As Democratic legislators flee the Wisconsin state capitol in protest of Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed budget and its limits on bargaining powers for public employee unions, one of Wisconsin’s most prominent progressive leaders is coming out swinging.
Former Rep. David Obey (D-WI), a 41-year veteran of the House, the former chairman of the Appropriations Committee and an icon in Wisconsin politics, assailed Gov. Scott Walker for engaging in “political thuggery” and accused him of channeling toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak before his fall.
“All I know is that last week, when people were asking where Mubarak was — whether he had gone to Sharm el-Sheikh or Paris — I was saying he was ensconced in the governor’s mansion in Madison,” Obey said in a telephone interview with TPM.
“I think what Gov. Walker is trying to do amounts to political thuggery,” Obey continued. “It is one thing to say that these are tough times — everybody’s got to cut back and public employees are going to have to take cuts like the rest of us … but he’s using it as an excuse to gut the ability of workers to organize and bargain collectively. In my view that’s outrageous — and what is especially outrageous is his demand that the legislature pass this in a week’s time.”
Obey, who retired rather than run for re-election last year, encouraged Democrats in the state to “raise hell” and draw distinctions between “legitimate” efforts to save money and efforts to “crush” the bargaining power of workers.
“This is a brutal, cynical political power play, and I really believe the state of Wisconsin is not going to stand for this …,” he said. “What Walker is trying to do is to undercut one of the last vestiges in our economy that produces any kind of upward pressure on wages at all…
“If he succeeds in getting away with it, you’ll see lots of people trying to follow suit in other places around the country. … Are we going to return to the primitive, pre-Teddy Roosevelt way of workers being treated?” he fumed.
Obey also is diametrically opposed to the views of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), who compared the situation in Madison to Cairo.
Speaking on Morning Joe Thursday morning, Ryan said “it’s like Cairo has moved to Madison these days” — not that he supports the Wisconsin protesters’ goals. Ryan blames state workers’ bloated pensions and healthcare for causing the state’s budget crisis and bleak economic climate.
“It’s just, all of this demonstration,” he said. “It’s fine, people should be able to express their way, but we’ve got to get this deficit and debt under control in Madison, if we want to have a good business climate and job creation in Wisconsin.”
To Obey, the protests in the Wisconsin state capitol are motivated by the opposite political dynamic than those that took place in Cairo last week.
“We’re celebrating what happened in Cairo because it represented the desire of the masses and average working people in Egypt to finally gain say so in the way they are treated,” he said. “[Walker] is pushing a reverse mission — to deny basic, middle-class workers any ability to defend themselves economically. … If the legislature supinely follows him with respect to taking away these bargaining rights, they’ve declared war on their own middle-class constituents and I would hope they would pay for it at the ballot box.”