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Editorial cartoon (8/17/11)

That Republicans were able to hold onto a slim majority in the state Senate during last week’s recall elections was hailed by the GOP’s supporters as a vindication of Gov. Scott Walker’s heavy-handed way of dealing with public employee unions.

It was probably the first time that losing two seats in the state Senate to the other party has been viewed as a victory, especially when the two losses came in districts that have been mostly reliable Republican strongholds through the years. And that two other senators, Luther Olsen and Alberta Darling, who hail from rock-ribbed conservative districts, didn’t exactly have a cakewalk falls a tad short of a ringing mandate for more of the same.

To listen to Republicans like Olsen and Darling, though, the people of Wisconsin showed they are happy with the way they and Walker have “balanced” the state budget without raising taxes. On election night, they and their leader, Gov. Scott Walker, all smugly claimed vindication, even though a few hours before they looked like the proverbial deer in the headlights.

And indeed, many voters in those districts saw forcing public employees to pay more toward their health insurance and pensions as a black and white issue, which, of course, it wasn’t.

From the very beginning, the state and municipal unions made it clear that they were willing to make concessions on their pension and health care payments, on top of the many furlough days and years without pay raises they had already contributed to help balance the state budget.

That wasn’t the issue. It was Walker’s intent — with the GOP-dominated Legislature’s spineless acquiescence — to break the unions that sparked the angry demonstrations, the Democratic senators’ walkout and the subsequent recalls. Not only did the Republicans get the increased pension and health contributions, they also wrote legislation that gutted collective bargaining, prevented unions from collecting dues via payroll deductions, and required unions to get recertified every year. It was one thing to balance the budget on unionized public employees’ backs, but quite another to break their backs.

The recalled Republicans did their best in their campaigns to mask those actions, which they knew had nothing to do with saving the state or local governments money, but everything to do with destroying workers’ sole source of a political and economic voice. And before their mostly conservative constituents, they were able to hold their losses to two of their colleagues.

Nevertheless, the Democrats’ gain of two seats to trim the GOP’s margin in the Senate to one and yesterday's failed recalls against two Democrats might at least slow down the radical Republican agenda that lies ahead. While the focus in the recalls has been on the state budget, there’s much more at stake in the months to come.

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That’s when the assault on everything from stem cell research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to benefits for same-sex couples, from teaching evolution in the schools to providing young people with information about contraceptives, and a long-awaited push to make Wisconsin a right-to-work state will hit the legislative floor.

It would have been easier, of course, to block the avalanche of culture war legislation that is on its way had the Democrats won a third seat last week. But there are still a few Republican moderates in the Senate who could help put the brakes on the legislation that would move Wisconsin back in time 100 years.

If that alone does happen last week’s recall of two Republican senators would indeed be a major victory.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times.