The Politics of Offense and Defense


(AP Photo/Andy Manis)

Sean Conard, left, of Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Shyla Deacon of Milwaukee cheer during protests at the state Capitol in Madison, Saturday, February 26, 2011. In a dramatic example of the politics of defense, protests of the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights drew as many as 150,000 people in an occupation of the capitol building.

This article appears in the Spring 2015 issue of The American Prospect magazine, as a sidebar to Ann Markusen's article, "The High Road Wins," on the results for citizens of Minnesota and Wisconsin yielded by the opposing political ideologies of their governors. Subscribe here.

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Until very recently, the political cultures of Minnesota and Wisconsin seemed pretty much in step. In the 1930s, both Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party and the Progressive Party of Wisconsin anticipated the New Deal with their own brands of progressive populism. After World War II, both states shifted to the right as Farmer-Labor joined the Democrats and Wisconsin, more drastically, traded Fighting Bob La Follette for Joseph McCarthy in the Senate. Yet by the following decade, senators like Wisconsin’s Gaylord Nelson and Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey led the charge in Washington, D.C., for environmental protection, civil rights, and an expanded social safety net.

Since then, both states have become reliably blue strongholds in federal races and each has had about the same number of Republicans and Democrats in the governor’s office. The two states’ progressive streak in Congress has been kept very much alive by the careers of Senators Paul Wellstone and Russ Feingold, and more recently, Al Franken and Tammy Baldwin.  

But in the past few years, the states’ political pathways have started to diverge—sharply. While Minnesota has once again become a progressive laboratory under Governor Mark Dayton, passing landmark legislation on marriage equality, minimum wage, and progressive taxes, Wisconsin has veered in the opposite direction. (See "The High Road Wins", by Ann Markusen, part of this package on the Great Lakes states from The American Prospect magazine's 25th Anniversary issue.) Republican Governor Scott Walker has enacted voter ID, rejected Obamacare funds, and seriously undermined workers’ rights statewide. What gives?

“Scott Walker was a great organizer for progressives back in 2011,” says Matthew Rothschild, then-editor of The Progressive, a venerable Madison-based magazine. After Walker introduced his Budget Repair Bill that February—the one that stripped most public employees of their collective-bargaining rights—protests began growing exponentially. “Four days after the bill was introduced, there were five or ten thousand people there, and by Saturday there were 50,000,” says Rothschild. “By the next Saturday there were 100,000.” 

The capitol occupation, numbering more than 150,000 within just a few weeks, was the largest mass mobilization in Wisconsin’s history. Organizers began thinking bigger. At a February meeting, Wisconsin’s South Central Federation of Labor, representing more than 30,000 clerical and blue-collar workers in and around Madison, voted to consider organizing a general strike. “I’d never heard the words general strike uttered in public before,” says Rothschild. 

The general strike never happened. By March, leaders in the state Democratic Party and the AFL-CIO began pushing the movement toward recalling Walker as well as some of the legislators who had voted for the Budget Repair Bill. By April, the mass protests had dwindled. At one point during a rally in March, Democratic state Senator Jon Erpenbach reportedly told a crowd of 200,000 to go home and “work on the recall.” 

At first, the recall campaign made an impressive showing. Within a few months, organizers had collected more than one million signatures statewide—nearly eclipsing the 1.1 million votes earned by Walker in the 2010 election. “It was a huge, organic movement of people who were out there collecting recall petitions, collecting signatures, downloading the forms online,” says Jennifer Epps-Addison, an organizer with Citizen Action of Wisconsin.

But the decision to push for a recall also exposed critical divisions between activists on the ground and Democratic Party leaders. “You have to understand that this occupation was really led and started by young people, students, and rank-and-file activists,” says Epps-Addison. “But once the nation’s attention was focused in, that’s when more traditional organizations began to get involved and in some ways began to dictate strategy.”

