JANESVILLE, Wis. (AP) — Carousel Consignments looks like your normal knickknack store. It’s got everything from furniture to CDs. But lately it’s become something more — another battleground as Wisconsin lurches toward this spring’s recall elections.
Owner Joni Bozart has spent the past few weeks listening to customers quarrel over Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s virtues or lack thereof. As battle lines harden heading into the June 5 general election, the little shop on South Main Street in this blue-collar city 45 miles south of Madison has become a microcosm of a state so divided over the governor that some friends and family members can barely speak to each other about him.
“We used to say the only thing that got people fighting in the store was Brett Favre,” Bozart said, referring to the Green Bay Packers’ decision to trade the beloved quarterback in 2008. “People get angry (about the governor and the recalls). Most people back away, but sometimes people are looking to pick a fight.”
Walker and rival Democrats tore the state apart in February 2011 as they struggled over Walker’s contentious collective bargaining law. The measure required most public workers to contribute more to their health care and pensions and stripped them of nearly all their union rights.
Walker said he had to make the moves to help balance the state budget and give local governments the flexibility they would need to absorb deep cuts in state aid. Conservatives around the country rallied around him, elevating him to superstar status.
Democrats, though, saw the moves as a calculated blow against organized labor, one of their key constituencies. Minority Democrats in the Senate fled to Illinois in a futile attempt to block a vote on the measure while their Assembly counterparts joined with tens of thousands of protesters in a three-week, nonstop demonstration at the Capitol.
Republicans who control the Legislature ultimately passed the measure and Walker signed it into law. Talk of recalling the governor began almost immediately and has dominated Wisconsin politics as the fight evolved into a national referendum on union power and conservatives’ agenda.
Almost everyone in the state has formed an opinion on the governor and there’s no swaying them. A Marquette University Law School poll released a week before Tuesday’s primary for the recall election found a third of registered voters who responded had stopped talking to someone because of disagreements over the recall or Walker.
“I have patients who are losing friendships,” said Mahmoud Ahmed, a Marshfield Clinic psychiatrist in Eau Claire. “The political divide is becoming so ugly. People are taking it as a matter of if you are with them, you are not with me. If you don’t agree with my views, you are the enemy.”
Bill Stratton, 65, a retired sales representative from Union Grove, said he had been close friends with a Racine-area restaurant owner. Things changed last year after Stratton made a casual comment about what a good job Walker was doing.
The owner responded with a stern glare and hasn’t spoken to him since, he said. Stratton still greets the man but even now is met with stony silence or a lack of eye contact, he said.
“He hasn’t spoken to me, but I still like him, I’ll still patronize his business,” Stratton said.
Roommates Kim Strike and Michelle Hanaman have stopped talking about the governor. Strike, 44, owns a hair salon in Janesville. Hanaman, 40, is a nursing assistant at a Beloit nursing home. As the two sat in a Janesville bar on Thursday, Strike began a discussion with a reporter by saying Walker deserves a full four-year term.
“Everybody had to take their cuts in their own way (in the failing economy),” Strike said. “People should have more patience. He hasn’t had enough time.”
“Not enough time, my (expletive),” Hanaman muttered.
Strike explained that she’s always been a small business owner while Hanaman was once part of a union when she worked for Allied Automotive.
“We try not to bring it up,” Strike said.
Janis Hansen, a 67-year-old retiree from Sheboygan, said she sided against Walker as soon as he introduced the collective bargaining measure, saying he demonized public sector teachers. But not everyone in her family agrees and she’s learned to keep her mouth shut.
“There are times when it’s better to say nothing,” she said. “I just try to avoid the subject.”
Walker campaign spokeswoman Ciara Matthews didn’t comment.
Walker’s two chief Democratic opponents, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, have promised to close the ideological gap. They’ve been vague about how they would do it. Barrett said he’d reach out to people and try to show them he doesn’t want to embarrass them; Falk said she has a long record of bringing people together and would start by immediately visiting Waukesha, perhaps Wisconsin’s most conservative city.
Lynn Turner, a Marquette communications professor, said people must learn how to tolerate each other again.
“To completely shut down, that’s a mistake. Then we don’t exercise that skill listening to someone’s opinion contrary to their own,” she said. “If we don’t practice that skill, we can never solve intractable social problems, much less live together in healthy relationships.”
For Joni Bozart at Carousel Consignments, it’s simple.
“I just wish people would stop fighting,” she said.
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