had been none, and it would eliminate hearings in which citizens or organizations can question mining or government officials under oath about the safety of the mine. Many of the key provisions in the Assembly bill were drafted by lawyers working for GTac.
“Walker saw the news conference as disingenuous,” Wiggins said. “When we got to the meeting, he was fixated on his anger with me.” After some heated back and forth, Walker told Wiggins he didn’t see the need for the meeting, since he had a copy of the tribe’s news release. Wiggins got angry. “You know, governor,” he recalled, “some of the things that are proposed in the mining initiative represent a catastrophic destruction for my reservation, health impacts to my people, and you think everything that you and I have to talk about is contained on one piece of paper right there?”
On March 6, the Senate narrowly voted to reject the Assembly’s mining bill, 17-16. Dale Schultz, who was also the sole Senate Republican to vote against Act 10, joined the 16 Democrats in voting against the bill. Thus far it has been Walker’s most significant political defeat. After the vote, GTac issued a brief statement that they were abandoning their interest in the Wisconsin mine. Before he took the vote, Fitzgerald thought he had one Milwaukee Democrat lined up to support the bill, and he still hoped he could persuade one. “I would not rule out calling an extraordinary session,” Fitzgerald said, “if we could get a signal from the corporation and a 17th senator.”
A few days after the vote, Schultz invited me to his farm about 60 miles west of Madison, land that has been in his family for six generations. Schultz is an avid hunter, and as he poured me coffee, he described some of the animals — grouse, wild turkey, even a bear — that he has hunted throughout the state. A few days earlier, he gave a reading at an event honoring Aldo Leopold. “I’m a guy who believes that the Leopold land ethic makes sense,” Schultz said. “It’s about stewardship, but using resources wisely is O.K.”
Unemployment around Mellen, where the mine would be located, is significantly higher than the statewide average. But last fall, Schultz took part in a town-hall meeting there with Senator Bob Jauch, who represents the area, and a majority of the attendees registered their opposition to the Assembly bill. “We want the mine; we fear the mine,” Mellen’s mayor, Joseph Barabe, said at the meeting. “We have the most to lose.” Schultz says he believes that a mine in the area is feasible, but radically changing long-established environmental law is unwise and contrary to the state’s ethos. He developed a compromise bill with Jauch that sought to strike a balance between the state’s conservationist traditions and the accommodations GTac sought, but it was described by Fitzgerald as a “nonstarter” and never brought up for a vote. Afterward, Fitzgerald admitted that perhaps the mining company, whose operations are mostly based in West Virginia and Illinois, had pushed too far for Wisconsin. “I think the corporation and their attorneys drafted a bill that may have been acceptable in other states,” he said.
Schultz was sympathetic to Wiggins and the Bad River Chippewa. “For them, this place is like Bethlehem is for our Christians,” he said. “So they’re obviously going to fiercely defend their territory. If you read some of the comments from Assembly members, they’re saying, ‘We don’t have to listen to them.’ So there is an unbelievable amount of anger and fear that’s built up in the tribal community. When Mike first came to see me, I said: ‘I’m for mining, and I know that you’re never going to be for mining, and I understand that. But I want you to know I appreciate the fact that you’re here.’ That’s how we began our relationship. I’m still for mining. He’s not going to be for mining there, and I understand. And I would hope that he would be somewhat kind about his feelings toward me.”
The previous evening, I stood with Mike Wiggins on the coast of Lake Superior and talked about Schultz’s role in staving off the mine. The civility that he demonstrated, the willingness to try to understand a different point of view — it all stood in stark contrast to what has transpired in Wisconsin politics over the past year and a half. “When I woke up this morning, I was thinking about Dale,” Wiggins said as I was leaving. “I probably shouldn’t be saying this, but I had tears in my eyes.”
Dan Kaufman has written for The Times and The New Yorker, among other publications.
Editor: Joel Lovell
This message may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material in this message is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.