First it was calling out the National Guard. Now it's using agent provocateurs. For the second time in as many weeks, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker roused bad old memories of political demonstrations past and sparked fears about new government abuses of First Amendment rights when he admitted in a phone call yesterday that he had thought about instigating trouble among the demonstrators at the Capitol. Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz called Walker's comments "very upsetting."
On Tuesday, investigative reporter Ian Murphy placed a phone call to Walker while pretending to be David Koch, a billionaire right-wing activist and major donor to the governor. Believing the caller to be Koch, Walker went on to have a 20-minute conversation with Murphy, and candidly shared his thoughts about his ongoing standoff with unions and their allies in Wisconsin. The audio of this call was subsequently published online this morning, and the governor's office quickly confirmed its veracity.
During the call, Walker discussed the filibuster by the 14 Democratic Senators who have decamped to Illinois, his plans to get them to return to the Capitol, his communications with sympathetic Republican governors in other states, and a recent dinner with Wisconsin Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, among other subjects. Walker also commented on the dynamics of the protest, and his fears about what might happen.
Here's the relevant portion of the transcript.
Murphy, in the guise of Koch, said: "Right, right. Well, we'll back you any way we can. But, uh, what we were thinking about the crowds was, uh, was planting some troublemakers."
Walker in turn responded: "You know, the, well, the only problem with that -- because we thought about that. The problem -- the, my only gut reaction to that is right now the lawmakers I've talked to have just completely had it with them, the public is not really fond of this. The teachers union did some polling of focus groups, I think, and found out that the public turned on 'em the minute they closed school down for a couple days. The guys we've got left are largely from out of state, and I keep dismissing it in all my press conferences saying, 'Eh, they're mostly from out of state.' My only fear would be is if there was a ruckus caused is that that would scare the public into thinking maybe the governor has gotta settle to avoid all these problems. You know, whereas, I've said, 'Hey, you know, we can handle this, people can protest. This is Madison, you know, full of the '60s liberals. Let 'em protest.' It's not gonna affect us. And as long as we go back to our homes and the majority of the people are telling us we're doing the right thing, let 'em protest all they want. Um, so that's my gut reaction, is that I think it's actually good if they're constant, they're noisy, but they're quiet, nothing happens, 'cause sooner or later the media stops finding 'em interesting."
While Walker rejected planting "troublemakers" amid the demonstrators, his stated rationale for doing so was that this tactic would be counterproductive given potential media attention. Before this explanation, though, he did admit: "we thought about that."
Those four words have generated white-hot reaction all day long from Walker's critics, who note that the governor tacitly admitted to considering fomenting trouble, or a "ruckus" as he puts it, amid the ongoing protests at the Wisconsin Capitol. Never mind the ethical issues raised or message sent to law enforcement through these comments; they're most immediately a political misstep for the governor.
Reaction from Madison-based law enforcement agencies and Mayor Dave Cieslewicz was varied.
The Wisconsin Department of Administration, which is serving as the press office for the Capitol Police, did not respond to multiple queries seeking the department's reaction to Walker's comments.
In a statement issued this afternoon, Madison Police Chief Noble Wray did not address Walker's comments directly, but rather focused on praising the ongoing conduct of MPD officers during the demonstrations. The chief said: "The men and the women of the Madison Police Department train for crowd situations where an agitator or provocateur may try to create safety risks for citizens and officers. During recent demonstrations around the Capitol Square no such situation has arisen. Crowd behavior has been exemplary, and thousands of Wisconsin citizens are to be commended for the peaceful ways in which they have expressed First Amendment rights."
A spokesperson for the Madison Professional Police Officers Association, active in the demonstrations, referred to Wray's statement.
Meanwhile, Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz was more critical. "That's a very upsetting comment coming from the governor," he said. "I'd like to hear him explain why he said that. On its face, it appears that he seriously entertained the option of actually creating a more tense situation, and that would be very significant if that were the case."
Cieslewicz contrasted Walker's comments to the organizing efforts of labor and student groups behind the protests, as well as the work of law enforcement officers, applauding both for working to create the "right tone" for the demonstrations. "I've really been proud of our city," he said.