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This is the crowd that scares the pants off Gov. Jim Doyle.
Despite -- or maybe because of -- the mainstream media bashing he gets, Republican Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker remains a folk hero in this blue-collar, formerly reliable Democratic-labor union turf.
That was clear on Jan. 14, when the taxpayer revolt group that helped propel Walker into office gathered in a packed hall for its fourth anniversary rally at Serb Hall on Milwaukee's South Side. It was grassroots democracy in action.
It's hard to believe that it was just four years ago that the Citizens for Responsible Government formed in a Milwaukee-area senior citizen's kitchen. That senior citizen was in attendance at the anniversary rally, posing for pictures with Walker.
A lot has happened since then. Walker is running for governor, and the citizens' group clearly hopes to be the wind that boosts him into the governor's mansion. And then some.
"We now have concerned citizens working in solidarity in places like Germantown, Hartford, Hudson, Jefferson, Kewaskum, Madison, Menomonee Falls, Plymouth, Polk, Prescott, Price County, Sheboygan Falls, Vilas County, Walworth County and Wausau," CRG leader Chris Kliesmet told the crowd. "Some of them are here today joining the celebration as one big happy family. They have defeated referendums, recalled mayors and school board members, lobbied in Madison, pushed back bad ideas like the automatic gas tax and engaged in all manner of activities to further the influence of grassroots fiscal conservatism."
He ended by saying: "Let's put a fiscal conservative in the governor's mansion!"
Also, high on the agenda: Making sure that the Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR) finally gets through the Legislature.
"Where is TABOR? It's now 2006, and where is the Taxpayers Bill of Rights?" asked speaker Owen Robinson, of the prominent conservative blog, Boots and Sabers.
State Rep. Jeff Stone, R-Greendale, also a speaker, said the state Assembly and Senate are hammering out an agreement on TABOR that's expected in two weeks. "It will pass through the Legislature on the spring agenda," he promised.
But Walker, one of the two Republican candidates for governor but the only candidate in attendance, was clearly the main draw, returning to what is certainly the very heart of his base and rationale for running.
In a testament to CRG's growing power, it was candidate central.
The two Republican candidates for attorney general (disclosure: my husband, Paul Bucher, is one of them) were working the room. The Republican candidate for Milwaukee County sheriff was there too (Don Holt). Two candidates for Milwaukee County Judge (J.D. Watts, Jane Carroll). Three state legislators (Robin Vos, Mark Gundrum, and Stone). A Milwaukee alderman (Tony Zielinski). One of the Democratic candidates for sheriff (Vince Bobot).
Outside of one television station, I didn't see any mainstream media outlets, which continue to underestimate the ongoing taxpayer revolt in southeastern Wisconsin. J.J. Blonien of the Wisconsin Conservative Digest, Victor Huyke of the El Conquistador newspaper, and Dad29, a conservative blogger from Brookfield, were there. There is a continuing conversation going on among taxpayers, and the mainstream media is not a part of it.
But, from a political standpoint, Walker owned the show, even though he avoided discussing the gubernatorial race in his speech; instead, he focused on CRG's accomplishments and his battles with the Milwaukee County Board.
"There weren't hundreds, there weren't thousands, there were tens of thousands of people who said. 'Enough, I want my government back,'" he told the crowd. "It's not about anger. It's about a greater human emotion: Hope."
Mark Green has the money and a better state wide organization. It's far too early to predict the Republican primary. But Scott Walker has always had the most focused grassroots message -- and, if he can replicate the passion that surrounded his election to county executive, he poses a real threat, despite the financial numbers. He's got true believers. And he's got them in historically Democratic areas in a county the Democrats count on to win statewide.
The CRG rally was certainly state's exhibit number 1 in the Scott Walker argument for governor. Walker can point to a Wisconsin Policy Research Institute poll last year that showed he bests Doyle in the Milwaukee suburbs with 55 percent support; Green got only 39 percent there, barely besting Doyle (although Green clobbered Walker in his Fox Valley base).
There's no question that the birth of CRG and the pension revolt started something very powerful in southeastern Wisconsin - a taxpayer mobilization that's been evident as well in the automatic gas tax repeal, the election of Republican Mark Honadel in a traditionally Democratic South Milwaukee seat and rejection of the PabstCity tax incremental financing district in Milwaukee.
I also spoke at the CRG rally, along with Robinson, on the emergence of political blogging in Wisconsin. In some ways, the pension revolt marked the first time that an online news site - it was, for all practical purposes, a blog - proved a potent political weapon in this state.
Lobbyist Craig Peterson, who created that site along with journalist Bruce Murphy, recalled to the audience that they joined together "not to (do) commentary, but to report the news you don't read in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel." He recalled that Murphy worked for free for an entire year because he believed in the cause. They ended up breaking open the pension scandal, reporting that county administrators stood to receive multi-million dollar pensions.
The Journal Sentinel's response to this new technological threat was hiring Bruce Murphy (he's since left the paper and is now editor of Milwaukee Magazine). But there are too many political bloggers these days for the paper to hire them all. The mainstream media have lost their sole control over the gate-keeping function.
The combination of an active citizenry wedded with the "new media" - online sites like blogs, but especially conservative talk radio - have changed the political landscape for good.
This tri-fold threat to the status quo - mobilized citizenry, talk radio, and blogs, working with all cylinders firing in unison toward the same goal - was replicated in the recent gas tax revolt.
And Walker clearly hopes to tap into that energy in his bid for governor.
McBride, a former newspaper reporter and current blogger, is married to Waukesha County DA Paul Bucher -- a candidate for state attorney general -- and helped the Vrakas campaign.
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