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Tuesday's Wisconsin Supreme Court election morphs into referendum on Scott Walker

Gov. Scott Walker
REUTERS/Darren Hauck
Gov. Scott Walker

SPOONER, WIS. — A Supreme Court race in Wisconsin has become the first referendum on the policies of Gov. Scott Walker.

The passion evident in the highly contested race could be seen here Saturday, when about 40 supporters of the incumbent stood at the intersection of Walnut Sreet, the main business street in Spooner, and Hwy. 63, waving signs.

In other times, this probably would have been a low-budget, nonpartisan race between Justice David Prosser and his challenger, Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg, but it has become so much more than that.

Huge turnout likely
A huge voter turnout is expected Tuesday when pro-Walker supporters are expected to cast their votes for Prosser and those who oppose the governor will line up behind Kloppenburg. At stake, a 10-year term on the Supreme Court — and maybe tipping the balance on the court.

Political as Wisconsin judicial races have become in recent years, there's never been so much passion, anger and money involved in a judicial race as this one.

The signs contained a mix of anti-union ("Protect Taxpayers, not Unions!''), pro-Walker, pro-Prosser messages.

But in the blocks surrounding that rally were yard signs with anti-Walker messages ("Stop Walker, vote Kloppenburg!'')

JoAnne Kloppenburg
JoAnne Kloppenburg

Kloppenburg supporters point out that Saturday's rally was small, compared with the anti-Walker rallies that had been held at the same location when Walker's plans to strip public employees of collective bargaining rights first emerged. Over three successive weeks, those rallies attracted as many as 200 people to this Washburn County community in the northwestern corner of the state. Each anti-Walker rally included more and more pro-Kloppenburg signs.

The chair of the county's Democratic Party, Sue Hansen, has called for one more rally this evening.

Part of the reason these rallies are so important in this portion of the state, Hansen said, is that Twin Cities media — both television and daily newspapers — dominate. That means in this part of the state, there's a dearth of Wisconsin news in the homes of many voters. The rallies serve as a reminder that Election Day is here.

Race filled with passion and a bit of the bizarre
It's hard to overstate the passions — and bizarre situations — surrounding this race.

Start with bizarre.

On Sunday, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel endorsed Prosser, although the editorial did suggest that Prosser probably shouldn't have called the state's chief justice, Shirley Abrahamson, "a bitch.'' It also chastised the justice for releasing a statement saying that his decisions "complement" Walker.

The paper suggested that maybe Prosser, who was appointed to the court by former Republican Gov. Tommy Thomspon in 1998, should take some anger management courses and probably shouldn't be so political. The paper finally concluded that Prosser, who proudly proclaims his pro-life stance on abortion, has shown an independent streak on the court.

Certainly, most Democrats don't see Prosser as independent. Rather, they see him as a consistent member of the 4-3 conservative majority on the court.

While Prosser supporters welcome the endorsement of the state's largest paper, Kloppenburg supporters are celebrating, too.

Justice David Prosser
Justice David Prosser

That's because Sarah Palin recently endorsed Prosser.

"That's got to help us," said Hansen.

Even more importantly, former Wisconsin Democratic Gov. Patrick Lucey, who is in his 90s, resigned his position this week as a honorary chairman of Prosser's campaign and threw his support to Kloppenburg.

Lucey cited Prosser's "disturbing distemper" and lack of "civility" for making the late-campaign switch.

In fact, most political pundits believe Prosser would have breezed through in more normal times in Wisconsin.

But since Walker assumed office, nothing has been normal.

Letters to the editor of papers such as the weekly Spooner Advocate are filled with fire.

Emotions run high in Spooner
In last week's Advocate, for example, there was a letter from a pastor from Trego calling for Christians to support Kloppenburg.

"If you believe the words of Jesus, I call on you to vote for JoAnne Kloppenburg," wrote the Rev. Terrance Stratton. "Kloppenburg has a reputation for fairness and common sense, while her opponent has already voiced his support for the governor's plans."

On the other side of the race, there was a letter from James Coil of Cumberland.

"Your vote for Justice Prosser will keep an experienced justice in a position to preserve and protect family values, life, our constitution and rule of law," Coil wrote.

Money, of course, has been used to stoke passions. Supreme Court races in Wisconsin are supposed to be capped at about $300,000 per candidate.

But outside organizations have stepped into the contest, spending more than $2 million on standard, hyperbolic ads.

In those ads, Kloppenburg has been described as an environmental extremist who once jailed an 80-year-old farmer who refused to plant state-mandated grasses. (That ad was labeled a "Pants on Fire" lie by Wisconsin PolitiFact.) Pro-Kloppenburg ads run by outside organizations have been slightly less misleading.

All of this heat because of Walker. And it's not going away after Tuesday's election.

Up next are efforts at recall elections, first in the state Senate, not to mention preparations for the 2012 races.

Politics has never been so blazing hot in Wisconsin. In small towns in places like Washburn County here, where everyone knows everyone else, it can get personal.

"You have to try to learn to get along," said Hansen, the Democrat. "I'm on the library board and in a book club with the chairwoman of the Republican Party [in Washburn County]. We respect our friendship and we want to preserve it."

How do you do that?

