MADISON, Wis. — Every day at the cutting and sewing business he runs with his father, Ross Brown listened to Glenn Beck rail on the radio against Big Government, Big Labor and Big Money. In his years of middays with Beck, Brown had morphed from apolitical adolescence to college student with his own talk show on the campus radio station and on to businessman with 15 employees and not enough money to offer them health insurance.
Then, one day three years ago, at the apex of the debate over President Barack Obama’s health-care plan, Brown heard a caller to Beck’s show bring the fiery rhetoric to a screeching halt: Enough complaining, she said. What could she actually do to change politics?
Brown never heard Beck’s reply. He was too busy listening to his own answer. “It was a real aha moment,” he says. He would start his own tea party group, We the People of the Republic, to fight for personal liberty and small government. They’d do it the old-fashioned way — albeit with new tools, such as Facebook and Meetup — with no money, no fancy offices, no politicians in their pockets.
Three years later, one of the tea party heroes they worked to elect, Republican Scott Walker, is governor of Wisconsin, and Walker has done what few other tea-party-supported politicians have managed — making a big show of whacking government spending, stripping state workers of collective bargaining rights and squaring off against Democrats in a no-compromises battle stance. For the first time, Brown, a square-jawed 27-year-old with a radio host’s booming voice, could taste victory.
But Walker’s initiatives over the past year set off a firestorm of protest, drawing the nation’s eyes to Madison, the state capital where public employees and tens of thousands of supporters launched a recall petition against the governor. A million signatures later, a recall election is expected to be held June 5.
Millions of dollars are pouring into Wisconsin from wealthy conservatives nationwide, and labor unions are preparing to pump resources into the campaign of whichever Democrat faces off against Walker. (An early May primary will determine that.)
Those millions are for TV ads, mostly — more than $700,000 already from one group, Americans for Prosperity, which was founded by David and Charles Koch, the ubiquitous funders of conservative causes. But that’s not how Brown and the 60 or so folks who join him for dinner meetings do business. Along with another small tea party group, the GrandSons of Liberty, We the People organized thousands of volunteers to inspect the 1 million signatures that forced the recall vote.
The budget for Brown’s Verify the Recall campaign was $15,000, raised from donations of $3, $10 and $20 from Wisconsinites.
“All those millions?” Brown says. “Why is it necessary? We got our message out to every corner of the state, no problem, for $15,000. People hear about big unions busing people in or, on our side, the Koch brothers sending in big money. It’s all part of the game to them. But it’s not a game to us.”
Walker hasn’t begun to air TV ads, but the governor already has raised more money — $12.1 million and counting — than he did in his entire 2010 campaign. In that election, 7 percent of Walker’s funds came from outside Wisconsin. This time, 47 percent has come from out of state.
Thirteen of Walker’s top 20 donors are from places such as Texas, New York and Wyoming — home of No. 10 on the list, Foster Friess, the wealthy investor who has repeatedly stepped in to keep Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign solvent.
Eric O’Keefe doesn’t make the top 20, but he’s a chief organizer of several independent conservative groups that are raising millions nationwide. From his rural home west of Madison, O’Keefe is chairman of the Sam Adams Alliance, which funds groups that train tea party activists. He is also chairman of the Wisconsin Club for Growth, which has spent $1 million on TV ads to support Walker’s effort to make state workers “pay their fair share.” And he is co-founder of the Campaign for Primary Accountability, a new super PAC that is spending millions on ads attacking incumbent members of Congress from both parties.
“We’ve stepped in pretty big in support of Governor Walker’s reforms,” says O’Keefe, a lean, soft-spoken 57-year-old who spent part of last week in Manhattan with Walker as the governor raised more cash.
Like Brown, O’Keefe was inspired as a teenager to adopt a new vein of political thought, in his case with a membership in the Conservative Book Club. Like Brown, he started off with small grass-roots efforts, in O’Keefe’s case as a believer in third parties’ ability to break the hegemony of the Republicans and Democrats.
But unlike Brown, O’Keefe had money. He grew up with some and made a lot more as an investor, allowing him to devote decades to a series of ambitious political crusades, nearly all of them failures.
He worked in 1980 for the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate, pressed a few years later for a balanced-budget amendment and then led a 1990s push for term limits.
“My 32 years of engagement has been a long and expensive lesson in frustration,” he says.
Early in his libertarian days, O’Keefe became friendly with the Koch brothers, with whom he has joined in many battles, mainly through independent groups that the courts have empowered to raise unlimited money, often without having to identify their donors.
O’Keefe makes no apology for raising millions from thousands of miles away. He says Walker’s campaign is home-grown, in that “our strategists and operatives happen to be here,” whereas he alleges that the recall campaign, though so far funded primarily from within Wisconsin, is being cooked up at union headquarters in Washington and New York.
United Wisconsin, the pro-recall group, says it has received no support from unions.
“We asked the national unions for help, and they said no because they thought a recall had no chance,” says the group’s director, Lynn Freeman.
Still, local activists expect their parent unions to be major funders of the Democrat who opposes Walker.
O’Keefe knows some tea party activists lump him and his big donors in the same category as the bad guys of Big Government and Big Labor. But he says the average voter doesn’t care if faraway millionaires spend fortunes in Wisconsin.
“That’s inside baseball,” he says. “There’s no moral issue involved. This is a nationally significant fight.”
Bluster aside, O’Keefe recognizes that the more politics is viewed as a plaything of the wealthy, the more disaffected many voters become.
