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Wisconsin Moderates: Heroes Or Heretics?

Last year, Dale Schultz was the only Republican state senator to vote against Gov. Scott Walker's rollback of public union collective bargaining rights. Here, he speaks to reporters at the state Capitol in 2006.
Andy Manis
Last year, Dale Schultz was the only Republican state senator to vote against Gov. Scott Walker's rollback of public union collective bargaining rights. Here, he speaks to reporters at the state Capitol in 2006.

When Wisconsin State Sen. Dale Schultz goes to the polls Tuesday, he will vote for GOP Gov. Scott Walker in the gubernatorial recall election.

"I'm a Republican," Schultz said during an interview in his Capitol office in Madison, on the eve of the state's historically acrimonious and expensive recall election.

But if the Democratic candidate, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, succeeds in ousting Walker, Schultz, 58, says, "I'm going to do everything I can to make him successful, too."

Attitudes like that have not endeared a shrinking cadre of moderate state legislators like Schultz — the only Senate Republican who voted against Walker's rollback of public union collective bargaining rights — to their increasingly partisan colleagues and party activists.

And if anyone thinks that the healing of this riven state will begin once the votes in the close race are counted (and, potentially, recounted), Schultz — who has spent three decades in the Legislature — and his fellow state Senate moderate, Democrat Timothy Cullen, warn otherwise.

"If Walker wins, how does he somehow moderate without compromising his national Tea Party rock star status?" asked Cullen, 68, from his office just a couple of dozen paces from where a portrait of President Teddy Roosevelt looks down on Schultz's desk.

A win by Barrett, considered less ideologically "pure" than Walker and not the candidate the state's public unions initially backed to take on the governor, may calm the tenor of political discussion, at least initially, says Cullen, first elected to the Senate in 1974.

But neither a Barrett nor a Walker win is expected to halt the seemingly inexorable trajectory of partisanship, a trend not limited to the borders of the Badger State.

In a column Schultz has submitted to newspapers in his southeastern Wisconsin district, he writes: "I'm concerned people are viewing the recall elections as a finish line; that somehow all of this is going to come to an end one way or the other, and we'll all just happily move on."

"I wish," he says, "that I could say I believed that."

A Reflection Of The Nation

Much has been said and written about the ugliness of the political and personal divisions that have been opened, or laid bare, in Wisconsin since Walker was elected and undertook a dual agenda to weaken public worker unions while balancing an out-of-whack budget.

Wisconsin state Sen. Timothy Cullen, a Democrat, in his Capitol office in Madison.
Liz Halloran / NPR
Wisconsin state Sen. Timothy Cullen, a Democrat, in his Capitol office in Madison.

Cullen talks about golf foursomes suspending their outings, book clubs breaking up and family members not speaking to each other.

When he walked in a Labor Day parade last year in his hometown of Janesville, on the state's south-central border with Illinois, Cullen said there was a moment when people on one side of the street cheered, while a man on the opposite curb pumped his middle finger.

"That moment captured Wisconsin," says Cullen, who was among Senate Democrats who fled to Illinois early last year in an effort to avoid a vote on Walker's collective bargaining rollbacks.

But survey results from a new Pew Research Center poll released Monday strongly suggest that Wisconsin is not much of an outlier.

Under the headline "Partisan Polarization Surges in Bush, Obama Years," Pew researchers say they found Americans more divided than at any time in the past quarter century.

The "values" gap — partisan political divisions over issues including the scope of government and the environment — now exceeds the measured gaps in attitudes based on gender, age, race or class divides, Pew found.

Wisconsin has simply been ground zero for a fierce debate over one of those now-polarizing values issues: the role of labor unions.

In a Pew values survey of 1987, 76 percent of Democrats said labor unions "are necessary to protect the working person," and 58 percent of Republicans agreed. The current survey shows that 82 percent of Democrats now agree that unions are necessary, and 42 percent of Republicans share that view.

That means what Pew calls the values gap has increased on the labor issue from 18 percent to 40 percent.

The chasm over the environment has also played out here in Wisconsin.

Schultz earlier this year was briefly threatened with recall by activists in his own party when he joined Democrats in stopping a big ore mining project that would have created jobs but that he says failed to include sufficient environmental protections.

"The Republican Party," Schultz said Monday, pointing to the Roosevelt portrait, "has a great heritage with the environment."

But Pew found that attitudes about the environment, along with those about the social safety net, have changed most dramatically over the past 25 years. In 1987, there was almost no measurable disagreement on the importance of environmental protection. Today, the partisan gap between Democrats who embrace the need for protections and Republicans who disagree is 39 percent.

What Happens Wednesday

So, what will Schultz and Cullen and the five or six other Senate moderates do to bring comity back to a state that has routinely voted for Democrats for president, while putting Republicans in the governor's office?

Much will depend, Schultz says, on "what the victor will do."

"A winner-take-all attitude tends to leave a sour taste," he says, quoting from President Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address in 1861 in pledging to pay heed to the "better angels of our nature," which includes this: "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection."

To him, Schultz says, that translates to reaching out to the opposing political party, sitting down with others to listen, "pressing my senior status," and leading by example.

"It has to be acknowledged that these are difficult times — very, very difficult for many, many people," Schultz says, adding that both parties have been guilty of pumping up differences rather than working for common ground.

"When people are hurting, they fall prey to that, to the perception that the world is not fair," he says.

Schultz said the state had to change course, that people knew that, and that he had a plan to rein in union benefits without employing Walker's "surprise" wipeout of collective bargaining.

Cullen says if voters pick Barrett it means they want to move back to the center; if Walker wins, the war goes on.

If Democrats pick up a seat in the four Senate recall contests Tuesday, they will hold a majority — but perhaps only briefly, and for a period of time when the Legislature is out of session. In November's regular election, Republicans, if they lose the Senate majority Tuesday, will be just as likely to win it back before the next legislative session opens in January.

Schultz and Cullen, a Democrat who served in GOP Gov. Tommy Thompson's Cabinet as health and human services secretary, are planning a trip together soon to a county, parts of which they'll both represent under newly drawn district lines.

They'll be on a panel together Friday at Marquette University. The topic? Partisanship.

Though the longtime senators and friends may have the best intentions, they say they know the toxic terrain still ahead is fueled by activists on both sides, outside money, and a transformed media world of talk radio, partisan bloggers and cable outlets.

Their voices and middle-ground reasoning are all they really can offer up, and their message appears to now appeal to a distinct minority.

Pew found that even independent voters, who now make up 38 percent of those surveyed — the highest percentage in a decade — are also polarized.

"I've never felt this anger before," Cullen says. "I'm either a hero or a bum — and, really, I'm neither."

So the pundit class can prattle on about what this recall election may mean for President Obama in the fall contest against GOP candidate Mitt Romney. But partisanship is really the story in Wisconsin, as it is nationally.

Just ask your neighbor. You'll probably disagree.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.

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