Wisconsin “Lets The People Decide” On Iraq


George Bush recently defended Donald Rumsfeld on the basis that responsibility for matters of war and peace are his and his alone, saying, “I’m the decider and I decide what’s best.” On April 4, the people of Wisconsin begged to differ.

Voting in the tiny villages of the North Woods and the Door Peninsula, in the regional urban centers of Madison and La Crosse, and in the small cities that are the heart of this heartland state, three-fifths of voters cast ballots for immediate withdrawal from Iraq. Wisconsin voted “no” to the occupation, and as importantly, “no” to Bush’s self-elevation from presider to decider. Small town America voted, and the world sat up and took notice.

The Roots of the Campaign

How did it happen?

A century ago, “Let the people decide!” was a motto of Wisconsin’s Progressive movement. Led by Wisconsin’s La Follettes, Progressives took up the democratic demand of their predecessors-the Populists, Republicans and ’76ers-that the people themselves should exercise power to decide vital matters of state. La Follette’s Progressives lived up to their name and made real progress in democratizing state government, in particular, creating a municipal citizens initiative process. As a result, since 1911, citizens of Wisconsin cities and villages have exercised the right to initiate legislation at the municipal level. This “direct legislation” initiative process lives on today in Wisconsin’s State Statutes and its political culture.

Nearly a century later, a similar process was used in Vermont on March 1, 2005, when over 40 municipalities passed resolutions calling on the US government to withdraw militarily from Iraq, and on the State of Vermont to bring its National Guard units home. News of the Vermont vote set discussions in motion among members of the Four Lakes Green Party in Dane County. Based in Wisconsin’s capital of Madison, they knew Madisonians had voted against the war in Vietnam in a citizen-initiated plebiscite in 1969. Given that history, the inspiration of Vermont and Wisconsin’s own Direct Legislation statute, they asked some basic questions:

o What would it take to initiate a citywide vote on withdrawal from Iraq?
o What obstacles were there to using the initiative process for a resolution of this kind?
o How should the initiative campaign be organized, and could citizens of other Wisconsin municipalities do the same thing?

The Four Lakes Greens examined these questions and more, and just days after the vote in Vermont, began preparations for a troop withdrawal vote in Madison. They also brought a proposal to the Wisconsin Green Party, asking the state party to launch a statewide troop withdrawal campaign. After some deliberation, the Wisconsin Green Party did just that and the Wisconsin campaign for withdrawal from Iraq was born.

Putting the war on the ballot

Wisconsin Greens soon discovered that they were attempting something new. Use of Wisconsin’s direct legislation statute commonly involved the adoption of city ordinances, charter amendments, and the like. In the 95 years since the municipal initiative rested in the books, the Madison 1969 Vietnam vote was the only known case of citizens placing an anti-war measure on the ballot. This limited precedent posed some challenges for using the statute for a matter of federal action.

The first challenge was that of wording: What would the ballot resolution say? Since Wisconsin Greens and other peace activists had no pool of drafting experience upon which to draw, they had to answer this for themselves. Most agreed brevity was preferable to detail. The longer the ballot resolution, the greater the chance it would be misrepresented, or undercut by differences over minor points.

Most organizers also felt that a clear vote for immediate withdrawal of the troops would be preferable to a vote for a gradual withdrawal, or for wording simply calling for withdrawal. Others argued that in order to ensure passage, the resolution’s wording needed to be toned down still further. In the end, resolutions in most cities called for some form of “immediate withdrawal” of “all personnel” from Iraq.

The initiative campaign experienced some internal tensions as the coalition backing it grew. The Wisconsin Green Party initiated the campaign, but scores of other organizations and parties joined in the footwork. In the end, the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice became the statewide vehicle for coordinating the campaign, and the coalition’s diversity made it stronger. Along the way there were tensions, as some Democrats pushed for more visible support from Democratic elected officials, and for a rewording of the original resolution language to make it closer to that of Wisconsin U.S. Senator Russ Feingold’s “end of 2006″ withdrawal timetable (which was announced months after the campaign began).

The next major challenge was ballot access. Wisconsin’s direct legislation statute provides that:

A number of electors equal to at least 15% of the votes cast for governor at the last general election in their city or village may sign and file a petition with the city or village clerk requesting that an attached proposed ordinance or resolution, without alteration, either be adopted by the common council or village board or be referred to a vote of the electors.

