Feb. 18, 2011— -- The state employee protests that have surged in Wisconsin and spread to Ohio and Indiana this week bear some similarities to grassroots displays by Tea Party members who voiced deep dissatisfaction with lawmakers ahead of the 2010 elections.
But unlike those scenes, some Republican critics are eager to point out, the latest are being fomented by the national political establishment -- including President Obama and the Democratic National Committee -- who have directly interjected themselves into the state-level debates.
Organizing for America, Obama's campaign arm now under the umbrella of the DNC, has been mobilizing union members and supporters to rally against a proposed Wisconsin budget measure that would strip workers of collective bargaining rights and force them to contribute more for benefits.
Leaders have initiated phone banks and on-the-ground canvassing, and relied on a social media blitz on Facebook and Twitter to build turnout.
DNC Chairman Tim Kaine also reportedly spoke with Wisconsin union leaders and state legislators ahead of the protests, the Huffington Post reported, signaling his direct involvement in coordinating the effort.
"Organizing for America is mobilizing on the ground in Wisconsin to defend the rights of public employees from an attempt by the governor [Republican Scott Walker] to take away their right to organize," wrote Mary Hough on the OFA blog.
Tens of thousands of protesters surrounded the state capitol in Madison yesterday, while smaller but equally boisterous crowds held rallies outside statehouses in Ohio and Indiana earlier.
National Democrats have cast the rallies as part of a broader message aired during federal budget debates in Washington this week that deficit reduction measures should not come at the expense of state workers or the poor. But they're also widely seen as an effort by Obama and the DNC to engage with their liberal base.
"We have one thing to say right now: to our allies in the labor movement, to our brothers and sisters in public work, we stand with you, and we stand strong," wrote OFA regional field director Jessie Lidbury on the organization's blog.
But Republicans call Walker's proposal, and those put forth by lawmakers in other states to curb massive budget deficits, painful but necessary. And they say solving the budget crises should be up to each states' leaders to decide, free from meddling by national political figures.
House Speaker John Boehner lashed out at the White House Thursday, accusing it of complicating governors' efforts to put their fiscal houses in order.
"According to news reports, the White House has even unleashed the Democratic National Committee to spread disinformation and confusion in Wisconsin regarding the governor's courageous actions," he said. "I urge the president to order the DNC to suspend these tactics. This is not the way you begin an 'adult conversation' in America about solutions to the fiscal challenges that are destroying jobs in our country."
War on State Workers, Or Just Broke?
Over 40 states are facing a combined projected shortfall of $125 billion for the fiscal year of 2012. The hardest hit are California, facing a $25.5 billion gap, Texas at $13 billion, Illinois at $15 billion, New York $9 billion and New Jersey at $10.5 billion.
Wisconsin Gov. Walker faces a $3.6 billion deficit. "The bottom line is we're broke. We can't negotiate for something we don't have the ability to give on," he said, denying allegations that he is trying to bust the unions.
President Obama meanwhile has said any proposals that would cut back on union rights and trim state employees' benefits an attack. "Where you're just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally seems like more of an assault on unions," Obama told Milwaukee's WTMJ-TV in an interview Wednesday.