“I’ve come to realize that the most important challenge in our country is disengagement with government,” he says. “Politics, like sports and music, has gone from a participatory activity to a spectator one,” and conservatives’ harsh anti-government rhetoric is in part to blame. “I spent a significant amount of time in the ’90s encouraging that view, and it did produce a deep cynicism that is an existential threat to democracy.”
Still, he argues, only big money can open the system to dissenting views. Even the peace and civil rights movements of the 1960s had wealthy backers, he says, and tea party groups should understand that the way to amplify their voices is to accept help from wealthy people with similar ideals.
Eighty-five miles west of Madison along a country road dotted with “Recall Walker” signs, 140 state workers and Democrats gather in Wauzeka, where the white-clapboard Century Hall is home to bingo games and Wauzeka High class portraits.
It’s a happy crowd, grateful to Walker for almost single-handedly reviving the Wisconsin Idea, the early-20th-century progressive alliance in which the state, its university and labor united to use the income tax to chip away at inequalities of wealth and guarantee a decent standard of living for all.
The vehicles outside show how opposition to Walker has bridged the divide between urban, more-affluent progressives from Madison and Milwaukee and rural, struggling families. Country pickups with gun racks sit next to little city hybrids and Japanese cars festooned with Obama bumper stickers.
Inside, Denise Kirchoff, an elementary school teacher, tells of colleagues who are retiring to collect their pension “before the governor takes it away.” Kirchoff can’t recall whether she voted for Walker — “I sure hope I didn’t.” She just knows she never heard him say he’d slash school spending.
The recall has her feeling inexpressibly proud to be a Wisconsinite, Kirchoff says.
“We don’t pay attention to those very wealthy people who are playing puppet master,” she says.
At the state prison where Adam Sutter works as a sergeant, the scrapping of collective bargaining rights means bureaucrats in Madison now set rules on everything from vacation time to work assignments, sending morale to rock-bottom lows, he says. So Sutter, an officer in his union, welcomes help from the national headquarters. And he’s not worried about the big money on Walker’s side.
“The money can come in all you want,” Sutter says, “but nothing beats grass-roots door-knocking, talking to your neighbors. You can’t buy values. Get beyond what’s being said on Fox News and MSNBC and you hear people talk about what’s really important to them, and that’s taking care of each other.”
Lynn Freeman has never been in a union, never worked for the state. But when she saw the scope of Walker’s cuts, she joined the recall coalition, becoming director of United Wisconsin and coordinating thousands of volunteers, virtually none of them from tea party groups such as Brown’s.
That gap in the anti-Walker coalition may seem self-evident, but not to Freeman. Her father is “a gun-toting tea partyer, and he’s definitely offended by the kind of big-money corporate agenda Walker has,” she says.
“I don’t understand why these tea party groups stay with Walker,” says Freeman, 44, a fast-talking, ruddy-faced, keys-on-the-belt-loop career counselor who put her business on ice for the duration of the campaign.
She says Walker’s campaign will ultimately alienate some tea party members.
“You want to really tick off a Badger? Tell them their campaign’s being run by people from out of state.”
About 90 percent of United Wisconsin’s funds have been raised in-state.
A Missouri woman, Mary Steeb, is the recall campaign’s largest donor; she gave $2,000 because she grew up in Wisconsin, where her sister teaches school.
“I love my sister, who’s really hurting,” says Steeb, owner of a food distributor with 20 employees. “Wisconsin used to be a place where quality of life was more important than anything. The money pouring in is because of the collective desire of some billionaires to break the unions so they can keep making money. That’s not right, and it’s not good business.”
Freeman says the signatures of a million Wisconsinites prove the recall can win without the kind of money Walker will have.
“The rules have changed and Walker and his PACs can raise unlimited money, but we’ll be okay because people’s views of Walker are already set,” she says.
Walker’s campaign agrees that most voters’ views are set, but in the governor’s favor.
“The left is so loud that you don’t hear it,” says campaign spokeswoman Ciara Matthews, “but there is a silent majority that stands with the governor in support of long-term structural reform. The left will say he hates children, he kicks puppies, but voters know he’s saved millions of dollars and their schools are still just as good.”
“The people don’t care where campaign funds come from,” Matthews says. “They understand that when you’re less than a year into your term and facing a recall, you have to get the word out.”
Freeman lived in California in 2003, when Gray Davis became one of only two governors ever to be recalled.
“No matter how much Davis spent, there was no budging his ratings,” she says.
In California, which also saw a massive influx of out-of-state money, there was no limit on what the Democratic governor could spend in the recall campaign. But the money did Davis little good, says Tammy Cali, who handled marketing for the anti-Davis campaign and now runs Eberle Communications Group, a McLean political fundraising firm.
“Wisconsin is different,” Cali says, “because it’s a David-versus-Goliath story. Scott Walker is a tea party guy, a David who is a victim. In politics, to win you need an enemy or a victim. In this case, you have both. You can ask people around the country for money for Walker by saying, ‘If this can happen to Scott Walker, it can happen in your state.’ “
Still, Cali says, the Walker side should be careful about the perception that corporate money is calling the cards.
“The big money groups stand for everything some tea partyers see as wrong with this country,” she says. “But on the other hand, some tea party groups see that big money can help them.”
Ross Brown is all for freedom, including the freedom to express yourself with wheelbarrows of cash. Still, something strikes him as not quite fair about the way out-of-state millions could change the political calculus in his back yard.
“We’re just up here doing our own thing,” Brown says. “But I guess we’re the front line of this debate the nation is having about what is the proper role of government.”
In the end, Brown figures, “people throw money at politicians because there’s an incentive — they’re going to get something back. Take away the incentive — limit government’s role — and then there won’t be the nice little extras the politicians can do for you if you make a contribution.”