A decade ago, then-Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, in his own words, “dropped the bomb” when he unveiled his plan to effectively end collective bargaining for public-sector unions.
The announcement of the budget repair bill that would later become Act 10 sent shockwaves through the state, setting off the largest and most sustained state government protests Wisconsin had ever seen and teeing up a historic round of recall elections and years-long court battles.
Ten years later, the state’s political debates continue to reverberate from the fight that vaulted Walker to national prominence and reshaped how Wisconsinites consider, talk about and interact with politics.
University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism professor Lewis Friedland, a member of a research group studying communication, political attitudes and behaviors in the state, said Act 10 amounted to “an explosion set off in Wisconsin civil society.”
“It continues to have clear repercussions in not only the state’s politics, which is pretty obvious, but even in the way that people relate to each other and the difficulty of beginning to resolve our problems, including something as straightforward as taking precautions during the pandemic,” Friedland said. “I think there’s a straight line from Act 10 to the politics that we’re experiencing today.”
But others who were involved in the debate over the bill, and the political strife that followed, dispute the existence of a throughline connecting the historic protests that began in mid-February of 2011, and today’s polarizing political landscape.
Former Walker chief of staff Keith Gilkes, who also ran Walker’s successful 2012 recall campaign, argued that Act 10’s influence on Wisconsin’s political landscape has waned in the years since its passage, replaced by the increasing nationalization of politics.
“Yes, Act 10 was impactful in its time. But with time and distance, we’ve moved away from that,” Gilkes said. “We are moving more into a nationalized set of elections where the president is on the ballot for the midterms too. The president is now on the ballot in every election.”
Then and now
Still used as a political reference point at the local and state levels, Act 10’s passage came about after the 2010 Republican wave election that delivered the party majorities in the Wisconsin Senate and Assembly and placed Walker in the Capitol’s East Wing — one-party control that continued mostly uninterrupted for eight years.
Reflecting on early 2011, former state Sen. Leah Vukmir, who defeated an incumbent Democrat in 2010, said she “absolutely” felt her party was given a mandate to enact conservative policies.
“We definitely felt as though we had a mandate from voters and I think that Democrats would’ve felt the same were they ushered into the majority,” said Vukmir, who would go on to lose a U.S. Senate race to Tammy Baldwin in 2018. She is the vice president of state affairs at the National Taxpayers Union.
The opening weeks of Vukmir’s first term in the state Senate included events never seen in Wisconsin political history.
Apart from the protests against Act 10, which lasted about a month, Democratic senators left the state, decamping to Illinois in an attempt to prevent a vote on the measure. The move set up a legislative impasse eventually broken when Senate Republicans removed some fiscal measures from the plan and approved it.
Then-Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller, who led the Democratic charge, said the move was “a way of exposing what the legislation had in it” by slowing down the process and potentially getting “enough public opposition that we could stop the legislation.”
“It allowed it to build up to where people really understood that issue and felt very, very strongly about it and that division was foretold to be the kind of partisan division that was emerging nationwide,” the recently retired Monona Democrat said.
Part of the Democrats’ desire to slow down the legislation came in part from how it was first — suddenly — unveiled.
The way Walker announced the effort, said Democratic Sen. Kelda Roys, who served in the Assembly from 2009 to 2013, “really broke political norms in a way that pre-staged [former President Donald] Trump.”
Walker himself has said he regretted not spending more time publicly laying the groundwork for the plan, including during his campaign for governor.
The fight later gave way to recall elections that targeted around a dozen Wisconsin senators on both sides of the aisle, as well as Walker, who went on to become the only governor in U.S. history to win a recall election. The recall campaign allowed Walker to raise millions of dollars and elevate his political profile, helping pave the way for a short-lived bid for president in 2015.
The legislative results also allowed Democrats to briefly gain a majority in the state Senate, though they lost it during the following round of elections.
At the time, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, then the co-chair of the Legislature’s powerful budget committee, proposed a constitutional amendment that would have put limits on the ability for voters to issue a recall. Elected officials would only be eligible if they were charged with a serious crime or potentially violated the state code of ethics. The language didn’t pass the Senate.
In the years since, recalls haven’t been widely used as a political tool at the state level like they were in the wake of Act 10.
Gilkes, the former Walker aide, said the results showed the public had “rejected this as a recourse we should be using going forward when we have policy disagreements.”
“I cringe every time anyone starts advocating the recall of any public servant based on their advocacy or support of various policies,” Gilkes said.
The state watched the discussion surface again in recent months, when some sought to recall Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes over their response to the COVID-19 crisis and their handling of the unrest in Kenosha following the August police shooting of Jacob Blake.
The organizer, who was not backed by the state Republican Party, announced in late October she failed to secure the approximately 670,000 signatures needed to trigger a recall.
The current political environment in Wisconsin, where gridlock and inaction have become more commonplace, marks a break from what state politics looked like even three years ago.
Then and in the years before, when Republicans still had control over both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office, state government operated at a breakneck pace. Republican lawmakers pushed through a host of their priorities, ranging from so-called “right-to-work” policies to voter ID requirements, which were quickly signed into law by Walker.
The tone for those years was set by the fight and passage of that original budget repair bill, itself a product of the 2010 Republican wave that came about after the emergence of the conservative Tea Party movement.
