GREEN BAY, Wisc. — Jamie and Allison Averbeck are both public school teachers who believe the anger stoked by Governor Scott Walker’s shredding of collective bargaining rights for public unions remains strong enough to prove the polls wrong and recall him tomorrow night in the nation’s most closely watched governor’s race since Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recall victory over California Governor Gray Davis in 2003.
“I think, to be honest, that a lot of younger teachers took for granted their collective bargaining rights until they were taken away,” said Allison, 35, an elementary school special education teacher dealing with children with Down’s syndrome and autism in the Ashwaubenon School District, next door to Green Bay. “I know people who were pro-Walker who say he went too far and are definitely voting to get him out. I know people who despised Barrett the first time around but who are voting for him this time because they despise Walker even more." (Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, whom Walker defeated in 2010, is again the challenger in the recall)
“For so many people, it’s personal," she said. "When he cut education" — $800 million to $900 million over two years, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel — "he was going after my children. By cutting teachers he was going after their education.”
Husband Jamie, 34, who works in the district helping teachers understand and use technology in their classrooms, was one of the thousands of unionized workers who participated in the globally publicized, drum-beating sit-in at the Wisconsin state capitol building in Madison. “In some ways, as divisive as it’s been, it’s also been a silver lining that’s renewed the brotherhood among teachers,” Jamie said. “It’s renewed a spark. I really believe this election is 50-50.”
The Averbeck’s home is on a corner of Morris Avenue, a street that I visited in 2007 and 2008 as an accurate barometer of sentiment in the last presidential election. Many voters I talked to back then had voted for President George W. Bush, a Republican, but switched to the Democrat, Barack Obama because of the economy and fatigue over Iraq and Afghanistan. Green Bay is in Brown County, where Bush won twice, but decisively switched to Obama.
I went back to see if there was another mood swing, since Walker, a Republican and national darling of its right wing, easily won Brown County in 2010. Indeed, there was. For instance, there is Mark Muchowski, 58. He voted for Bush both times, then Obama and Barrett. Like many Wisconsinites, he has gone through difficult times, being laid off from a dispatching job at a trucking company in 2007, working a year at a machine shop before being laid off again and is now a forklift operator at a package printing company. He says he makes 40 percent less today than five years ago. He said he voting for Walker on Tuesday and will likely vote for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in November.
"Tell Obama how great the economy is,” he said sarcastically. “He’s done nothing that’s had any impact here. It’s gotten to the point where everything that’s available is $10 to $12 an hour. I’m thinking about moving up to the Iron Range to take a mining job. I hear they’re hiring at $1,500 a week.”
As to why he is voting for Walker, Muchowski said believes the governor is equalizing benefits between unionized and non-union labor. “I’m paying 24 percent of my health care, so it’s only fair the unions pay more (they are required to now pay 12.6 percent, double the previous contribution).”
Muchowski had dropped in to the home of Ron and Kelly Nikolai. Ron, 42, also has gone through difficult times, getting a pink slip from the same trucking company as Muchowski. He then tried and failed to establish a chimney sweep business, saying, “The first thing to go in a bad economy is maintenance people think they can get away with skipping it.”
He found temporary work as a canvasser for the Census and then caught on at a Home Depot for $9 an hour. He finally landed a job that brought him back to his salary of five years ago, currently a salesman for a national supplier of maintenance repair parts for commercial truck and vehicle fleets. He voted for Walker the first time and is doing so again because he, like Muchowski, believes that the savings from union contracts will stimulate job growth in the private sector. “People like me are sick of sacrificing when the unions are whining about their benefits,” Ron said. “Walker’s given us a little light at the end of the tunnel, getting the unions to sacrifice some.”
Luckily for him, Kelly’s work as a customer service representative at a dairy company has been stable and they use her health care benefits. She is voting for Barrett because she does not see how Walker’s moves have helped the general economy, or the education of their two boys, a 19-year in college and a 14-year-old just starting high school. “The biggest thing I know is that Walker likes the big corporations.”
Asked if she and Ron talk much about the election, she laughed and said, “Not much.”
Jamie and Allison Averbeck would counter that they have made sacrifices of their own, as new health care premiums have wiped $10,000 off their combined $100,000 salary. They have many teacher friends who say they are now laboring with larger classrooms but the same expectations from parents. They said they understand how passions run high on Morris Avenue. Their first Obama sign four years ago was stolen.
But they hope the passions don’t run so out of control that teachers — regardless of Tuesday’s election — are permanently vilified. Jamie said, “I hope we don’t remain so polarized that people forget that we’re here, because we really do care about children.”