By John F. Di Leo -
Our young campaign volunteer returns from Wisconsin, to learn who put the “democrat” in Democracy…
It was an ordinary Saturday morning at 51st Ward Party Headquarters. The Boss was in his office with the door open; his tweed blazer hung on the coat rack, his collar and tie loosened in the heat. It was just he and Pockets, after all; no Machine pols to impress, no volunteers to order around. With no mailing, no lit drop, and no fundraisers scheduled for this holiday weekend, he and Pockets were just polishing off a few things, and planning to wrap up by lunch.
But then he heard a voice from the doorway: “Mornin’, Paulie! Always good to see ya!” It was Pockets, his right hand man, Deputy Committeeman since Day One of the Boss’ tenure in the office. Long years, now, long, long years. And he was welcoming one of their youngest volunteers, Pavel Syerov, who must have just walked into the office.
“Not much going on this morning, Pockets?” the boy asked, sounding a bit dejected. “Wouldn’t want all this kringle to go to waste!” The Boss heard the ripping of paper, then decided to join in.
“Wouldn’t dream of it, Pavel!” shouted the Boss as he got out of his chair to join them in front, silently asking himself “whyever did I put a leather chair in such a hot office?” (and not for the first time).
Sure enough, Pavel had brought an apple kringle, and was cutting it up. The Boss joined them, already seated at the otherwise empty collating table, and helped himself to a sweet slice of Racine County heaven. “Delicious! What’s the occasion, son?” he asked, as Pockets was already helping himself to his second piece.
“No occasion, Boss!” Pavel lied. He could hardly admit that he’d stopped to pick up the kringle on a whim, after counting the thirtieth Scott Walker sign on his way back from Wisconsin. “Just felt like it. I’ve been in Wisconsin a lot lately, and wanted to bring a little Wisconsin back home to Chicago with me.”
“Oh, don’t talk to me about Wisconsin, Pavel” said the Boss. As big as his smile had been a moment ago, enjoying his first piece of kringle in months, his face fell at the thought of Wisconsin was going these days. “We were just talking about it at the central committee meeting the other day; it’s not going well.”
“Oh, why do you say that, Boss?” Pavel asked. “I like it up there. Dad and Mom have been working up there a lot, when they couldn’t get work in Chicago.”
“It’s da whole recall thing, Paully,” explained Pockets, with a mouthful of kringle. “It’s not goin’ anything like everybody thought it would.”
“Exactly, son,” the Boss continued. “We were sure that once we forced the recall, it would become popular. But it hasn’t happened.”
“Huh?” Pavel asked. “But surely, it already was popular, or it couldn’t have happened; didn’t they have to have oodles of signatures to call for it?”
Pockets sat back and started explaining. “Ya remember how we get a guy on da ballot for a normal election, right Paully? Wid da filing of petitions, signed by voters in da district, right?”
“Sure, Pockets… but hardly any are required for a regular race.”
“That’s right, Pavel,” the Boss said. “But they require a lot more to force a recall election. In Wisconsin, to force a gubernatorial recall, you need to file at least 540 thousand some signatures. The idea is that by filing this many, the movement is clearly so popular that the recall is likely to be successful.”
“And the opposition filed a million, right?” cut in Pavel. “So the recall must be popular, right?”
Pockets chuckled. “Ya don’t think those were all real, didja Paully? Ya know our methods better’n dat by now, dontcha?”
The Boss continued for him. “Collecting a million valid signatures for anything is almost impossible, son. Especially with a short window to collect them; there’s always a start date and an end date. The unions started collecting signatures long before the start date so that they could people engaged. So a good portion of our base had already signed – at the union hall, at school, at work – before they could even legally go around and start collecting them openly. We had to get everybody stirred up, not just about the governor abstractly, but about the recall effort, concretely.”
“Okay, but then they could go door-to-door and collect them, right? Isn’t that how they got the majority of them?”
“Ahh, Paully, people just aren’t dat energetic about politics any more.” Pockets said, shaking his head. “There isn’t that much door-to-door work anymore, leastways, not on our side a da aisle. They openly started circulatin’ da petitions at work and school, a course, but da big thing was circulatin’ dem in public places… settin’ up tables at parkin’ lots of shopping malls an’ grocery stores… bus stations and outside museums an’ gubmint buildings… ya’d see da lines a people lined up ta sign, and ya’d get impressed wid da movement’s popularity.”
Then the Boss shook his head. “Signatures at malls aren’t all that dependable. Lots of signers are immigrants who know they can’t legally vote, for example. They’ll sign a petition, but they know they can’t show up at the polls, so they help us get on the ballot, but they can’t be part of the majority on election day.”
