Republican Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker waves as he celebrates his victory in the recall election against Democratic challenger and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in Waukesha, Wisconsin June 5, 2012.
Credits: REUTERS/DARREN HAUCK
Some Canadians envy American voters' ability to fire politicians for cause between elections. From school boards to prosecuting attorneys, mayors and state legislators, 19 states plus the District of Columbia, and more than half its cities, allow petitions to force "recall" elections under various conditions. Last year at least 150 were held, about half successful.
In fact, Scott Walker just famously became the first governor to survive a recall vote. Mind you he's only the third to face one. And while his lieutenant governor also prevailed on Tuesday, by winning just one of four special senate races Democrats narrowly recaptured the Badger State's upper house.
Canadians might also envy Americans their political engagement. The Walker recall petition needed half a million signatures and got a million, then 2.5 of 4.4 million Wisconsin adults voted in a special election.
The main thing we should envy, and imitate, is the outcome. His enemies typically called Walker a callous hateful Tea Party puppet of wealthy bigots. But in fact he understood, like many politicians, that excessive pay and perks for public employees are one of two fundamental problems with government spending. (The other is middle-class entitlements.) Unlike many, he did something about it.
To force state and local government workers to contribute more to their typically lavish health care and pension plans, Walker severely restricted their collective bargaining on most non-wage issues (exempting cops and firemen). He also forbade them to seek pay hikes above inflation without a public referendum. And he denied unions the automatic right to represent government workers or collect dues from all their paychecks.
Ominously for Big Labour, the largest single Wisconsin public union promptly lost more than half its members and the local American Federation of Teachers wing lost a third.
In the United States, "unionization" is down to around 12% of the labour force. But even that number combines 37% in government and under 7% in the private sector. In Canada, it was 29.5% overall in 2010. Of those unionized in Canada in 2010, 71.4% were in the public sector and just 16% in the private sector - a gap graphically explained by the Newfoundland hospital that managed to bleed money running a Tim Horton's on public sector union wages.
The Wisconsin campaign was vicious and petty. Walker's union foes occupied the state capitol and harassed Republican lawmakers, while his political opponents childishly fled the state to try to avoid a vote on his reforms. Then they tried to recall him.
Instead he was not merely re-elected, he increased his vote share from 52.25% in the 2010 general election to 53.2% in the recall, and his total vote from 1,128,941 to 1,331,076 (his two-time opponent, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, also gained 154,034 votes despite losing vote share). Some commentators emphasize that Walker raised more money than Barrett, but outside union-funded PACs spent large sums opposing Walker.
Democrats seeking consolation cite polls showing Barack Obama still at least six points up on Mitt Romney in Wisconsin, which the GOP will need to make up by November. But to hang on, the Obama team will, awkwardly, need the organizing muscle of public sector unions they now clearly cannot afford to be seen pampering.
For the key Democratic setback here was on the issue not the politics. Scott Walker tried to break the power of public sector unions to hold the public agenda hostage to their overly generous pay and perks. And despite a well-funded, well-organized challenge in a famously progressive state, the populace backed him.
Like citizens of San Diego and San Jose, who voted heavily the same day to cut municipal pensions, Wisconsin voters understood that these unions are not champions of the underdog but irresponsibly selfish, reactionary defenders of entrenched privilege with no credible plan for avoiding a projected $3.6-billion deficit.
Walker could claim many advantages Canadian politicians lack, like a state law requiring a balanced budget, and voters, across the spectrum, hawkish about balancing budgets. But his main advantage was backbone, fiscal and political.
His example can and should inspire other "fiscal conservatives" to grow spines of their own. Including in Canada.