To this day, Wisconsin liberals genuflect at the mention of “Fighting Bob” La Follette, the state’s most revered political figure, who served as governor and U.S. senator and won 17 percent of the vote as a Progressive Party candidate for president in 1924. La Follette earned his place in state lore the hard way, fighting an uphill battle against what he called “the menace of the political machine.” Back then, that meant party bosses who anointed candidates in smoke-filled rooms, blunting the will of the people. La Follette believed that to end “political robbery,” the nominating process had to “go back to the first principles of democracy; go back to the people.” After several failed tries, La Follette finally beat the machine and became Wisconsin’s governor in 1900.
If he were alive today, though, La Follette might see a new kind of menace: public-sector unions. In 1898, public-sector unionization was only a gleam in progressives’ eyes; it wouldn’t become a reality in Wisconsin until 1959. But by 2012, unions have grown into the dominant political force in the state. And they’ve used their power to organize a special election to recall Governor Scott Walker, who provoked their ire last year when he rolled back collective bargaining power.
After some looking around, the unions appear to have settled on a candidate. At first, they flirted with Democratic state senator Tim Cullen, who briefly considered challenging Walker. Cullen, along with 13 other Democratic state senators, fled the state last year to block a vote on Walker’s plan. But when union leaders asked him whether he would commit to vetoing any future state budget that didn’t restore collective bargaining for public unions, he declined. “I said I could not make that promise and I did not think any serious candidate for governor could or should make that commitment,” Cullen told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He decided against making a run, citing the unions’ “respectful indifference” to his candidacy.
But former Dane County executive and two-time statewide election loser Kathleen Falk agreed to the unions’ veto demands. On Wednesday afternoon, the state’s largest teachers’ union announced its endorsement of Falk, thus granting her access to millions in campaign cash. Falk’s candidacy will be built around the issue of public-sector collective bargaining—not the 150,000 jobs Wisconsin lost in the past two years, or the state’s rapidly increasing health-care costs, or the deficits in the transportation fund, among many other challenges.
Falk’s deference is typical of the hold Wisconsin’s public-sector unions tend to exert on public officials. The unions spend millions on campaigns to elect legislators with whom they then negotiate contracts. Protesting Walker’s reforms a year ago, hordes of mittened protesters marched on the Wisconsin Capitol, chanting, “This is what democracy looks like!” But when the 4.9 percent of Wisconsin residents who get their paychecks from state and local government can hold the state budget hostage, it looks much more like the rigged, machine-style politics that Robert La Follette dedicated his career to fighting.
“Government by the political machine is without exception the rule of the minority,” La Follette said in 1897. Today’s progressives prefer selective remembrance of La Follette’s legacy: as long as it’s for the right cause, minority rule is fine by them.