A couple thousand "nobles sauvages" and nerdy savants from across the republic are letting loose this weekend.
About five hundred people turned out to the Jefferson High School on Wednesday night to watch the debate between Senate Republican Leader Scott Fitzgerald and his challenger for the 13th District seat, Lori Compas. Compas conducted an overwhelmingly successful recall campaign against Fitzgerald, collecting over 20,000 signatures to force the election, which will take place on June 5.
On Sunday, May 13, the Wisconsin State Journal ran an article on the race that concluded with a quote from Fitzgerald saying, “I don't for one minute believe she is the organizing force behind this whole thing.” Instead, he thinks her husband and unnamed unions put her up to it. Within hours, Compas and her family had created a video response, mocking what they saw to be Fitzgerald’s outdated attitudes toward women.
Fitzgerald had refused to debate Compas up until then, but shortly after the video was released he agreed to the one debate, which took place last night.
At Jefferson High School, Compas supporters outnumbered Fitzgerald supporters 6 to 1. Of the 500 or so people in attendance, fewer than 100 were there to support Fitzgerald. The debate involved some back and forth between the candidates, who challenged each other on the responses to the questions put to them.
Fitzgerald didn’t let Compas get away with answering the question about whether or not she would have fled the state with the other Democratic senators in February 2011 by saying, “If I had been in the senate, we wouldn’t have needed to go to Illinois.” He pushed her to answer directly, which gave her the opportunity to explain the extreme pressure Scott Walker was putting on the legislature to fast track the 144 page bill: “It’s important to give people time to understand what’s in a bill, especially the sweeping changes this bill contained… Since our state doesn’t have a filibuster, (leaving the state) was the only thing they could do to give people time to understand.”
Compas also pushed Fitzgerald on some of the half-truths and outright lies he told. On funding the Badger Care, Family Care and Senior Care medical assistance programs, Fitzgerald claimed that there was “bipartisan commitment” to funding those programs. But Compas pointed out that Walker and the Republicans in the legislature originally voted to slash the budgets for those programs, only adding back in funding when the federal government forced them to do so.
She also accused Fitzgerald of breaking open meetings laws and forcing Republicans to sign a secrecy agreement with the attorneys drawing up legislative and congressional redistricting maps, pledging to not divulge any information to members of the Democratic Party. Fitzgerald denied having broken any laws, and said the redistricting process was conducted no differently than it had been when Democrats were in charge.
Fitzgerald flatly denied stories told by some Republican legislators that they were shown two different versions of their district maps, and told that if they didn’t sign the secrecy agreement then the less favorable map would be put forward and the Republican Party would support Tea Party candidates in a primary against them.
The audience jeered and booed Fitzgerald several times when he talked about public workers. He said that Act 10, which repealed virtually all collective bargaining for public sector workers, represented Republicans’ attempt to “claw back on” the gains in workplace rights that had been won through decades of struggle. Several times he asserted that public employees had been “insulated from the economic downturn,” and that it wasn’t fair to workers in the private sector that public workers still had decent benefits and pensions.
Compas criticized Fitzgerald for following Scott Walker’s “divide and conquer” strategy. “What kind of leader can turn neighbor against neighbor?” she asked in genuine disbelief.
In his closing statement, Fitzgerald talked about wanting to put the recalls behind him and get on with a regular legislative schedule. He hoped that before November the legislature would be able to pass a new mining law and a venture capital law, both of which got hung up this past session.
Compas crafted her closing statement with a broader brush: “We’ve never had a clearer choice between an entrenched politician and a grassroots candidate. Instead of jobs, he gave us divisive policies. He never said he’d roll back women’s rights, but he did. He never said he’d roll back voting rights, but he did. He never said he’d roll back workers rights, but he did. In doing so he turned neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend. He had absolute power and he used it to hurt us. 20,000 of his own constituents said they can’t bear this anymore and it’s time to move on.”
For anyone paying attention to Wisconsin this past year and a half, it is clear that the political consciousness of a huge number of people has undergone a fundamental shift, resulting in unprecedented levels and types of mass political action. Unfortunately, the two dominant political parties have been slow to catch on. For the most part, they are playing electoral politics as usual.
But the Compas campaign is fundamentally different, relying not on party-led strategy and resources, but on the dedication and physical energy of Compas herself and her passionate army of volunteers. It is based on building long-term relationships at the grassroots, not just getting out the vote on election day.
More than the Walker-Barrett election, Compas’s bid to unseat Fitzgerald, whom conventional political wisdom deemed “untouchable,” will be the true measure of whether or not the power of people’s organization can defeat the power of money in politics on a post-Citizens United playing field.
Rebecca Kemble is an Anthropologist who studied decolonization in Kenya. She serves on the Board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and is a founding member of the Wisconsin Citizens Media Cooperative.