“I thought we got plenty of illegal immigrant votes, Boss?” asked Pavel. “Don’t we always benefit from non-citizen immigrants, both legal and illegal, taking ballots because they don’t realize that they’re not allowed?”
“Yeah, Paully,” answered Pockets. “But dere’s been so much talk about crackdowns on vote fraud over da past coupla years, word is a lot a people are afraid now. Back when Scott Walker was in da state house in Madison, he wrote a coupla bills crackin’ down on vote fraud – those Real ID bills we’ve talked about – and dey passed one as soon as he became governor. So even though we’ve had some luck widda judges pokin’ holes in it, it’s still gonna depress turnout from da non-citizen groups.”
“I see. But the immigrant community can’t be all that huge in Wisconsin, can it? Surely that’s not that big a problem for us…”
The Boss shook his head again. “It was just one example, son. Another problem with collecting signatures that way is the kids… whole families on their way to the mall or museum or game would sign the petition, as soon as they’re old enough to hold a pen. But the junior high kids and high schoolers know they can’t actually vote on election day. So I don’t know how many kids were on the rolls, but that’s another group that’s not going to be part of our numbers on June 5.”
“You mean a lot of the petition signers were children, Boss? Seriously?”
“Sure. Don’t know how many… percentage-wise… but yes, when you collect signatures and your only focus is filling those pages, you tell people they should all sign. Fill the page!”
Pockets chuckled and added “Yeah, and da casts of Warner Brudders an’ Disney aren’t gonna be showing up on Tuesday either!”
The Boss dismissed that one. “There weren’t all that many of those. A few idiots filled pages by making up names, included burying (they thought) a few cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck in the pages. That shouldn’t have been such a problem, though it did give us some bad PR.”
Pavel was wondering how much they’d admit to, if he kept pushing them. “But still, even with all that, don’t we have to be in good shape with nearly a million signers, even if there were some signers who can’t really vote, or a couple of made up names?”
“Dontcha get it, Paully? We didn’t get anywhere close to a million names. Da lion’s share of ‘em were signed by other people.” Pockets reached into the pen box in the center of the collating table and picked up a handful of pens. “Ya remember dat time I had ya go ta da office supply store an’ pick up an assortment of colors and thicknesses, right? Dat’s for da round tabling.”
The Boss continued. “You get five or ten folks around a table with a printed pollsheet. If you’re smart, you mark it with the Rs and Ds so you know to skip the R names, but word is, some of them weren’t even that smart up north this time. So you give each one a different color than the one he’s next to, and pass the petition and the pollsheet along the table as a set. Joe signs in blue, Bill signs in black, Bob signs in blue, Jim signs in black… some of ‘em Bics, some of ‘em uniballs, and between the different pens and the different handwriting, it looks believable. Like a volunteer really went down the street, walking door-to-door when everybody was home, and got everybody to sign the petition.”
“Yeah, Paully, we’ve talked about this before… it’s called round tabling, and it’s been a common practice forever. Dere’s usually nothing wrong with it, as a tactic, I mean, because ya know ya’ve got a kinda core vote, a base, in a normal election.”
“But it turned out to be the wrong way to do it, in forcing a recall, this time, anyway,” said the Boss. “Signing a petition helps you feel like you’re invested in the recall. By getting the recall called without all that many real signers, that means all the fake signers aren’t really invested in it. By not being a part of calling for the election, it’s harder to get the non-signers excited about showing up.”
Pavel asked “so how many of the million signatures are you saying were fake?”
“Well, all told…” the Boss hemmed and hawed for a moment, then resigned to the truth. “Certainly more than half. There’s no question about it, or we wouldn’t have had to fight so hard for the techniques to make it hard to disqualify signatures.”
Pavel had heard about this, but didn’t know the details. So he asked. And Pockets was happy to answer.
“Well, Paully, first, dey have dis thing called the Government Accountability Board up dere, kinda like a state board of elections, but way more powerful. Dey get ta write da rules, and make ‘em up as dey go.”
The Boss added “The Government Accountability Board got a judge to agree that before you could disqualify a signature, you had to engage in a full legal proof that it couldn’t have been real, such as presenting documentary evidence that the person didn’t live at that address at the time. How do you prove that someone named Mickey Mouse doesn’t really live 100 Main Street? You have to get proof that there’s no such address, or signed affidavits from the real residents of 100 Main Street that they didn’t have a tenant by that name, things like that. Just an incredible burden of proof on the challenger. As a result, all the cartoon characters and football players and dead celebrities were left alone. Donald Duck, Adolf Hitler, Vince Lombardi… whatever name was signed, dead or alive, real or fictional, stood.”
