Do Americans, even in anxious times, prefer an optimistic leader or an angry one?
Two Democrats, from very different districts, are facing recall August 16: Bob Wirch, in the southern, industrial district that includes Kenosha, on the border with Illinois, and Jim Holperin of Eagle River, up in the North Woods.
Both Wirch and Holperin face Republican challengers who are attacking them for leaving the state as part of a group of 14 Senate Dems who fled to Illinois to delay passage of Governor Scott Walker’s union-busting Budget Repair Bill back in February.
“Would you still have a job if you hadn’t shown up for three weeks?” demands a billboard in the northern town of Merrill, paid for by a group called Concerned Citizens for Government Reform.
This message—that the Democrats who left the state were shirking their duties—is the heart and soul of the Republican-led recall effort.
In Madison, where those senators are referred to as the “Fabulous 14” on T-shirts and posters, and where they were welcomed as heroes by a massive, cheering crowd when they finally returned to the state capitol, it seems like a total nonstarter. If the Senate Democrats hadn’t left town, the historic protests would never have had time to get going. Walker’s whole legislative agenda would have sailed through. Plus, it’s not like they went on vacation. Their decision to deprive the Republicans of a quorum was a political move. To their supporters, it was political leadership.
But that’s not how all the folks see it back home.
“Recall Holperin? Absolutely!” said Luke Yelton, a young salesman from Menoqua. “Bailing out like that? I could understand protecting teachers. But if I don’t go to my job I don’t get paid.”
Yelton’s friends, standing outside the beer tent on a beautiful summer day at the Arbor Vitae Fireman’s Picnic, nodded as he added, “He kept collecting a paycheck. He wasn’t the only senator who did it, either.”
“Get him out!” said a man who identified himself only as Ken, who was looking at the classic cars and antique snowmobiles in the fire station parking lot. “He left the state when we needed him.”
“That’s not the way to govern, I don’t think,” said Jim Thompson, an engineer in Holperin’s district. Thompson was standing with a buddy in a NASCAR T-shirt as the sound of gunfire ricocheted off the pine trees at the Fireman’s Park rifle range where they had been shooting skeet. A group of riflemen standing among the pickup trucks nearby, who declined to be identified, were all voting for Holperin’s Tea Party opponent, Kim Simac “and I’m not even crazy about her,” Thompson added.
People at the Arbor Vitae picnic were sick to death of being bombarded with ads for the recall race.
“I’m tired of hearing about it,” another rifleman said. “Turn it off. I hate the ads.”
“That’s not to be discussed here,” a woman near the rifle range told me sharply, when I asked if anyone had an opinion on the recall, as her son swung his weapon alarmingly close to my head.
Many said they weren’t planning to vote at all.
“One hasn’t paid any taxes, and one left town,” a nonvoter eating a hamburger said, summarizing the ad campaign.
(An ad--http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ldq8M5glAsQ--on Simac’s failure to pay income and property taxes over a number of years caused a stiff back and forth between the campaigns.) With some $4 to $5 million dumped into the race so far, and outside groups loading up the airwaves with ads, many people have OD’d on the campaign.
There was only one person I spoke with in Holperin’s district—including the candidate himself--who not only wholeheartedly supported Holperin, but connected the recall directly to Scott Walker, and for whom the race seemed part of a much broader political struggle. That was Russ Huizinga, a retired Teamster from Chicago, who drove a truck for nine years and was an officer in Chicago Local 731 before he moved up north. “Better keep Holperin,” he said, standing by the tank where kids were catching live trout, using corn for bait.
Of Simac, he said: “She’s anti-union, as is your governor. Too many good teachers have retired, because they’re afraid of losing everything.”
And then there was the elder Yelton, Tom: “No! Not Simac! No way! The schools and the budget and everything else is being screwed up!
One key Holperin supporter, and Holperin himself, struck a bipartisan note, which might be vintage Wisconsin, but seems out of place in the highly divisive Scott Walker era.
The fire chief of Arbor Vitae, Frank Bauer, supports Holperin. “I’ve always voted for Jim. He does a good job,” he said. But in Bauer’s opinion, “It was a mistake when he left the state. For years, the Democrats ruled and the Republicans never left.”
Bauer likes how Holperin responds quickly to his constituents and looks out for the interests of towns like Arbor Vitae, where Bauer is town chair.
Of Simac, he says, “I don’t know anything about her except she hasn’t paid state taxes. She’s never been on a town board or held public office.”
Bauer supports Holperin, because he’s “the better man.” But he also says of Scott Walker, “He had the courage to stand up and do what needed to be done. Our town balances our budget every year. The state and the nation need to do the same.”
The reactions Holperin gets as he moves around the district are split, he says. “One person will come up to me and say, ‘Hey, Jim, I appreciate you delaying the vote on that budget repair bill and giving me a voice.’ Another person will come up and say, ‘Hey, I voted for you and you did the worst thing you could do and that’s not to participate. Don’t count on me for support.’”
Despite the hyped up, emotional atmosphere, and the outside money pouring in, Holperin does not see the race as the front line in a national political fight.
As one of only two senators representing the whole northern half of Wisconsin, he says, “I have tended to be more parochial.”
The issues he cares about are the local, nuts-and-bolts concerns: road aid, shared revenue, the Main Street economic preservation and revitalization program, maintaining state trails, and the DNR program to fight invasive fish species— “I spend a lot of my time on these issues,” he says.
The spark for the whole recall effort was the assault on public employee unions, Holperin says. But “for me, this is an election about whether I get to finish my term or not.”
He makes no apology for going to Illinois to try to stop the assault on public employee unions.
“The symbolism of the issue resonates with people,” he says, “of employees being able to sit down across the table and talk to employers about an employment issue.”
The attack on public employees—even for people who are not directly affected— “makes people think ‘If it can happen to people at UW, why wouldn’t this machine be turned on me?” he says.
“It has made people cynical about government, apprehensive about the legislature. There’s a tremendous feeling of instability.”
As a result, he says, “People are looking for comity and moderation.”
That’s what Holperin is all about. Not a barn burner, but North Woods guy. Governor Jim Doyle’s tourism secretary, an outdoorsman, and a legislator who worries about representing his district’s particular needs.
His criticism of his opponent is not for her wacky pronouncements comparing public schools to the Nazi regime, or her rightwing politics as a Tea Party organizer, or even her failure to pay her taxes, but that “I don’t think she’s thought much about the issues—beyond these general statements about lower taxes, less government.”
Likewise, when I asked him if he sees corporations and individuals like the Koch brothers and other outside interests subverting Wisconsin politics and moving in on our state, he said, “Not really.” Scott Walker’s decisions are not so much a product of any “outside group or mentor or individual,” he says, but of “his own individual style.”
If the Democrats win control of the Senate, Holperin says, “there won’t be much done. With split control you can’t pass a bill to make the cream puff the state dessert.”
Still, despite the tumult of this high stakes, highly charged campaign, that’s a vote Holperin plans on getting back for.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Wis. Recall Race to Watch: Fred Clark vs. Luther Olsen."
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter