John Nichols: An essential story of Wisconsin going off the rails

2013-04-16T04:55:00Z John Nichols: An essential story of Wisconsin going off the railsJOHN NICHOLS | Cap Times associate editor

Milwaukee Journal writers Jason Stein and Patrick Marley begin their fine new book on Scott Walker’s troubled tenure with a timeline that is already outdated. Ending on Jan. 22, 2013 – with the sentencing of longtime Walker aide Tim Russell to two years in prison – it barely gets a chance to mention the governor’s positioning of himself as a prospective 2016 Republican presidential contender.

That’s the first challenge when it comes to trying to establish any kind of “permanent record” of the Wisconsin struggle. It keeps evolving in dramatic new ways. Walker will learn that later this year, when he publishes his own account of the fight that began with his election in 2010 and shows no sign of finishing anytime soon.

But Stein and Marley faced a second challenge that Walker will not have to deal with in his presidential-campaign manifesto. They are trying to establish a record that is accepted – if not entirely embraced – by all sides in an ongoing dispute that has no middle. In effect, they are offering up a fact-based, relatively unbiased account of a fight in which most of the players have decided that they can have their own opinions AND their own facts.

Against the twin challenges they accepted in preparing “More Than They Bargained For: Scott Walker, Unions and the Fight for Wisconsin” (University of Wisconsin Press), Stein and Marley make an admirable effort. And they achieve a considerable measure of success.

This is an important book that provides a clear set of journalistic snapshots from key points of conflict in 2011, and to a lesser extent in 2012. As such, it forms part of a canon that is developing and that will, eventually, fill a good-sized shelf in libraries around the state and nation.

“More Than They Bargained For” does not tell the whole story of the Wisconsin struggle. The portrayal of the mass protests that captured the imagination of the world is detailed and fair, yet it is constrained by a clinical approach that never quite captures the mix of anguish and exhilaration that characterized a remarkable moment when citizens – as opposed to politicians – were the dominant players in the capitol of an American state. The examination of the recall campaign that sought to remove Walker is slim. And too little effort is made to account for the often-definitional role played by media – local and national; old, new and social – in shaping the messages that drove the action at “ground zero” and shaped the spin nationally.

Where Stein and Marley shine, and where this book becomes essential, is in the reporting on the legislative process as it functioned initially, ground to a halt with the exit of 14 state Senate Democrats, and then restarted in a mad rush to enact the governor’s agenda. Veteran Statehouse reporters, Stein and Marley had better access to the players, and better insight into the process, than all but a handful of observers. And they bring to the reporting a keen eye for nuance that reveals more than any press conference or official vote.

Nowhere is this more the case than in the reporting on the internal struggles of a state Senate Republican Caucus that ran the gamut from thoughtful moderate Dale Schultz to the thoughtless partisan who led the chamber as Walker’s errand boy, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald. The authors begin “More Than They Bargained For” with a quote from Fitzgerald’s brother, former Assembly Speaker Jeff, who declared early in the Wisconsin fight: “Democracy isn’t pretty all the time.” Under Scott Fitzgerald, as Stein and Marley ably illustrate, democracy wasn’t just ugly. It was disregarded.

The most striking section of the book tells of a particularly unsettling legislative session, during the period when the 14 Democratic senators were in Illinois. Schultz, the most outspoken Republican critic of the Republican governor’s anti-labor agenda, missed a key vote when he was lured to the governor’s office for an extended conversation with Walker and Secretary of Administration Mike Huebsch.

When Schultz realized what was happening, he told the governor and his sidekick: “If I ever find out that either one of you had anything to do with this, I’ll be very disappointed.”

As for Fitzgerald, his aides were informed by a Schultz aide that the dissenting senator (who had been trying to amend Walker’s “budget repair bill”) was with the governor and could be in the chamber in a few minutes. Instead of respecting his colleague, Fitzgerald rushed ahead with the vote. “For his part,” Stein and Marley write, “Fitzgerald said he recalled hearing that day that Schultz was with the governor, but said he wasn’t trying to keep him from voting.”

The recounting of the political chicanery that attended Walker’s win-at-any-cost approach to governing, and the obvious disregard of the Fitzgeralds for the Wisconsin tradition of legislative cooperation, provides the drama in “More Than They Bargained For.” That is certainly so in the retelling by Stein and Marley of the incident in which Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, battled to prevent the Fitzgerald brothers, Senate President Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, and Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, from disregarding legislative rules in a mad rush to enact Walker’s bill.