Pockets jumped back in. “And da real names became even harder to disprove too, because once dey forced the Walker campaign to produce full documentary evidence on every challenge, dey woulda had to hire an army of private investigators to gather da affidavits.” Cutting himself another slice of kringle, he added “and dere just aren’t dat many private investigators in Wisconsin! Not ta mention, even wid all da Republican money Scott Walker has, he didn’t wanna blow it all on da challenge; he had ta save most of his bucks for running da campaign in case he couldn’t stop it from bein’ held.”
Pavel asked “but wouldn’t it have been worth it if he stopped the election from being called?”
The Boss shook his head. “That was never a possibility. Once we got the judge to set the burden of proof on every challenged signature, without giving an extension of time for the challenge process, it became mathematically impossible. Even if every one of the million signatures was provably invalid, it would too long to prove the case in court. Courts are only open during regular business hours, and it would take at least ten minutes or so per name to prove it should be thrown out. You do the math; getting half a million signatures knocked out individually would take longer than Walker’s full term in office!”
Pavel nodded, finally understanding how they’d produced the million signatures. But it raised another question. “But you said they all figured that once the election was called, the popularity of the cause would grow. Why didn’t it?”
Pockets shook his head and shrugged his shoulders, but the Boss had an answer. “I guess when it came right down to it, the news that got out last year about union excesses just boomeranged on us. Instead of our side’s passion inspiring people, it turned them off.”
Pavel nodded again, remembering the months of action in Madison a year before. “So you think maybe taking over the capitol building, trashing the paintings, smashing the windows, beating up police, and generally being a public nuisance for months at a time wasn’t the best public relations strategy for Wisconsin unions?”
The Boss nodded, sadly. “Yeah, we would never have done it that way in Illinois. Dumb. But you see, they’ve had everything go there way for a hundred years. Up in Wisconsin, the unions ruled… the far left ruled… even when the Republicans elected a moderate governor, Tommy Thompson, he was thought of as a conservative, because to Wisconsites used to LaFollette-style socialism, he was a departure. But really, it just shows how inexperienced the Wisconsin left was in terms of real opposition.”
Pockets cut in. “Da governor’s side really did a good job in uncovering the excesses, ya know? Gotta give ‘em credit… dey found stuff dat nobody else ever heard of.”
“Right, Pockets.” The Boss nodded. “They’d been fleecing the Wisconsin public way more than we ever did anywhere else. I mean, we have a little ghost-payrolling, sure, and no-bid contracts, and stuff like that…. But the teachers’ union in Wisconsin had been going so far overboard for decades, when all the news about it came out, maybe there was just no way to recover from it.”
Pavel asked for examples, and they were forthcoming. It helps to bring kringle to loosen the tongue. Perhaps he should tell DHS about the tactic, he thought silently.
“Well, for a start,” began the Boss, “there’s the master teacher program in a lot of school districts. There are places where you can retire young, after say, twenty years of teaching, and get a pension… then you sign up for a master teacher program in your old district, while getting a new job in a neighboring district and starting the clock again. As a master teacher in your old district, you just have to work two weeks a year for your old district… just two weeks a year… and then you get a full year’s salary every third year!”
Pavel hadn’t heard about that one before. “You mean, a person could get one full salary from one district, while getting a third of a salary from another, for just two weeks of work a year for the extra?”
“Yup,” said Pockets through a bite of kringle. “and then you retire from the second one, and collect two full pensions for the rest of your life. Not a bad gig, huh?”
“Personally,” the Boss said, “I think that one issue is what turned the tide against us in Wisconsin. But there were others.”
“Such as?” asked Pavel.
“Well…” the Boss paused before continuing, “WEAC – that’s the Wisconsin teachers’ union – was exposed for some really outlandish cost-padding. Healthcare is a real bugaboo for people in the private sector, right? Insurance costs go up all the time, no matter how hard a company tries to negotiate and control costs, right? Well, it turned out that WEAC had forced the entire state’s school districts to buy their health insurance from a division of WEAC, which had half-million dollar salaries and benefits for WEAC executives, and was insanely inflating the cost of the health insurance that they sold to the school districts. So all the school districts realized they’d been taken. When the schools started to switch from WEAC health insurance to insurance from private providers, they saved a mint, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars a year per district, sometimes even more… and that’s for the same quality of coverage, or even better!”