The one-party control also allowed Republicans — rather than the courts — to lead the legislative redistricting process, in which they drew maps that consolidated their supporters and helped reduce the number of competitive districts in the state.
Pointing to the redistricting cycle and other Republican-led priorities that were passed in the years following 2011, Roys, D-Madison, said: “What broke Wisconsin wasn’t Act 10. It was everything that went along with it.”
Friedland, the UW-Madison professor, said research he was involved in following Act 10’s passage showed an “extraordinary level of contention” developing among Wisconsinites, particularly in recent years.
Initial survey data in the period right after Act 10 found that around one-third of Wisconsinites stopped talking to a friend or family member about politics to limit contention, Friedland noted. By 2018, that figure rose to one-half, while one-in-four Wisconsinites surveyed reported they’d broken off a relationship because of political strife.While Act 10 undoubtedly had an outsized impact on politics and partisan discourse in Wisconsin a decade ago, some involved in its passage believe that influence has faded as the years progressed.
Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, first elected in 2010, said it’s no longer fair to pinpoint the fight over Act 10 as what influenced the state’s current political landscape.
“While there were residual effects in relationships for a while, I think the majority of people have gotten past that,” the Kaukauna Republican said, though he went on to accuse some in Evers’ administration of continuing to harbor “bitterness” over the plan’s passage.
Steineke argued Act 10 was “obviously where (those feelings) stemmed from initially,” but he acknowledged “part of the resentment” was also tied to the passage of the so-called lame duck laws in late 2018 that stripped the incoming governor and attorney general of some of their powers.
The move, occurring in the weeks after Walker lost his re-election bid and Democrats swept the remaining state constitutional offices, was denounced by opponents at the time as a political “power grab.” But proponents countered it was needed to maintain a balance of power among the branches of state government.
“The one thing as elected officials we don’t really have the luxury of is taking those personal feelings and letting it impact your job,” Steineke said.
A spokeswoman for Evers didn’t return a request for comment.
Friedland agreed that while the “direct reverberations around Act 10” may have lessened, his interpretation is that it morphed over the years, “turning into some of the contention” surrounding Trump in Wisconsin.
“The resentment that was unleashed initially by the Tea Party wave against [former President Barack] Obama and then by the Walker wave … was then picked up again by Trump and morphed into Trumpism within Wisconsin,” he said.
As a mob of Trump’s extremist supporters staged an armed insurrection at the nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6, some Wisconsin Republicans sought to draw comparisons between the images coming out of D.C. and scenes from the 2011 protests at the Capitol in Madison.
Steineke, one of the officials who tied the two events together, wrote on Twitter: “Learn the lessons from Wisconsin when liberal throngs stormed the State Capitol and took it over. If you do not clear them now, you will lose control for days if not weeks. More people will come, and it will get eminently more dangerous.”
Others were much more vocal, including Walker, who decried “the angry mob” that was present at the Wisconsin Capitol 10 years ago in a series of tweets, recorded a podcast on the topic and wrote in a text to conservative Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen: “It’s like I’m having PTSD from a decade ago.”
Steineke said his own commentary “wasn’t meant to equate them as a one to one, that they were exactly the same.” But he said in the years since the Act 10 protests, Democrats have forgotten “just how heated everything was at that point.”
“They seem to think it was like Woodstock, where it was just all peace and love and happy hippie stuff,” he said. “It wasn’t. We had to be evacuated from the building because the Capitol Police told us they couldn’t guarantee our safety anymore. There were protesters shaking the very doors of the Assembly, trying to get in and breach the Assembly. There were death threats. There were protests at legislators’ homes.”
Walker, along with lawmakers from both parties, faced threats via email, phone calls, social media and other means. Republicans exited the Capitol through a tunnel to avoid a horde of angry demonstrators. Then-GOP state Sen. Glenn Grothman was cornered by a crowd outside the building (though he told the Cap Times he was never that worried) and helped out of the situation by then-Democratic state Rep. Brett Hulsey.
Despite those tense moments and the extended occupation of the building, the protests, which drew teachers, union officials, and a host of others, were overwhelmingly peaceful.
In contrast, five died in connection with the Jan. 6 insurrection, where extremists attempted to stop the certification of Democratic President Joe Biden’s victory, and dozens were injured, including 140 police officers. Pointing to those figures, Miller, who spent most of the length of the 2011 protetsts in Illinois, said: “There’s really no comparison (between Jan. 6 and Act 10), other than the fact that there were some very emotional people involved in both of them.”
There is to some extent a gulf between Republican and Democratic perceptions of the protest over Act 10, even a decade later. In Roys’ recollections of the demonstrations, what stands out to her most was the celebration-like atmosphere they fostered.
She remembered how she and other Democratic lawmakers hauled their desks and flags and Blue Books onto the Capitol lawn to hold office hours with constituents after the building was shut down; and the level of joy she felt and witnessed in the thousands who gathered day in and day out.
While she acknowledged participants were angry and scared about what was going to happen in the lead-up to Act 10’s passage, she still sees it as “a really hopeful time because we had never had such a mobilization before.”
“We knew that we didn’t control any of the levers of state government, but we thought that maybe we had a chance to really grab attention and change what was going to happen,” Roys said.