Among those more traditional organizations was the state Democratic Party, which pushed for a primary and for a candidate, Tom Barrett, who seemed to please no one. As mayor of Milwaukee, Barrett had butted heads with the state’s National Education Association affiliate over a proposal to put the city’s school system under his control. A month before the recall petition drive ended, the NEA affiliate, along with the Wisconsin State Employees Union, formally asked Barrett not to run. When he refused, both unions backed Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk in the primary, but Barrett went on to defeat her by a resounding 24 points. The primary put Democrats in exactly the same position they’d been in some 18 months before, when Walker faced Barrett in 2010. 

Barrett, says Epps-Addison, had little to say about the concerns of the activists who had forced the recall in the first place. “When it came to actually running that election, we weren’t able to actually tap into that energy,” she adds. “We ran away from the economy, which at the time should have been the biggest issue.”

Yet it’s not clear whether a more left-wing candidate would have appealed to voters who weren’t part of the state’s progressive movements. Polling among independents showed growing support for Walker in the months leading up to the recall.

And progressives weren’t just up against Walker. They were up against a political system that tipped in Walker’s favor from the moment he was first elected. While activists were collecting signatures for the recall, GOP legislators were busy giving their state districts an unprecedented makeover. According to research by the Journal Sentinel’s Craig Gilbert, the new map completely eliminated competitive districts in the region surrounding Milwaukee while creating dozens of new districts that tilted more Republican than Wisconsin as a whole. In the 2012 presidential race, 56 of Wisconsin’s 99 Assembly districts voted for Mitt Romney, while Barack Obama carried the state by a full seven points. The new map means Republicans don’t have to worry about going too far to the right on hot-button issues, like say, right to work, which the legislature passed in March. Even if Barrett had won in 2012, he would have faced an entrenched GOP majority with the state capitol in its pocket.

To be sure, Wisconsin voters have not suddenly become the most conservative in the country. Over three separate elections, Scott Walker has never won the state with more than 53 percent of the vote, while Obama has carried the state twice and Badger voters elected Democrat (and lesbian) Tammy Baldwin to the Senate in 2012. But in nonpresidential elections, Democrats and progressives have lacked the organizational power and strategic vision to overcome a Republican machine and a political system tilted in its favor. 

Minnesota's policies on wages, health care, and unionization have improved the quality of life for residents of that state, in stark contrast to the state policies of Wisconsin under Republican Governor Scott Walker.

“TYPICALLY WHEN WE think of coalitions, we think of a big table with a bunch of organizations who all care about the same thing and are interested in doing the same thing,” says Dan McGrath, executive director of TakeAction Minnesota. “Well look,” he adds pointedly. “That form of organization is designed to play defense.”

About a decade ago, progressive organizers in Minnesota had a different idea. Recognizing the need for a broad-based, but also deeply organized, progressive alliance, leaders of Progressive Minnesota and the Wellstone-era Alliance for Progressive Action began holding regular meetings. What they aimed for was a coalition based less on immediate goals and more on deeply shared values—an organization that could develop a long-term political infrastructure and then fight for change on its own terms.  

It was a particularly dark time for the Minnesota left. Wellstone’s 2002 death had left an indelible scar on the state’s progressive movement, while his successor in the Senate, Republican Norm Coleman, positioned himself as a staunch Bush ally. At the same time, Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty—no Scott Walker, but bad enough—pushed through a conceal-and-carry gun law and cut funding for education and social programs. Michele Bachmann was ascendant. Republicans began to talk of Minnesota as a swing state. 

In order to counter the Republican takeover, says McGrath, organizers realized they had to look beyond Coleman and Pawlenty and toward larger issues of economic and racial justice in the state. They started to ask themselves what they wanted their state to look like and how they could get there in the long term. “The way this type of coalition is constructed is very different,” he says. “It’s really about aligning around shared values—a shared vision. And really respecting the unique strengths of different organizations around the table.”

