Gov. Scott Walker won re-election with 52 percent of the vote in a race that drew 55 percent of registered Wisconsin voters to the polls. That means only 28.6 percent of the state’s voters handed him a second term, which is far from the mandate he claims to have received.
But Walker’s victory, along with an increased Republican majority in the Legislature, allows the governor to continue dominating the state’s agenda in the same tight-fisted manner that he has for the past four years — and it’s not a solidarity fist. In fact, the GOP is expected to pass a so-called “right-to-work” bill at the beginning of the next legislative session on Jan. 5.
Political observers also expect Walker and the state GOP will continue to: hack away at government programs that benefit the middle class and the poor; offer taxpayer give-aways to wealthy cronies; restrict abortion rights; relax environmental and consumer protections; and expand the state’s school voucher program, which transfers taxpayer funding from cash-starved public schools to private and religious schools, including elite schools for the wealthy.
But during 2015, this new/old agenda will be complicated by the governor’s presidential aspirations, according to pundits from both parties. He’ll be playing more to the interests of a national audience and right-wing donors than to the needs of Wisconsinites. As political pundit James Rowen wrote in a recent blog post, “It’s all about Iowa, the state, not about Wisconsin’s Iowa County anymore.” (Neighboring Iowa holds the nation’s first caucuses for the next presidential campaign early in 2016.)
“Basically, we’re all subsidizing his personal, partisan quest for right-wing publicity, fundraising and eventually caucus and primary state voting, as he uses his position and state programs of all kinds for career advancement,” Rowen added.
The effect of Walker’s White House dreams can already be seen in how he’s handling Republican leaders’ efforts to fast-track a so-called “right-to-work” bill through the Legislature in January.
“We’re calling it ‘right-to-work-for-less’ legislation,” said state Rep. JoCasta Zamarippa. “We’re now wondering if they’re going to try pushing it through so quickly that it happens before the next term.”
A longtime conservative activist in Wisconsin already has formed a group advocating for right-to-work. The group launched a radio ad statewide on Dec. 5 making the case that a right-to-work law would be good for Wisconsin’s economy. Democrats and labor unions promise to fight the measure, but they were unable to prevent Walker and Republicans four years ago and now the GOP has even larger majorities in the Legislature.
The actual effect of euphemistically named “right-to-work” laws is to require unions to represent all employees, regardless of whether they pay dues: Workers who pay nothing still enjoy all the benefits of union membership in right-to-work states. Non-paying workers who are represented by a union can even sue the union over how effectively it represents them.
The intent behind such laws, of course, is to destroy unions. But in destroying unions, the laws lower workers’ compensation and workplace conditions for all workers.
On average, workers in right-to-work states earn $5,538 a year less than workers in states without such laws, according to the AFL-CIO. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that the rate of workplace deaths in right-to-work states is 52.9 percent higher than in states without such laws.
Walker fears that after the Legislature passes a right-to-work bill there will be a public outcry of the sort that followed his busting of public unions in 2011. While that would enhance his standing as a hero among tea party militants, it would probably scare off other voters. They’d see him as too divisive and politically incompetent.
For this reason, Walker has been coy about enacting right-to-work legislation in Wisconsin. He’s dismissed his GOP colleagues’ efforts as a “distraction.”
That’s one subject on which Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca agrees with him. “As the governor himself previously indicated, this would be an extremely polarizing policy at a time when we should be working together to improve Wisconsin’s economy,” Barca said in a statement. He went on to urge Walker “to put the brakes on this divisive issue that clearly will damage Wisconsin’s middle class.”
The issue has prematurely thrust Walker in the first major political quandary of his second term. There’s no doubt that he supports such laws: He sponsored a right-to-work bill as a freshman Assembly member in 1993, and he’s said that his position on the issue has not changed.
But it appears from his statements that Walker either wants to play the issue both ways or would like to put off acting on it until he’s had time to craft his public image on a national stage. If Walker really wanted to stop right-to-work, he could simply threaten to veto it, which he refuses to do.
“I feel as if the right hand does not know what the far-right hand is doing on this,” said Wisconsin Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Schilling, D-La Crosse, “Walker could in one pronouncement put an end to this by saying, ‘I will not sign this.’ But to back off and say, ‘This is something the Legislature is doing and it’s not on my agenda’ — that is not accurate.”
Walker’s reluctance to take a firm stand mirrors how Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder dodged the issue in 2012 before he signed that state’s bill into law.
Synder repeatedly insisted during his first two years in office that right-to-work was not on his agenda. He reversed course in December 2012, a month after voters defeated a ballot initiative that would have barred such measures under the state constitution. He refused to say whether he would sign such a bill but never closed the door, saying he had other priorities.
Introduction of Michigan’s right-to-work bill generated mass protests. But the Legislature moved at lightning speed to pass it just five days later with no public testimony. Snyder signed it into law the same day.
Paul Secunda, labor law professor and program coordinator for Marquette Law School’s Labor and Employment Law Program, thinks there may be a benefit for Walker if there’s quick action on the issue. “If I were Scott Walker … I would think that signing it in a lightning-quick manner would be less detrimental to my national political aspirations,” he said.
That appears to be exactly the way that right-to-work will become law in Wisconsin in January. Pundits expect Walker to claim that he was merely following the wishes of elected officials and to deny responsibility for the bill. They also expect him to sign it late on a Friday afternoon or evening in an attempt to minimize its impact on the news cycle.
How the strategy works for Walker politically could depend on the vehemence of the opposition’s response. It’s generally believed that a replay of the 2011 fracas would be detrimental to his presidential prospects.