In practice, the statute meant that organizers had to convince their city councils and village boards not to take a pass on adopting the resolutions, because the point was to bring the question of the war to the voters. Organizers had 60 days to collect tens of thousands of signatures in the cities of Madison and Milwaukee, plus thousands of signatures more in the rest of the state.

Most people did not have experience circulating petitions on this scale. Only 2,000 valid signatures are required to place a candidate on the state ballot. But getting 12,000 valid signatures in Madison, or 21,000 in Milwaukee was something new. In Madison, perhaps in part because the Four Lakes Greens had successfully gathered 8,000 signatures the previous election cycle in order to place the names of four candidates for countywide office on the ballot, the campaign collected over 19,000 signatures.

In Milwaukee, the campaign had greater difficulty, and in the end was not able to collect sufficient signatures to qualify. Organizers there resorted to the referendum route, and asked the Milwaukee Common Council to place it on the ballot. Demonstrating the less democratic character of referenda as opposed to initiatives, the Council voted to refer the resolution to the November ballot instead of April, when all the other votes were taking place, and they watered down the resolution by removing the demand that the withdrawal from Iraq be “immediate.”

Statewide, organizers also challenges posed by municipal officials themselves. In some communities, such as Madison, the municipal attorney, council and mayor were openly supportive. But in others, the process confused municipal officials who had never been personally presented with a petition for direct legislation. In a few cities, organizers ran into outright hostility and resistance, and turned to the nonprofit organization Liberty Tree Foundation for the Democratic Revolution for legal counsel.

The Portage city attorney opined that a troop withdrawal resolution was not a proper subject for direct legislation, as it was “not legislative in nature.” When confronted with numerous nonbinding local city council resolutions adopted each session, he argued that such resolutions were “extra-legislative” and therefore outside the scope of the direct legislation law. In response, Liberty Tree advised local organizers that the city attorney was in effect inventing a new branch of government, and recommended perseverance. Unfortunately, the frustration of dealing with city hall proved to be too much for them.

A real battle emerged in Monona and Watertown, where hostile city administrators claimed that not only were the resolutions extra-legislative in nature, but that they were inappropriate for the ballot as they dealt with federal issues outside of municipal authority. Monona officials also attempted to deny ballot access on the basis of “insufficiency of form”: Organizers there had framed the resolution as a question rather than a statement, and city officials refused to allow the circulators to correct this technical mistake. Liberty Tree contacted Attorney David Austin, who agreed to provide pro bono litigation representation to the local organizers. Ultimately, Monona officials surrendered the same day the organizers filed suit. In Watertown, city officials continued to resist all the way to the courthouse. But the judge took only 15 minutes to reach a verdict in favor of the petitioner.

The end result of the wrangling over wording, ballot drives, legal challenges, and other issues was positive: The troop withdrawal resolution qualified for the April ballot in 32 municipalities.

A victory for peace

Where there was debate, it was vigorous, taking place at town hall meetings, forums, on the airwaves and in the pages of state newspapers, and in doorstep conversations initiated by volunteer canvassers. This process was revealing as veterans, and military friends and family members served as the most visible constituencies pushing for withdrawal. The Wisconsin tour stop of the Bring Them Home Now! Tour packed Madison’s Barrymore Theater, launching the campaign. Vets for Peace played a key role in the organizing, and a local “Bring Joe Home!” campaign centering on a local Green stationed in Iraq, Joe Lindstrom, fed into it.

The campaign’s opposition used different means. At a rally at the State Capitol, dozens of “vote no” campaigners wasted uncounted gallons of gasoline circling at the Capitol Square in their automobiles to demonstrate how much they supported the troops. They also established a Political Action Committee, “Vote No to Cut and Run,” which portrayed the troop withdrawal campaign as the work of the “Radical Left.” At the same time, they also attempted to appeal to Democrats by quoting from pro-war statements by Hillary Rodham Clinton, Joseph Lieberman, and Wisconsin’s governor, Jim Doyle. To the extent the debate made a difference, troop withdrawal organizers appeared more effective in their arguments.

