By Scott Reeder | Watchdog.org
MADISON — Mary Bell calls herself an “unlikely advocate” — just a Wisconsin Rapids school teacher who heard the call.
She speaks with an earnest edge to her voice, hoping to persuade Wisconsinites to the rightness of her cause.
The image, of course, is contrived.
She is a handsomely paid activist, who is years removed from the classroom. And she heads the state’s most powerful lobbying organization — the Wisconsin Education Association Council.
But most Wisconsinites simply call it “the teacher’s union.”
Long before Scott Walker came to the statehouse, Bell was a union firebrand.
“This is a highly emotional, dedicated person with a liberal bent who is passionate about her cause. She is not unfriendly. But she is certainly passionate,” said Andrew Gilbert, past president of the Wisconsin Rapids school board.
Gilbert, a retired consultant for a paper company, faced Bell across the bargaining table years ago.
“During negotiations, we would go off into our own corners and discuss what we could or couldn’t do. But when she would come out of her corner, she’d be hollering and waving her arms. … She wasn’t a table pounder, but she would sure wave those hands about,” he said.
Bell’s tenure as WEAC president has been marked by another type of demonstration — thousands of unionized teachers protesting at the Wisconsin statehouse, millions of dollars pouring into recall races and the most acrimonious political climate in the state’s 164-year history.
WEAC spent $2.5 million on lobbying in 2009 and 2010, more than any other group in the state, according to the Government Accountability Board, the state’s election watchdog.
The organization that Bell leads may well be the most powerful lobbying force in the state, but it is no longer the power broker it once was.
One shouldn’t be surprised that a union activist like Bell would thrive in Wisconsin Rapids, a town of 18,000 in the midst of northcentral Wisconsin’s cranberry bogs.
“You could call Wisconsin Rapids a labor town, what industry we have left at the (paper) mills is union, and of course the government workers around here are union too,” Gilbert said.
But Bell is far removed from those small-town days.
“She is trying to portray herself as just a lowly teacher who answered the call to lead the charge. In reality, she is no longer in the classroom, and she has moved to Madison to lead the union and have that be her job — rather than be a teacher in Wisconsin Rapids,” said Kyle Olson, founder of the Education Action Group, a national watchdog group that tracks the activities of teacher unions.
Even during her time in Wisconsin Rapids, her union work consumed much of time. For example, she served for a stretch as the state secretary-treasurer of WEAC, a post that had a 2010 total compensation of $120,550.
And her compensation has continued to swell.
According to Internal Revenue Service documents, WEAC gave Bell a total compensation package valued at $186,705 in 2010, the most recent year such data is available.
By comparison, her arch nemesis, Walker, draws an annual salary of $144,423 as governor.
WEAC officials declined to disclose Bell's current compensation package, a curious decision considering it is paid by teachers earning far less.
Watchdog.org’s request for an interview with Bell elicited this email response: “As the energy and resources of our union of educators is focused on reclaiming Wisconsin’s traditions of supporting high-quality public schools and middle class values through the recall of the governor, … President Bell will not be available to accommodate your request at this time.”
Though Bell declined to be interviewed, it’s clear she sees her job as critical — not merely to her members but to education itself. In a September 2011 op-ed for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, she wrote that her union’s tasks range from “advocating for fair wages and representation for all to calling for smaller class sizes and adequate preparation time,” In every case, “the work done through our union helps all students and schools.”
“Some say unions aren't needed anymore. I disagree,” she wrote. “Our state is better when we work together, respecting diverse perspectives focused on a common goal to keep public schools strong for generations to come.”
But the respect for diverse opinions disappeared at the birth of the recall. And the political fights in which Bell has engaged have little to do with pedagogy or curriculum and much to do with money and power.
Just consider reforms imposed by Walker and the Wisconsin Legislature under Act 10:
Collective bargaining is limited to matters of pay, and if a proposed raise is greater than the rate of inflation, the voters must approve the raise first.
Teachers are not compelled to pay dues to a union as a condition of employment, and union membership is left up to individual educators to decide.
School districts have greater latitude on where they can purchase health insurance for their employees and are not compelled through collective bargaining to buy insurance from a WEAC affiliated trust.
While many Wisconsinites view issues like union dues and insurance as far from the usual educator’s concerns of reading, writing and arithmetic, that hasn’t prevented Bell from trying to teach politicians a new tune with her political hickory stick.
“Under Bell, it seems like they have been more focused on being vindictive toward the politicians they don’t like rather than being advocates for the issues that WEAC supports,” said Steve Baas, vice president for government affairs at the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, a private, not-for-profit organization committed to improving the metro Milwaukee business community.
Indeed much of Bell and WEAC’s political energy is devoted to attempting to recall Walker and lawmakers who supported his reforms.
“Mary Bell is an ideologue and a purist. She wants to see candidates that WEAC endorses embrace every aspect of her radical agenda. Under her leadership, WEAC has had to fire 40 percent of its workforce, because they weren’t getting the dues they were supposed to from teachers. … Yet, they are spending millions of dollars on these recalls,” said Brian Sikma, communications director of Media Trackers, a conservative nonpartisan investigative organization in Wisconsin.
With its squadron of lobbyists, millions in campaign contributions and 98,000 members, WEAC was a political force to be reckoned with. But under Bell’s leadership, the union has been handed a string of defeats:
Then-Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, turned his back on the state's commitment to fund two-thirds of the cost of public education.
Collective bargaining for teachers has been curtailed.
Teachers now are expected to contribute some of their own wages toward their own pensions.
The Wisconsin Education Association Trust’s near monopoly on health insurance for school districts came to an end.
The gubernatorial recall candidate Bell supported in the Democratic recall primary, former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, was handily defeated, despite receiving $3 million in contributions from WEAC.
“There was a time when WEAC was the 800-pound gorilla in the room. People in both parties knew if they crossed WEAC they did so at their own peril. But that is really not the case anymore,” Baas said. “Under previous leaders, they chose their battles more wisely and exerted enormous influence on the issues that they really cared about. Bell’s primary focus these days is a drive to have Gov. Scott Walker recalled from office.”
Class envy has become a part of her political rhetoric.
“Even as she is embracing personally and politically the class warfare of the political left, she herself is making six figures a year,” Sikma said. “I don’t begrudge anyone for being successful but if you are evoking class warfare at the same time you are in a tax bracket just below Mitt Romney’s that is a little bit hypocritical.”
After her candidate Falk fell to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in the Democratic recall primary, Bell found herself eating political crow.
Before a group of several hundred, Bell endorsed Barrett at a unity rally Wednesday night.
Just weeks before, Bell had directed WEAC to send a mailer contending that Barrett “favors expanding voucher programs and increased taxpayer support for private schools” and “used Walker’s Act 10 'tools' to impose a new health care plan and raise premiums on most city workers, failing to extend any of the city’s collective bargaining agreements.”
Those are fighting words in Bell’s world. And Bell backed them with cash: WEAC spent $3 million in the primary in hopes of ensuring that Barrett was not the candidate to face Walker in the recall race.
With so much political — and actual — capital invested, Bell has little alternative but to continue to push for recall.
“Mary Bell and the other folks at WEAC view the Walker recall, right now, as an existential fight for their existence,” Sikma said. “They are becoming increasingly irrelevant. After decades of holding a tremendous amount of power at the state level and even at the local level with some school boards, they are now facing the fact that they are irrelevant. … They are even having trouble showing their own membership the value of being a part of the teacher’s union.”