“I think dat’s why some of da teachers aren’t participating as much as we all expected them to,” added Pockets. “Dey feel like dey’ve been shafted by their own union. Like everything people always said about unions turned out all of a sudden to be true, and da rank an’ file are just realizin’ it. And they sure aren’t happy about it!”
The Boss nodded in agreement. “I think that’s our biggest problem, all right. There’s been an undercurrent of anger in Wisconsin for years, as they’ve lost manufacturing jobs all over the place. Southeast Wisconsin used to be a real rust belt area – tons and tons of heavy manufacturing, all kinds of factories as far as the eye could see. But they’ve been losing that kind of business for decades, at a worse rate than most other states, and people have silently blamed unions for being too intransigent. They’ve held contract votes when the business said, point blank, if you vote down this contract, we’ll have to move… and they’d vote it down anyway. So the plants would move.”
“Can hardly blame them, huh?” said Pavel. “I mean, if they’d warned them… why did the unions work against their own members’ best interests?”
The Boss answered “for the unity of the movement… for the greater good of labor unionism. It makes sense, to circle the wagons and refuse to capitulate, as long as there’s another good job across the street to go to. But lately, there haven’t been any more good jobs across the street to go to. And the people… even the union members themselves… have begun to blame their unions.”
Pockets jumped back in. “I don’t think anybody expected Walker’s reforms to be so effective, so fast. He got ‘em all pushed through in his first coupla months in office, so now dey’ve hadda full year ta see how dey worked out. An’ lotsa da changes seem to have worked out great, so he’s got real successes ta boast about in his ads.”
“That’s right, Pockets.” The Boss shook his head in despair. “Everything Scott Walker has done has worked beautifully. The school districts that used his tools in their negotiations didn’t have to fire anybody, and they’re flush with cash… while the school districts that obstinately refused and signed contracts before his tools were in place are still bleeding money and having to lay off teachers. All over the state, there are districts where property taxes aren’t going up, they’re going down! And the jobs picture is better too; a lot of the bleeding has stopped.”
“I heard that,” said Pavel. “they say the governor has cut costs without laying off government workers… that they have something like a 154 million dollar surplus for the year, that they’ve saved the school districts a billion dollars, that they’ve created tens of thousands of jobs, that the unemployment rate has improved while the rest of the country’s is still plummeting… the governor has a heck of a record to run on.”
The Boss nodded. “We had an easier time of it last year, in those first few state senate recalls that they forced through early. But no such luck this time. The Republican plans went through, and they’re all working. And they’ve uncovered so much fraud and sheer unfairness that’s poisoned the people against us. Wisconsin may be on the way to becoming a Republican state, all because of our side not knowing when to stop grabbing.”
Pockets shook his head. “Yeah, dat master teacher program showed the unfairness of the system, and the WEAC insurance showed how da bosses were ripping off da rank an’ file… all together, it’s been awful demoralizin’ for our side. Imagine how it’s hittin’ the independents, huh?”
Pavel couldn’t suppress a smile any more. “The Republicans are excited because their governor’s program has been so successful, and the independents see nothing but success from the Republicans, and nothing but cheating from the Democrats. Doesn’t look like it’ll be a hard decision for the independents, this time around.”
“Yeah, Paully,” mumbled Pockets. “Da whole strategy of forcin’ an unpopular recall without real signatures mighta been a mistake this time. The lack of excitement on our side might make it awful hard to win.”
“We’ve got to hope for complacency from the Republicans,” said the Boss. “That’s our only hope. If the Republican voters stay home because they think it’s already won, then we can still pull off a victory. But it’s all about enthusiasm. Our side’s not enthusiastic, and the GOP is, so we’ve got to pray they think they don’t need to show up. If the Republicans just stay home on June 5, they’ll wake up to a Governor Barrett on Wednesday. That’s what we’re counting on. Nice polls showing a big lead for Walker could do the trick for us. Republicans just need to stay home, and we can still win this thing, against all odds.”
Pavel thanked them for the talk, and said his goodbyes for the day, leaving his Machine friends more depressed than usual as they wrapped up the headquarters for the day themselves.
Pavel headed home to his family, with just one thought in his mind: The Republicans had better not believe the polls. Wisconsin’s Republicans need to show up and vote, or Wisconsin will be as doomed as Illinois.
Copyright 2012 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade compliance lecturer. Aformer County Chairman of the Milwaukee County Republican Party, John F. Di Leo has now been a recovering politician for over fifteen years.
Pavel, Pockets, the Boss, and the rest of the denizens of the 51st Ward Machine HQ are naturally fictional characters, and any resemblance to real human beings is merely coincidental. The vote fraud and tales of corruption that they discuss, however, are sadly all too real.
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