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Wisconsin's Political Split Hardens Into Great Divide

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Wisconsin's Political Split Hardens Into Great Divide

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Wisconsin's Political Split Hardens Into Great Divide

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No state may be more politically divided right now than Wisconsin. The discord follows the effort by Republican Governor Scott Walker to eliminate the collective bargaining rights of most public workers there.

As NPR's David Schaper reports, the divide is most apparent between Wisconsin's biggest cities and its smallest towns.

DAVID SCHAPER: Wisconsin is one of those rare states that seems to go back and forth between electing Democrats and Republicans almost every cycle. President Obama won it by a wide margin in 2008, but the state flipped dramatically last year with a near Republican sweep, and last month's state Supreme Court election was so close, votes are still being recounted.

Professor MORDECAI LEE (Governmental Affairs, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee): Wisconsin is not just a battleground state, Wisconsin is not just a divided state, but we're literally a 50-50 state.

SCHAPER: Mordecai Lee is a professor of governmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and a former state lawmaker.

Prof. LEE: It's almost like Wisconsin is so evenly split that there must be one little old lady who tilts our elections one way or the other, I mean, that's how close we are. It's just unbelievable.

SCHAPER: It's clear Wisconsinites are taking sides, and the battle over collective bargaining in the state that gave birth to the nation's first public unions is hardening their views.

University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist Kathy Cramer Walsh says voters here have always had their disagreements.

Professor KATHY CRAMER WALSH (Political Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison): But Wisconsinites in general are good at sort of smoothing over differences and getting along, and right now we're not getting along and it's blown out into the open. I'd say it's pretty different. It feels very un-Wisconsin-like to me.

SCHAPER: Like most states, Walsh says Wisconsin has always had its urban -rural divide. Many in the state's picturesque small towns believe that their tax dollars go to Madison to stay or are diverted to Milwaukee and they resent it. But add to that now the continuing economic struggles in rural areas, as factories shutter and jobs disappear, and Kathy Walsh says there is growing anger with public employees.

Prof. WALSH: Good salaries and benefits and health care in particular are something a lot of people in a lot of places in Wisconsin don't have. And so there's just a lot of resentment towards public employees.

SCHAPER: In the small town of Milton near the Illinois border, Ron Sowles embodies that resentment.

Mr. RON SOWLES: I think those people are out of touch. Those people in Madison and people that are educated in liberal colleges, and our schools are very liberal, and I don't think they're really in touch with the real world.

SCHAPER: Even though he's in a union, working for the Rock County Rural Electric Co-op, Sowles says he and many others here support Governor Walker taking on the public unions.

Mr. SOWLES: They expect everybody to get something for nothing and real conservatives are out working for their wages, working for their benefits, and I get a little tired of paying for everybody else's retirements, too. They need to pay a little bit for themselves and I think what Scott Walker is doing is absolutely right.

SCHAPER: But Richard Eddings says he doesn't think people in small towns are all that different from those in Madison. The retired state employee says many here disagree with Walker and he doesn't care for the governor's autocratic style.

Mr. RICHARD EDDINGS: And I think that we have to go back to rule by the people and we don't have that right now. It's very, very partisan. You're either Republican or you're Democrat and nobody's talking to each other.

SCHAPER: That's a change for Wisconsin, isn't it?

Mr. EDDINGS: It is. It's a sad change. It's a very sad change. I've lived in Wisconsin all my life and I used to be really proud of this state.

SCHAPER: While many Wisconsin liberals are quick to blame Walker for provoking the bitter collective bargaining fight, conservatives blame the Democratic senators who left the state and the massive protests in Madison for souring things.

Regardless of who's to blame, Colleen Vierck of Milton says this new divisiveness in Wisconsin has real casualties.

Ms. COLLEEN VIERCK: I know my son has a good friend who's very pro-Walker and the two of them are like, you know, at each other all the time. They just can't, they can't talk anymore. They were best man at each other's wedding and they're having a very difficult time with it.

SCHAPER: With the collective bargaining law still in limbo in the courts, and recall elections likely against state senators in both parties this summer, this divisive political friction in Wisconsin is only likely to get worse.

David Schaper, NPR News.

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