On April 4, voters in 24 Wisconsin municipalities put their communities on record in opposition to the war in Iraq. From tiny communities like Obijwa (61%) and Couderay (82%) in the north to the cities of Madison (67%) and Baraboo (59%) in the south, to the Mississippi River city of La Crosse in the west (55%) and the Lake Michigan cities of Sturgeon Bay (58%) and Shorewood (70%) in the east, over 60% of Wisconsin voters made clear their demand for immediate withdrawal from Iraq. Even communities that went to Bush in 2004-Casco, Draper, Ephraim, Edgewater, Luxemburg and Ojibwa-voted “yes.” The next day, newspapers across the globe, from Italy’s Il Manifesto to the Los Angeles Times, shared a common headline: “Wisconsin votes for troop pullout.”

The troop withdrawal campaign had won an unvarnished victory. Organizers had succeeded in getting the question of the war to the people, and when it came time to vote, the people did not need a lot of additional convincing. End the end, therefore, the campaign was one half petitioning, litigating and organizing; one-quarter voter mobilization (including “get-out-the-vote” calls by Voters for Peace, and literature drops and mailings); and only one-quarter actual debate.

Before April 4, the opposition spent a lot of time, energy, and money portraying the anti-war resolutions as “advisory” and therefore “meaningless,” yet they campaigned against them all the same. After April 4, with 75% of communities and 60% of voters voting yes, the hawks played games with the numbers, arguing that had the largest progressive cities not voted, and the largest conservative cities been included, the vote would have been closer. In the end, the public and the media didn’t buy their arguments: In Wisconsin, the peace movement is today viewed as mainstream while the war advocates are seen as marginal. As Four Lakes Green Party co-chair Steve Burns told the Wisconsin State Journal, “opposition to the war is not really news any more, it’s become the majority sentiment.”

The vote also caused some people in high places to sit up and take notice, because it was one thing for a few city councils to pass anti-war resolutions several years back; it was entirely another for voters themselves to cast direct votes for immediate withdrawal. As the campaign built steam, Feingold responded with a call for a complete withdrawal from Iraq by the end of 2006. Then, U.S. Congress member Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) took an uncharacteristically bold step in joining Representative Gwen Moore in support of Representative John Conyers’ (D-MI) impeachment drive. Next, a Republican member of the Wisconsin Congressional delegation, Representative Thomas Petri, changed course by voting against funding authorization for the continued occupation of Iraq. Finally after election day, with news of Wisconsin’s troop withdrawal mandate appearing in thousands of media outlets around the globe, Bush referred to the state of Washington as “Wisconsin” three times in one interview, while White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan made a stuttering acknowledgement of the Wisconsin vote, concluding that while “all Americans” wanted the troops home, they also understood the importance of the “mission” in Iraq.

A victory for local democracy

In the long run, despite the success of the votes in Wisconsin and Vermont, it may be that they are less important as acts of popular rejection of the current war, than as vital preparations for a new era of democratic struggle within the United States. In putting the question of war to a vote, Wisconsinites and Vermonters reinvigorated and repoliticized long-dormant tools of local democracy: The municipal citizens initiative in Wisconsin, and the town hall meeting in Vermont. These votes took place in a context in which people are already turning to local government initiatives such as municipal minimum wage laws, sick leave ordinances universal health insurance, and more. Disgusted with Federal corruption and unresponsiveness, Americans are increasingly turning to local power for change.

The Wisconsin vote has also produced a series of new efforts in other states. Peace activists in California, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey and Washington, are considering how they can use local government law to bring the war to the ballot in upcoming elections. In Wisconsin, peace activists are channeling their energies into a new series of initiatives and referenda for the November elections, including withdrawal votes in cities that haven’t yet had them, and also votes on impeachment. 

In Wisconsin’s US Senate race, the contest involves one of the state’s leading peace activists, Rae Vogeler, mounting a Green Party challenge to pro-war Democratic incumbent Herb Kohl. Kohl is also facing anti-war opposition within his own primary and from Robert Lorge, the Republican candidate.

A year ago, Wisconsin Greens launched the troop withdrawal campaign, seeking to return to the ultimate source of progressive power: The people. In April, they were rewarded for making that decision, and progressive politics is stronger in the state as a result today. As William T. Evjue, the late founder of The Capital Times in Madison often said, “Let the people have the truth and the freedom to discuss it and all will go well.”

Additional Information:

A version of this article appeared in the Summer, 2006 issue of Green Pages

Ben Manski is a Fellow with the Liberty Tree Foundation for the Democratic Revolution. Manski is a Wisconsin attorney, and provided legal counsel to the Wisconsin troop withdrawal campaign.

 

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