"We never talk politics," said Hansen.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (3)

We were out knocking for Kloppenburg on Saturday in Hudson and generally we were well received. We did have an encounter with a citizen who came into our GOTV place (backroom of a coffee shop)and demanded to know where we were from. Apparently the man was upset that outside agitators were coming into the town to talk to union members. It was kind of weird and almost scripted as the man poured out a rant on driving rich people from the state, pensions out of control, etc.
I look at WI as a real opportunity for the working people and its allies to start fighting back against these corporate tools.

"We never talk politics" is what got us into this mess in the first place.

Far too many of us "liberals" are uncomfortable with the level of confrontation such conversations with our "conservative" friends always demand. That's not all bad, however, since confrontation does not generally work, anyway.

But our other most common approach, that of just "going along to get along" is actually very destructive, as well, as we are finally starting to see.

Conservatives (as some fringe "liberals" did in the opposite direction in the 60s) are seeking to create a world in which they can be comfortable living.

Sadly, with the same pieces from the vast majority of their personalities missing, pieces that allow the rest of us to feel and express empathy, compassion and trust in others (when that trust is justified), they seek to build a world in which empathy, compassion, and trust, are universally seen as human flaws,...

a world where those who are still capable of those things are seen as defective if not dangerous and where the people whose needs tend to be noticed and met by those capable of empathy, compassion, and trust are simply ignored (even if that results in their death through preventable diseases or lack of food, clothing and shelter). Such people are dismisses as invisible with simple phrases as "not my problem" and any number of "pull yourselves up by your own bootstraps" corollaries.

The standard set of "conservative" psychological dysfunctions render the facts and common sense that would support a more balanced perspective incomprehensible and invisible to them,...

but when we argue with them and press the truth upon them, all we get is anger and rage (without accomplishing any change in their internal, dysfunctional psychological mechanisms).

The approach we must use is more subtle (and a bit more insidious). When we hear one of our friends express an opinion that, if carried to its logical conclusion would be destructive to society and even themselves, we must ask them questions (rather than challenge them directly):

"What makes you think that?"

"What has happened to you in your life that causes you to see the world that way?"

"Why do you feel the need to take that approach?"

"Why does that makes sense to you?"

and similar things which raise questions not about what they believe but about WHY they believe it, HOW THEY HAVE COME to believe it and about the WOUNDING EXPERIENCES which are the source of their underlying assumptions.

We should not expect positive responses, of course. We should expect silence or denial. We should be prepared for some of them to angrily ask us the same questions back and be prepared, first, to return the question to them and not allow them to weasel out of answering as best they can, and second, be clear within ourselves why it is that we believe what we believe.

The value of asking such questions is that, unlike contradictory information, which can simply be discarded, discredited and ignored, questions linger in the mind.

In asking the "why's," and "how's" and "what's happened to you" and "what's going on inside you," questions we may be able to encourage at least a few of our friends to (unwillingly) begin a journey of self examination (something which they are very unlikely to ever do without help).

Of course some of them will simply cease to have conversations with those of us who routinely raise such uncomfortable questions, but our questions will linger, nonetheless.

After all, for those of us who call ourselves Christians, our faith calls us to love our enemies, to pray for those who would persecute us, even to ask blessing on those with whom we disagree,

But that doesn't require us to spend time in the same rooms with them, or to keep them as "good" friends, especially those who are belligerent in their ignorance.

Doing so, especially while forever keeping silence in the hopes that opportunities will arise which allow us to educate them into healthier perspectives, only gives them the unintended message that we believe them to be OK and even that we agree with them.

Although some allowances can be made for younger folks, when dealing with fully-formed (or malformed) personalities, it's better we should ask them those uncomfortable questions and let them avoid us, if they must, because we represent to them the internal issues they are so reluctant to face.

But even if they never speak to us again, the questions will linger within them.

After all, isn't the well being, if not the very survival of our children and grandchildren worth a few failed "friendships?"

Greg, a couple things came to mind when reading your post, not entirely hopeful, but then . . .

First is that I've often thought that a lot of my "progressive" and forward thinking was born from reading, and reading science fiction. Reading (as opposed to watching) seems to encourage the kind of sequential/logical/imaginative thinking that allows one to take an idea/theme/event to its extreme and frightening conclusion. Some of the very best science fiction does just that -- but that aspect doesn't translate well from written word to visual entertainment. Dune comes to mind. And unfortunately, I've come to the conclusion (from talking to people) that very few people out there read anymore.

The other is that, in a conversation nearly two years ago now, with a very Republican Floridian, who (oddly) runs a Boys & Girls Club, I responded to his 'well I need rich people to pay low taxes so I can get donations from them' "logic" with the (to me) simple question -- why should you have to beg for money for something that is a social good? Wouldn't it make more sense to to have everyone pay enough taxes to fully fund programs that keep young people healhty and productive and out of gangs? Doesn't that, really benefit ALL of us? At least in part because it's more cost effective (i.e. cheaper than prisons and drug treatment and victim restitution)?

He SAID he'd have to think about that. I'm not entirely sure he ever really did. There are a whole lot of people out there who avoid thinking lest their brains explode.

So. No matter how much I appreciate what you've said -- I'm not at all convinced that there are Cons out there who have the prerequisites for enlightenment.