Most Wisconsinites have seen the video of Barca’s impassioned demand that his fellow legislators respect the state’s open meetings law and give proper notice of their actions. But the story of the confrontation at the meeting of the legislative conference committee run by Scott Fitzgerald is far more riveting on the page. Stein and Marley place it in context, capturing the intensity in the committee room with rich detail and superb writing.

This is not a pretty picture of the Wisconsin Legislature. But it is an honest one. And that honesty is what makes “More Than They Bargained For” such an engaging — such a valuable — contribution to the historical record of the critical juncture when a state that once sought to be greater than all others became a good deal less.

John Nichols is the associate editor of The Capital Times. His 2012 book on the Wisconsin fight is “Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest from Madison to Wall Street” (Nation Books).

Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(41) Comments

  1. tomtom33
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    tomtom33 - April 17, 2013 12:04 pm
    Correct. However, the Senate was not in recess. No one declared that anyone could not make recess appointments. The Supremes merely said that a tactic originally employed by Democrats to prevent GW Bush from making recess appointments was valid. By the way that Democratic tactic was not challenged by Dub.
  2. Lowden
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    Lowden - April 17, 2013 11:05 am
    "Obama illegally appointing members to the NLRB" is not true.

    The law as interpreted at the time allowed him to recess appoint the Board members.
    The activist partisan hack Republican controlled SCOTUS declared that Presidents can no longer recess appoint in that manner.
  3. Lowden
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    Lowden - April 17, 2013 10:57 am
    Dane County Judge Maryann Sumi, not 'state judge' -- oops.
  4. Lowden
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    Lowden - April 17, 2013 10:54 am
    That despicable bill was struck down by Judge Colas, who was later reversed on appeal just a few months ago.

    The Judge called in Unconstitutional.
    "A Dane County judge late Friday struck down Wisconsin's controversial 2011 collective bargaining law because he said it violates the state and U.S. constitutional guarantees of free speech and freedom of association

    Read more:

    Act 10 was blocked by an injunction by Judge Sumi due to HOW it was passed. That was reversed by the Republi-scum on Wisconsin's 'Supreme' Court when the Court had not even heard testimony or deliberated, with the nearly illegal decision issued months earlier than usual.

    Scott Fitzgerald simply could have tried to pass the bill again or attached it to the biannual budget if it was so popular and good for the state.

    Actually many of the 14 Heroes were at home. One stated that no officials bothered her because the TV stations were in cities too far away to bother covering any action by Wisconsin State Patrol Superintendent Stephen Fitzgerald.
  5. 196ski
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    196ski - April 17, 2013 10:35 am
    You can look long and hard Nav but you will not find an example of tt33 demonizing anyone. He is one of the few from either side that refuses to crawl in the mud. For what it is worth, while we come down on opposite sides of the fence you rise above the demonizing as well.
    Carry on men.
  6. tomtom33
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    tomtom33 - April 17, 2013 9:16 am
    Cite one example of me demonizing anyone.
  7. Norwood44
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    Norwood44 - April 17, 2013 7:29 am
    The Fourteen Who Fled weren't heroes. They didn't have the votes, so they ran. Amazing really. They actually hurt their party. It will take new leadership and a new message for Wisconsin voters in order for the Dems to rise from their own ashes. They have to distance themselves from the Dane County Dems and government union lobbyists to create a party that speaks to all of Wisconsin and offers a legit option to Walker. They need a jobs plan for the private sector, not government unions. They need to squelch the Koch brothers conspiracy rhetoric and develop some good old-fashioned local solutions to real problems of real citizens. This thinking won't come from Madison. Or anyone who believes the Cap Times version of Wisconsin's recent history.
  8. Norwood44
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    Norwood44 - April 17, 2013 7:20 am
    The protests were political theater staged by big money goverment unions who spent the last three decades purchasing the Democratic Party. Real citizens spoke at the polls when Walker was subjected to a recall vote. Democrats and government unions will get another chance in two years. Here's hoping a New Democratic Party emerges;one that serves citizens first, not government unions. That is what democracy should look like.
  9. Nav
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    Nav - April 17, 2013 5:01 am
    But tomtom33, do you not demonize people on here all the time? Double standards?
  10. tomtom33
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    tomtom33 - April 17, 2013 4:42 am
    I personally deplore demonizing. Demonizing is a tactic liberally employed by both parties at both the State and Federal levels.
  11. Dode
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    Dode - April 17, 2013 1:49 am
    Boy, isn't that the truth. The dems are so blinded by their hate they can't see straight.
  12. Bender
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    Bender - April 16, 2013 10:38 pm
    Not being Republicans.
  13. RichardSRussell
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    RichardSRussell - April 16, 2013 9:36 pm
    What actions by the Democrats do you deplore?
  14. bookman21
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    bookman21 - April 16, 2013 4:33 pm
    whine: noun
    To disagree with rightwing spin.
  15. Whirlwind
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    Whirlwind - April 16, 2013 2:34 pm

    You said it yourself...."properly passed". The job of a lawmaker is to vote yea or nea on a bill, and that is about all. It seems you are not for democracy? Do you not see that? Just because you do not agree with a law does not mean it is OK to leave the state and fail to vote on a bill.... fail to do the one job you were elected to do.

