Opinion: Wisconsin, Walker, and money in politics; book and film

As the dust set­tles on the epic bat­tles over union rights for pub­lic work­ers in Wis­con­sin, two new major works aim to put these events into perspective.

The first is “Cit­i­zen Koch,” a doc­u­men­tary by award-winning film­mak­ers Carl Deal and Tia Lessin. It aired at the Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val in Jan­u­ary and the Wis­con­sin Film Fes­ti­val this month.

The sec­ond is “More Than They Bar­gained For,” a book by Mil­wau­kee Jour­nal Sen­tinel reporters Jason Stein and Patrick Mar­ley, pub­lished by the Uni­ver­sity of Wis­con­sin Press.

Both recount how newly elected Gov. Scott Walker in Feb­ru­ary 2011 “dropped the bomb” (his words) regard­ing his plan to largely end the col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights of most state and local pub­lic employees.

Cit­i­zen Koch” frames these events as part of a national con­ser­v­a­tive agenda pushed by bil­lion­aire indus­tri­al­ists David and Charles Koch, founders and fun­ders of the “grass­roots” advo­cacy group Amer­i­cans for Prosperity.

The film notes that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Cit­i­zens United deci­sion enabled the Koch broth­ers (esti­mated com­bined worth: $68 bil­lion) and oth­ers to spend unlim­ited sums on polit­i­cal cam­paigns. They then set out to help elect politi­cians like Walker and, later, help him with­stand a recall attempt.

Amer­i­cans for Pros­per­ity Pres­i­dent Tim Phillips (annual com­pen­sa­tion: more than $300,000) is shown dis­parag­ing “pam­pered” pub­lic employee unions. The film’s gasp-inducing final shot shows another AFP offi­cial call­ing the group “just like the Red Cross, just like any other non­profit.” (Group spokesman Levi Rus­sell did not respond to inquiries about the film.)

Cit­i­zen Koch” gives ample air­time to fans of the court’s rul­ing in Cit­i­zens United, and to Walker’s Tea Party back­ers. But its heart is with the oppo­si­tion, and it presents what hap­pened in Wis­con­sin as the prod­uct of nefar­i­ous design.

In con­trast, “More Than They Bar­gained For” makes the events in Wis­con­sin seem messier, less delib­er­ate, at times even slap­dash. The book’s title reflects its theme that nobody, least of all Scott Walker, antic­i­pated the mas­sive blow­back he would unleash.

Stein and Mar­ley, vet­eran reporters with envi­able access, have penned the defin­i­tive jour­nal­is­tic account of the Wis­con­sin upris­ing, espe­cially as it played out in the state Leg­is­la­ture. They make it a story about indi­vid­u­als, not titanic forces.

And yet the book largely sub­stan­ti­ates the claims made in “Cit­i­zen Koch” about the Wis­con­sin drama’s larger ide­o­log­i­cal context.

This is our moment,” Walker told a blog­ger pre­tend­ing to be David Koch, com­par­ing his throw­down with unions to Ronald Reagan’s axing of air traf­fic con­trollers in 1981.

Both sides real­ized, Stein and Mar­ley write, that “if Walker could defeat pub­lic employ­ees” in Wis­con­sin, with its deep union roots, “that would spell fur­ther decline for labor through­out the nation.” Indeed, they say, “the protests helped con­firm they were close to achiev­ing some­thing of great moment that was wor­thy of the national atten­tion they were receiving.”

The protests also helped Walker mobi­lize national sup­port — and big money. In the end, his side raised nearly three times as much as pro­po­nents of the recall, $59 mil­lion to $22 mil­lion. And nearly two-thirds of Walker’s war chest came from donors in other states.

More Than They Bar­gained For” is an ambi­tious and largely suc­cess­ful attempt, as reviewer John Nichols put it, “to estab­lish a record that is accepted – if not entirely embraced – by all sides in an ongo­ing dis­pute that has no middle.”

Cit­i­zen Koch,” mean­while, unabashedly chooses sides. The film’s web­site has a Take Action page where vis­i­tors can join efforts to pass a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment to undo Cit­i­zens United.

But nei­ther treat­ment cap­tures the enor­mity of emo­tion under­ly­ing these events — the deep-rooted and cor­ro­sive feel­ings of betrayal, or resent­ment, held by indi­vid­ual state res­i­dents. No one book or movie could do that. This slice of state his­tory has as many ver­sions as it does peo­ple who lived through it.


Bill Lued­ers is the Money and Pol­i­tics Project direc­tor at the Wis­con­sin Cen­ter for Inves­tiga­tive Jour­nal­ism (www.WisconsinWatch.org). The project, a part­ner­ship of the Cen­ter and Map­Light, is sup­ported by the Open Soci­ety Institute.

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