Within a few years, that table included groups like CTUL, a workers’ center; ISAIAH, a faith-based community coalition; and Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), a former ACORN chapter dedicated to racial justice. The coalition’s increasingly broad scope allowed it to unite community organizing, legislative work, and policy analysis under the same umbrella and to balance short-term campaigns with more long-term struggles for social change. Building this kind of infrastructure means that TakeAction is “designed to go on the offense,” says McGrath.

A good example is the 2012 fight against voter-ID laws, which was easily one of the most unlikely victories in TakeAction’s history. A year after Governor Dayton vetoed a voter-ID bill, state representative Mary Kiffmeyer—who was also serving as the state chair for ALEC at the time—led a GOP push to put the measure to voters. Early polling indicated that 80 percent of Minnesota voters supported it.

But those odds didn’t hold TakeAction or its allies back for a second. Focusing especially on black neighborhoods in Minneapolis and St. Paul, NOC launched a 19-month canvassing campaign ahead of the referendum, knocking on more than 20,000 doors. Canvassers spoke with residents not only about voter ID, but also about issues like marriage equality in order to build a base of support in the upcoming fight against an anti-gay-marriage amendment. All told, TakeAction (which has a permanent staff of 35) and its allies organized more than 3,000 volunteers statewide, reaching more than 900,000 voters. 

In a remarkable turnaround, voters rejected the voter-ID ballot initiative and the marriage amendment, becoming the only state in the country to defeat both. “We like to say how we win is just as important as what we win,” says McGrath. “We’ve got to connect the dots across these issues so we’re actually building the capacity to make larger structural changes as we go.”

An approach like this also offers a remarkable flexibility when it comes to electoral politics. In the run-up to the 2010 gubernatorial race in Minnesota, TakeAction launched, a statewide push to infuse Minnesota’s local caucus and convention process with increased progressive representation. After extensive door-knocking and organizing, TakeAction endorsed state House Speaker Margaret Kelliher, a dedicated environmentalist, and gave a nod to two other “preferred candidates.” Conspicuously absent from the list was Dayton, a one-time U.S. senator whom McGrath had denounced as one of the “two millionaires” Kelliher had to defeat to win the Democratic ticket. 

Dayton went on to best Kelliher and TakeAction’s other two favorites. But because of the infrastructure it had built up during the primary, TakeAction was able not only to help elect him that November but also steer his administration in a more progressive direction. “Even though none of our preferred candidates were on the ballot come November,” says Ryan Greenwood, TakeAction’s former political director, “we had a powerful base of people built up that Dayton ultimately respected.” 

Since 2010, TakeAction has worked with Dayton on everything from securing marriage equality to statewide single-payer health care. (That one’s a work in progress.) In one of TakeAction’s more dramatic victories, it launched a “ban-the-box” campaign in 2012 to stop Target from asking job applicants about their criminal histories on job applications. Not only did Target relent and extend the ban to stores nationwide, but Dayton, whose personal fortune derives from his family’s connection to Target, signed a bill banning the practice for all private employers in the state. 

TakeAction and its allies have benefited immensely from the organizational groundwork laid by their predecessors, particularly the Wellstone-founded Alliance for Progressive Action. But TakeAction has something its predecessors didn’t: a dual commitment to racial and economic justice, and a strong focus on social policies, rather than individual candidates. 

The TakeAction model has even surfaced in Wisconsin. There, groups like Wisconsin Voices and the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which Matthew Rothschild now heads, are working to build a broad-based coalition that can begin to work toward “the kind of Wisconsin we want to see in five or ten years,” says Rothschild. At the same time, Jennifer Epps-Addison, now head of Wisconsin Jobs Now, is working to build a Wisconsin chapter of the Working Families Party. The idea, she says, is to connect racial and economic justice through popular education and long-term strategizing toward concrete electoral goals. If all this sounds a little familiar, there’s a reason, says Epps-Addison. “People are figuring out how to win.”

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