    If the law turns out to be egregious or unpopular, they will be voted out next election. At least feign a little respect for the process of a representative democracy you intolerant fool.

  16. uwjeff
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    uwjeff - April 16, 2013 11:48 am
    LOL.........."milton's fried man"...... what's funny is that your statement applies so much more to your own assessment than it does to tomtom33 -- and it's amazing how you blindly ignore the statement of "Lowden" that started it all..........tomtom33 was simply trying to add some balance to the forum............but you don't want to even begin to acknowledge that.
  17. toobad
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    toobad - April 16, 2013 11:11 am
    You're talking about 0bamacare right?
  18. AllAmerican11B
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    AllAmerican11B - April 16, 2013 10:08 am
    In regards to Act 10, the actions that both sides took were deplorable. If you honestly can't see that then you have been completely brainwashed by partisan rhetoric.
  19. AllAmerican11B
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    AllAmerican11B - April 16, 2013 9:53 am
    Resorting to personal insults is such a fine way of supporting your arguments.
  20. tomtom33
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    tomtom33 - April 16, 2013 9:45 am
    Speaking of lies and delusions, you can´t even advance any arguments. All you can do is personally attack people and demonize. You have learned well from the CT.
  21. milton's fried man
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    milton's fried man - April 16, 2013 9:30 am
    it was not the same thing but nice try...
  22. milton's fried man
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    milton's fried man - April 16, 2013 9:15 am

    . "Without the unions organizing, none of this would have happened on the scale it did"

    lorax, anyone who was there knows that most of the unions were quite slow to come aboard...johnny union came late to the party
  23. milton's fried man
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    milton's fried man - April 16, 2013 9:12 am
    tomtom ...your disregard for logic, proportion and facts is a striking double standard
  24. tomtom33
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    tomtom33 - April 16, 2013 9:02 am
    Things are illegal when you don't like them? Were those 14 heroes marching in lockstep with the public employee unions?

    Was the Supreme Court ruling in favor of Obamacare a disgrace? How about Obama illegally appointing members to the NLRB?

    Act 10 was hurriedly done? How about Doyle's tax increase? How about the passage of Obamacare?

    A shocking double standard.
  25. Lowden
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    Lowden - April 16, 2013 8:49 am
    IF not for those 14 American Heroes that defied Fitzgerald and boycotted the Capitol, with a temporay trip to Northern Illinois, then the Union Busting Bill would have been properly passed, legal challenges moot, and would have taken effect soon after Walker signed it.

    Instead, the furious Senate Leader illegally passed it, violating Senate Rules, and it was put on hold for months by a state judge, giving time for sane school districts to negotiate with teachers and sign fair contracts.

    Sadly the National Disgrace the Wisconsin State Supreme Court, at the demand of Scott Fitzgerald, hurriedly issued a ruling (only by the 4 Republicans though) legalizing the sweeping away of Senate Rules if deemed appropriate, and therefore legitimizing the Union Busting Bill, a grossly political move to fend off round 2 of huge protests.

    Justice Prosser was extremely adamant about that shocking ruling if you recall.
  26. PapaLorax
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    PapaLorax - April 16, 2013 8:31 am
    "anguish and exhilaration that characterized a remarkable moment when citizens – as opposed to politicians – were the dominant players in the capitol of an American state."

    Citizens? Ha! You means public sector unions. Without the unions organizing, none of this would have happened on the scale it did. You can argue that they are citizens...then again, so are politicians. They are all so closely aligned to pretend they are different is a joke.

    Disclaimer: I would say the same thing about WMC...they all play the game.

    "Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, battled to prevent the Fitzgerald brothers, Senate President Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, and Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, from disregarding legislative rules in a mad rush to enact Walker’s bill."

