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Stein and Patrick Marley begin their fine new book on Scott Walker’s troubled tenure with a timeline that is already outdated.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). ￼