Politicians charged with resolving various and sundry challenges often claim to be “putting out fires.” But Mahlon Mitchell goes them one better. The Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor of Wisconsin regularly steers off the campaign trail to put out actual fires.
Mitchell, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin union, pulls twenty-four-hour shifts as a lieutenant in a Madison firehouse. “I’m still on the truck, still going to house fires, car crashes, EMT runs,” says the 35-year-old first-time candidate. “I was called to public service, and I always thought I would do that public service as a firefighter. But now the emergency is in the Capitol.”
One of the most remarkable manifestations of the mass movement sparked by Governor Scott Walker’s anti-labor austerity agenda has been the flourishing of a new, more engaged electoral politics in Wisconsin. The protests that drew hundreds of thousands to the streets in February 2011 have evolved into a powerful movement whose petitions for recall elections removed two GOP state senators and have forced Walker, Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and three other Republican legislators to face unprecedented electoral contests on June 5. If Walker, Kleefisch and at least one of the state senators are defeated, Wisconsin will be the first state in history to shift control of the executive branch and the most powerful chamber of the legislative branch from one party to the other in same-day recall elections.
But there’s more to what’s happening in Wisconsin, and many other states that saw mass protests last year, than partisan upheaval. The protesters—union members fighting assaults on collective bargaining and the farmers, small-business owners, retirees and students who supported them—are not just forcing new elections. They are forcing their way into the political process as candidates, elbowing aside traditional politicians and old approaches to campaigning. It’s not that the newcomers aren’t raising money, crafting smart messages or buying thirty-second spots. They’re serious contenders. But they are running on the terms of a movement they have built, mounting campaigns that are people-centered, high-spirited and unapologetic in their support of labor rights and economic justice.
And they are starting to win. In addition to Mitchell, the leading contender in the May 8 Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, numerous activists from last year’s protests have entered recall races and regularly scheduled elections. Several of them won county board, city council and school board races when Wisconsin held local elections on April 3. In Ohio, where union activists and their allies overturned anti-labor measures enacted by GOP legislators and Governor John Kasich with a fall veto referendum that won by a 61-39 margin, more than twenty union members have mounted 2012 election campaigns. And national unions like the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and the Service Employees have established programs to recruit, train and support members to run for local and state posts from Arizona to Maine. Labor unions have always encouraged members to get involved politically, but union leaders have seen a dramatic uptick in interest from public employees infuriated by the anti-labor and austerity initiatives of the Republican governors and legislators swept into office in 2010.