    It still makes me laugh that a meeting held live online, in front of multiple sets of news cameras, in a room so packed that not a single other person could have been in there...was claimed to be in violation of the Open meeting law. Technicalities aside, certainly the spirit of the law was upheld. Still laughing!!
  27. PapaLorax
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    PapaLorax - April 16, 2013 8:25 am
    you area way off - it was 24 hrs
  28. geoman7447
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    geoman7447 - April 16, 2013 8:23 am
    When Governor Walker fails to be re-elected in 2014, it will be someone else's head which will explode.
  29. epic
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    epic - April 16, 2013 8:10 am
    "The portrayal of the mass protests that captured the imagination of the world........"

    They may have captured the imagination of the world but they were not enough to hoodwink Wisconsin voters. Scott Walker: two statewide elections and still standing. When he wins reelection I fear Comrade John's head will explode.

  30. tomtom33
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    tomtom33 - April 16, 2013 7:58 am
    The article started the whining and demonizing. You can hardly blame Nav and others for continuing in the same vein.
  31. tomtom33
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    tomtom33 - April 16, 2013 7:54 am
    I do not comment in an attempt to sway anyone.

    Try looking up the definition of demonize. There is a huge difference between advancing a point of view and demonizing. I suggest you learn the difference because you are guilty. Demonizing and personal attacks go hand-in-hand. They are employed when the person using them is not bright enough to advance his/her point of view cogently. Sound familiar?
  32. Wis_taxpayer
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    Wis_taxpayer - April 16, 2013 7:26 am
    So everyone here has read the book? I thought not..... otherwise there would be an adult conversation and not the whining that's taking place here. This book is very well done and is very informative as well. There is something in here for both side to be ashamed about.

    However comments such as "The GOP did nothing other than the Democrats have done before." is so far off base it doesn't even come close to a criticism, it's more of a knee jerk the other side did it too response.

    Want to have some creditability on here.... go read the book first! Then come back here and tell us anything that is inaccurate in the book.

    This is an accurate recounting of our shameful recent political history, actually pretty sad and embarrassing for our State. If you read the book, you'll see there is no need for any finger pointing, the actions of our elected officials paints a vivid picture of each one of them and how they have acted.
  33. Putsmeister
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    Putsmeister - April 16, 2013 6:59 am
    That's pretty laughable!
  34. Nav
    Report Abuse
    Nav - April 16, 2013 6:43 am
    Whine? Pointing out actual historical facts is whining while accepting something that can never be proven (e.g. your statement that" the laws would pass anyway") is ok?

    I don't think so!
  35. Nav
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    Nav - April 16, 2013 6:39 am
    I don't know why Democrats didn't play that "shame shame" video in recent elections to show to the people of Wisconsin what their Republican Senators and Assembly persons had done. maybe that would have been more effective!
  36. Nav
    Report Abuse
    Nav - April 16, 2013 6:31 am
    Tomtom33, anything you see that does not comport to your view of the world is deemed "demonizing" by you.

    Your mere suggestion that the CT has caused more polarization than the Governor is laughable. I do not recall the CT ever publically declaring that it believes in "divide and conquer" but I clearly remember our Governor saying that AS A PART OF HIS STRATEGY.

    As hard as you try, I just don't see you swaying many bloggers on here.

  37. 196ski
    Report Abuse
    196ski - April 16, 2013 6:27 am
    Didn't the Democrats do the same thing in June of 09? A tax increase that passed with no debate, not discussion and all within 48 hours? Mr Kettle meet Mr Pot.
  38. tomtom33
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    tomtom33 - April 16, 2013 6:21 am
    The GOP did nothing other than the Democrats have done before. Doyle rammed through his big tax increase much more quickly than the GOP rammed anything. Were you screaming then? How about Doyle's theft from dedicated funds?

    No, you castigate the GOP for the exact same things done by the Democrats. Then you complain that I am saying that it is okay because someone else did it. Wake up.
  39. tomtom33
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    tomtom33 - April 16, 2013 6:18 am
    And the demonizing continues. Keep it up, John. You do realize that you and the CT may have had more to do with the polarization in Dane County than anything Walker has done.
  40. sebastian
    Report Abuse
    sebastian - April 16, 2013 6:09 am
    Whine as you will about the Republican legislature (and I would tend to agree with you), but the laws would pass anyways.
    "shame, shame, shame"? Losers.
    My take on the protests? The day the entitled and complacent takers were exposed and gored.
  41. Nav
    Report Abuse
    Nav - April 16, 2013 5:19 am
    We will not forget the way the Republican legislature arrogantly and quickly rammed through legislation early on disregarding the tenets of Democracy. I do not recall at any time that we have had legislators shout "shame, shame, shame" to fellow legislators, but yes, it happened right here.
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