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Now what? How does Wisconsin heal after hurtful recall

By   /   June 6, 2012  /   No Comments

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON — After months of deep political division capped by a reaffirming recall victory for embattled Republican Gov. Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s politicos sounded conciliatory tones Wednesday, hoping to heal, in their words, the damage left by extreme partisanship.

We interrupt this message of reconciliation for vitriol and death threats.

If healing is to come to Wisconsin, it will start at home, some people say.

“KILL SCOTT WALKER KILL SCOTT WALKER”  tweeted one ‘Marques.Scott @ SupaMcNasty.

The Twittersphere, where anonymity often feeds courage, and frequently stupidity, was filled with nasty messages about the governor’s 7 percentage point victory over Democratic challenger Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett — and more than a few serious threats that law enforcement officials are taking very seriously.

In response, Walker’s people said they had stepped up security but that the governor’s schedule, defined in large part by attempting to heal political wounds, would not change.

“Bringing our state together will take time, but I hope to start right away,” Walker said in his victory speech Tuesday after Republicans nearly ran the table again, this time in a partisan and unprecedented recall election. He became the first governor in U.S. history to survive recall.

“It is time to put our differences aside and figure out ways that we can move Wisconsin forward,” he said.

Not long after, the Republican Governors Association came out with a snarky video, scored with a silly saxophone soundtrack reminiscent of Benny Hill, mocking “great moments in liberal punditry” in the recall campaign.

Yep, Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz and Al Sharpton and the rest of the liberal MSNBC gang got it all wrong, and Republicans were quick to pounce.

Barrett, in conceding, urged his supporters and the state to “look to the future.”

“We are a state that has been deeply divided. And it is up to all of us, their side and our side, to listen to each other and to try to do what’s right for everyone in the state.”

For his concession speech, a little too early for many Dems’ liking, Barrett was slapped on the face. Literally.

“The woman was upset about Barrett giving his concession speech while there were still votes to be tallied, according to Milwaukee’s 12 News. Facing the woman, who reportedly asked Barrett if she could slap him, he said “I’d rather you hug me.” As he leaned down for the hug, the woman slapped him across the face,” The Hill reported.

Observers say the woman appeared drunk. She was escorted out of the downtown Milwaukee election night headquarters.

It was clear all around, even as the governor met with his cabinet and talked about moving forward from a recall that a majority of Wisconsin voters rejected, even as leadership on both sides spoke of mending fences, that the heavy lifting of fixing the rift will be easier said than done.

“I don’t know if it’s the election (that) caused injury as much as Governor Walker’s policies,” said Jane Witt, chairwoman of the Racine County Democratic Party, still smarting Wednesday from the statewide defeat. “If he and the Republican Assembly continue on the course they’ve held since January 2011, healing is simply not in the vocabulary.

“I think the idea of compromise and conciliation is rather a dream, a naivety possibly.”

Democrats were taking some solace in what appeared to be a victory in the Racine area’s 21st Senate District, in which Democratic challenger John Lehman, of Racine, pulled out a squeaker against recalled Republican Sen. Van Wanggaard, also of Racine. Wanggaard had not conceded as of late Wednesday, and the campaign was waiting on canvassing results to decide its next move, including a recount.

Any talk of healing from the partisans was punctuated by the same kind of divisive rhetoric that Wisconsinites have said they reject.

In searching for victory in defeat Wednesday, Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chairman Mike Tate pushed the apparent Lehman victory. Then he pushed unity, at least party unity.

“But regardless of party, Wisconsin must be Wisconsin again,” Tate said in a message to Democrats. “No longer can we live in a polarized state that has been corrupted by the big money tea party influence that has turned neighbor-against-neighbor and created an idea dangerous to democracy — that our very government is up for sale.”

Perhaps Republicans could be excused for feeling Tate’s comments feed into the “civil war” that Barrett claimed Walker has presided over.

Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, who survived a recall attempt, too, turned similar rhetoric.

“A liberal minority of activists and out-of-state unions pushed this baseless recall on Wisconsin in order to move us backward; Wisconsin turned out once again and showed they will not have their voices drowned out by this liberal minority, and they were heard loud and clear.”

That assertion dismisses the 1,162,785 people who voted for Barrett, numbers that cannot be classified as a “liberal minority of activists,” just as the brunt of the 1,334,450 Wisconsinites who voted for Walker can’t be categorized as tea party activists. They are people — people who voted how they felt and decided a historic political question.

How those voters resolve their differences remains to be seen, but there is no question they are deeply divided.

A Marquette Law School Poll in May tracking political sentiment found 34 percent of Wisconsinites have stopped talking to someone because of disagreements over Walker or the recall efforts.

It’s not just in Wisconsin; it’s everywhere.

The Pew Research Center’s American Values Project poll finds party affiliations divide Americans more than any other mitigating factor — including age, class, gender and race.

Vicki Burke has lived the division.

“Sometimes I have avoided people during this very difficult time,” said Burke, chairwoman of the La Crosse County Democratic Party.

If Wisconsin is going to heal, Burke said, it’s going to have to start at home.

“I think that the first thing people have to do is healing with your family, friends and your neighbors.

“To me those are the people who are most important to you,” she said. “As important as the Democratic Party is, the work that I do there, it certainly always is important to keep close friends.”

Arthur Cyr, political science professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, said Wisconsin can heal politically, if it looks to the past for guidance.

He pointed to Badger State governors like Patrick Lucey, a Democrat, and Republicans like Lee Dreyfus and long-serving Gov. Tommy Thompson as models of consensus-building.

Many Republicans will argue that trying times in Wisconsin when Walker took office necessitated swift and decisive leadership, and Walker and his supporters say he delivered.

But the governor himself has acknowledged he could have done a better job communicating his key agenda items, like Act 10, the law that curbed collective bargaining for most unionized public employees — and fueled the recall movement.

“We have a strong tradition of pragmatic leadership, of looking to the center,” Cyr said.

With a spate of election slated in the coming months, finding the center, common ground, could be one tall order.

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