I grew up in Tommy Thompson’s Wisconsin. He was no fiscal liberal, and certainly not a social progressive, he was also something of a renegade Republican. While he certainly stood for many things I eventually opposed, Governor Thompson always came across as affable and sincerely interested in the welfare of the vast majority of Wisconsinites. His broad appeal became evident in his huge election wins in a normally narrowly-divided industrial state that often trended Democratic in national elections.
The last four years have produced our next famous Republican governor, Scott Walker. To say that he carries the same kind of broad appeal as Thompson would be pretty far off the mark. In fact, his strategy (a winning strategy at that), was to divide and conquer the state by pitting public employees against the rest of the citizens of Wisconsin. A quick synopsis: a law, referred to as Act 10, stripped public workers of our bargaining rights, handcuffed our unions, and slashed our salaries in 2011. This was all done in a mean-spirited way that created an “us vs. them” mentality in our state.
It makes me sick that a divisive strategy is the winning strategy in the Badger State.
I hate that friends and relatives who sway conservative were making jokes about my family’s lost income and insurance benefits. Or saying things like, “Well, now it’s your turn.” I’d never seen anything like this. When these same people were out of work, or losing income, my family was pulling for them, helping them, and actively celebrating their successes when they got back on their feet. Sadly, our experience of being treated to others’ Schadenfreude has not been an anomaly.
The Wisconsin I knew used to be a tribe of 5 million people who celebrated our commonalities. We had this weird, near-obsessive attachment to our home state. Friends around the country have noticed and told me about how tied up we cheese heads are in being from Wisconsin. We used to be self-deprecating, witty, and in love with our home state, even when we were arguing politics.
We no longer live in that Wisconsin.
I’d like to think my Wisconsin neighbors would look beyond the $200 or $300 property tax break coming to them this year and actually think about where that money came from. It didn’t come from the governor waving a magic wand, or uncovering some buried treasure on the shores of Lake Michigan.
It came from families like the folks in my neighborhood’s “Harley Davidson” house, a house painted orange and black that had to be abandoned by its owners, public-sector workers, after the cuts from Act 10 went through.
It came out of the pockets of my parents, both public school district administrators and lifelong servants in the public sector.
It came out of my own income. I’ve seen a 12-16% drop, depending on the year, in my take-home pay. My wife works part time, but my teacher salary pays the bills. My normal work day has been expanded by a half hour. And I now work many nights and extra days to make ends meet for our family of four.
Basically, we’ve paid around $25,000 in new back-door taxes since 2011’s Act 10, on top of what we already normally pay. To a family of four who pulls in around $50,000 a year, that’s not small potatoes. It’s embarrassing, and more than a little disheartening, for a 12-year veteran teacher with a master’s degree to have to borrow so much from family just to keep my kids in diapers, my mortgage current, and food on the table. And our expenses are relatively small at the moment. What happens when college comes?
Now the governor is repeatedly celebrating how he has helped the taxpayers.
This is another thing that really makes me angry. I’m a taxpayer. I’ve never shirked that duty in my life. I’ve been paying into the system since I was flipping burgers at 15 years old. But, my governor has separated Wisconsin workers into “taxpayers” and public sector leeches. I don’t know if Tommy ever did that. Maybe he did and I was just too young to notice. (Or maybe he didn’t dare do that, as his wife was a public school teacher.)
I want my sons to grow up in a healed state, a state with robust political discourse, to be sure, but also one that values all of its working citizens. I don’t know if electing a different governor will do that. I’m not really sure what will.
This is still my favorite speech I’ve ever attended. I will never get tired of sharing it. I might’ve been an over-serious, straight-edge 16-year-old punk rocker, but I was ecstatic that my goofy, old, conservative governor was fully lubricated this day: