By Jason Stein and Patrick Marley
Hunkered down in Illinois to block labor legislation back in Wisconsin, 14 Democratic senators gathered in Libertyville two years ago for a secret meeting at a teachers union office.
Arriving at the Illinois Education Association branch on Feb. 26, 2011, some Democrats in the group were surprised to find that they would be strategizing not just among themselves but also with three labor officials. That trio included the incoming head of a national teachers association, the biggest union in the country, who had worked with the Wisconsin lawmakers in the past and had just registered to lobby them again.
One senator skipped the meeting out of concerns over appearance and propriety. The other lawmakers got a pitch from the union leaders on why they should stay in Illinois to prevent a vote on Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to repeal most collective bargaining for most public employees.
"The undercurrent message was, 'You're winning; stay out,' " recalled former Democratic Sen. Jim Holperin of Conover, one of those attending the meeting.
Behind the scenes, there was more to the Republican governor's fight with public employee unions than just Walker's speeches and the massive protests of union supporters. An in-depth review reveals a rich backstory, including the undisclosed visit to Wisconsin by President Barack Obama's campaign manager just before the effort to recall Walker; the role played by a conservative Milwaukee foundation in pushing labor legislation in Wisconsin and elsewhere; and the tension between Walker's office and law enforcement over handling the demonstrations that greeted the governor's proposal.
Walker emerged from the legislative fight and the subsequent recall election with a majority of support among Wisconsin voters, deep opposition from Democrats, and a hero's status among conservatives nationally. Public worker unions lost fundamental powers and in some cases their official status altogether.
But both sides managed to surprise the other with their dogged opposition, from Feb. 11, 2011 -- the day the governor announced his legislation -- to June 5, 2012, the date Walker became the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall election.
Revisiting the fight two years later reveals:
Fleeing the State
In a season of unlikely politics, one of the most surprising gambits of 2011 was the decision by Senate Democrats to drive to Illinois to deny Republicans enough senators on the floor to take a vote on Walker's bill.
During the three weeks Democrats stayed in Illinois, then-Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller (D-Monona) spent thousands of dollars in personal funds on meeting spaces, food and hotel rooms for himself and others. Then and later, Miller was adamant that Democrats made their own decisions to go to Illinois and stay there, but he welcomed the free use of meeting space from the sympathetic Illinois teachers union.
Labor leaders made their own use of the space. Seeking to persuade the Democratic senators to stay out of Wisconsin, three union officials traveled to Libertyville to meet with them: Rich Abelson, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees local that represents county and municipal workers in Milwaukee County; an unidentified person; and John Stocks, the incoming executive director of the National Education Association, which with 3 million members was the largest union in the country.
Stocks wasn't an outsider -- he knew most of the Democrats from his 14 years as a former top official and lobbyist with the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the in-state affiliate of the national teachers union. A New Orleans native and former Idaho state senator, Stocks still had a home in the Madison area and was among the union officials who had been consulting with Miller.
Stocks registered with Wisconsin ethics officials as a lobbyist for the NEA on Feb. 22, 2011 -- five days after the Democratic senators left the state and four days before the meeting in Libertyville. He turned in his lobbyist's license several months later. Stocks, who didn't respond to interview requests, was the NEA's only registered lobbyist in Wisconsin and the only one for any national union office turning up in state records during that time.
The NEA reported that Stocks and other NEA staff spent more than 200 hours on lobbying and related activities on the bill for a cost of $67,600 in total -- small change compared to the millions of dollars spent by labor and business groups on the labor legislation but significant because of the national profile of both Stocks and the union.
Not all of those hours would have been with Democrats. Stocks also reached out to some Republicans he knew from his time with WEAC.
Sen. Bob Jauch (D-Poplar) had been among those talking to Stocks individually, but he skipped the Libertyville meeting with union officials because he considered it inappropriate for the caucus to meet privately with any interest group and thought it would eventually come out and reflect badly on the Democrats.
Other Democrats said they saw no problem in meeting with the unions because it is common for lawmakers to talk to people directly affected by legislation. Sen. Julie Lassa (D-Stevens Point), who as caucus chairwoman led the meeting, said listening to the unions did not mean Democrats did whatever they asked.
Unlike Jauch, Sen. Tim Cullen (D-Janesville) decided to stay in the meeting despite his own concerns about it. "I was interested in one question and my question was, 'How long are you expecting us to stay and what's your strategy for us coming home?' " Cullen said of the union leaders. "I wanted to hear their answers. And I got no answers from them."
There were also tensions behind the scenes as police and Walker's aides sought to deal with the massive protests back in Madison against the governor's bill. For instance, on Feb. 17, 2011 -- the day that Senate Democrats left the state -- the Walker administration said in a statement that the Capitol police had estimated the number of demonstrators at 5,000 inside the statehouse and 20,000 outside it.
But Susan Riseling, the chief of the University of Wisconsin-Madison police and the officer responsible for the Capitol's interior during the protests, estimated the crowd inside the building that midafternoon at nearly 25,000, or five times the Walker administration's count. Riseling, who developed her expertise in estimating crowds over years of overseeing UW football games, made her estimate based on the crowd's density and the amount of floor space it covered.
"Whoever the officer was who reported the information (the 5,000 figure) -- well -- I can't imagine how they got their numbers. Way, way low. Now, crowds did ebb and flow. My kindest interpretation would be these numbers come from a real ebb," she said.
Tension rose even higher on March 9, 2011, when Republicans on a conference committee of the Legislature's two houses abruptly convened and amended Walker's legislation so it could be passed without Senate Democrats present. In part because Republican lawmakers hadn't told Capitol police of their plan, not enough officers were on hand to handle the thousands of demonstrators who rushed to the Capitol.
When Deputy Chief Dan Blackdeer of the Capitol police telephoned the Madison Police Department urgently requesting help, the city police refused, according to several sources directly familiar with the events of that night.
In an interview, Madison Police Chief Noble Wray stressed the big effort his department had put into patrolling downtown city streets over the course of the crisis. Though he denied it was deliberate or the result of politics, Wray acknowledged that his department hadn't responded to Blackdeer's urgent request, saying the city officer in charge hadn't understood the depth of the need.
"I think there was probably some kind of miscommunication, but I don't know what happened," Wray said.
In the months that followed, Democrats had their own challenges with crowd control -- party insiders realized they couldn't hold back the activists seeking to recall Walker.
In October 2011 at a three-hour private meeting at the Madison headquarters of the state teachers union, Jim Messina and Jennifer O'Malley Dillon, Obama's campaign manager and deputy campaign manager, met with a half-dozen Wisconsin Democrats and union leaders and discussed the looming recall attempt against Walker.
Messina was skeptical of the recall. Correctly predicting Walker's coming fundraising success, Messina warned the group that a Republican had told him Walker's side could raise $60 million to $80 million. That would hurt Democrats in the recall and could hurt Obama's re-election effort in a battleground state.
According to participants, the Wisconsin group told Messina and his deputy that the recall would happen no matter what.
"The basic message to (Messina) was 'We have no way to stop this,' " one participant said. "He came to appreciate this train was leaving whether we liked it or not."
In June 2012, Walker became the first governor in the nation's history to win a recall election. But Obama, who steered clear of the recalls, ultimately won the state and his own re-election later that year, proving in the process that Wisconsin was the nation's consummate political battleground.
This report comes from "More than They Bargained For: Scott Walker, Unions and the Fight for Wisconsin," a new book from the University of Wisconsin Press written by Journal Sentinel reporters Jason Stein and Patrick Marley. It draws on new research and scores of fresh interviews with Democrats and Republicans.
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