Public Union Strife Redefining Wisconsin's Identity

In Wisconsin, the partisan fight over public union rights is changing the culture of the state. Guest host Jacki Lyden talks with political science professor Kathy Walsh from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Republicans also made news this past week in neighboring Wisconsin, where the GOP-controlled State Senate approved a two-year, $66 billion budget that slashes aid to schools and health care, among many other programs. The budget vote on Thursday night was entirely along partisan lines. Not a single Democrat voted to approve it. Republican Governor Scott Walker said he would sign the budget within days.

The partly line vote in the Senate is a reflection of a growing partisan divide in a state that has split friends, families and entire towns - seemingly by the day.

Political science professor Kathy Walsh, of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has spent the past four years traveling around the state to examine the political divide. And she joins us now from Wisconsin Public Radio.

Kathy Walsh, thank you for being with us.

Professor KATHY WALSH (Political Science, University of Wisconsin, Madison): Oh, it's my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

LYDEN: Well just note that you are technically a state employee - and I, myself, am from Wisconsin. We're both from the state, and we'll go on from there.

Youve been actually making the survey, though, for the last four years. How much has the current division over the budget and stripping of collective bargaining rights in the governor's mandate - which has been approved by the State Supreme Court - how much has what has happened recently come up in your research?

Prof. WALSH: Oh, quite a bit. It's very much on people's minds. And groups that I have talked to, for several times over the past few years, dont really want to talk about it at all. In a way, it actually comes up by not coming up, by people avoiding it.

LYDEN: What would you say is the difference between when you started your research and today?

Prof. WALSH: I see several changes. One is that they just dont want to talk about it, that there's disagreement within their group. But also, a change I see is that they talk about tensions in their own personal lives with respect to politics, which, you know, when people talk about politics, a lot of times they tell personal stories. It's a way of conveying what they think and feel. But the stories that Im hearing now are very intensely personal.

Everybody knows a public worker. And whether it's a family member or a friend, people recognize that this issue cuts close to home. I mean, it's an instant pay cut for somebody you know, basically.

LYDEN: Well, if anything, I would have said that it was a state that sort of prided itself on an ability to get along.

Prof. WALSH: Absolutely. I mean, you know it well. Right, Jacki? I mean...

LYDEN: I should hope so.

Prof. WALSH: ...Wisconsinites are very good at brushing dissent under the rug, or just making it very clear that it's not welcome at the table. And there's a time and a place for dissent but for the most part, it's just not acceptable to have intense political debate out in the open - in most circles and most families.

LYDEN: Can you give me a specific story about a family that straddles this divide?

Prof. WALSH: There was one man in northern Wisconsin, who is a former public official himself, who has voted for Democrats in the past but actually supports the elimination or the near elimination of collective bargaining for public employees - and said that at a family wedding, his sister walked up to him and said: Don't talk to me; stay away from me; you support Walker, Im a public school teacher - I dont want anything to do with you.

And he told the story to me and laughed a little bit about it. But it was clear that it was pretty - significant event in his life for his sister to tell him that she didnt want to talk to him.

LYDEN: I understand that this sort of rancor has even extended into this decade-long festival now - the world's largest Brat Festival, in Madison. What happened?

Prof. WALSH: Thats right. Well, the Brat Festival is supported largely by Johnsonville products - bratwurst and hot dogs. And Johnsonville was a significant supporter of the Walker campaign for governor. So many people decided to boycott the Brat Fest, and there were actually three alternative Brat Festivals set up this past Memorial Day weekend.

LYDEN: Did you ever think you'd live to see the day, Kathy?

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Political brat festivals?

Prof. WALSH: No, I have to say no. No. Brats are something that all Wisconsinites can agree upon, it seems. So yeah, it's quite surprising.

LYDEN: Kathy Walsh is a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Thank you very much for being with us.

Prof. WALSH: Oh, you're so welcome.

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