Public transit is not the only issue in Wisconsin, as voters face a re-run of the 2010 race for governor between Tom Barrett and Scott Walker. It has not been highlighted in the agendas of any political candidate, nor in speculative media punditry. But political battles over the future of public transit do provide a useful measure for the political battles of 2010, with implications for what 2012 may offer.
Establishing a standard process for voters to authorize regional transit authorities in Wisconsin was a hot issue in 2009-2010. It would have ended the need for each local community to come, hat in hand, to the legislature for special permission. It ended up being one of the elephants in the room when the Democratic Party lost the governorship and both houses of the legislature in 2010.
The shift in power was not a referendum on public transit. Democrats did not stand firmly for regional transit authority legislation. In fact, those Democrats who lost their re-election campaigns were precisely those who dithered, dilly-dallied, and cowered in fear. Don't bring up a transit bill during an election year, was the byword. The radio talk show hosts don't like it. We might lose our seats. They did lose their seats - for having no spine and standing for nothing voters could identify.
Those who cowered in fear were precisely those who lost their seats. Only former state senator Jeff Plale, now an administrator in the Walker administration, lost his seat specifically because he failed to support the RTA legislation. He was dumped in a Democratic primary in favor of challenger Chris Larson, whose name recognition was primarily built on the campaign for the RTA. The rest lost for broader reasons: they didn't stand for anything (including but not limited to the transit bill). One was dating a lobbyist for Payday Loans.
One of the few things Scott Walker was honest about in the 2010 campaign for governor is that he passionately and implacably opposes all forms of public transit. He was proud of spending eight years as Milwaukee County executive gutting the county bus system. He opposed a high speed rail link from Milwaukee to Madison. He might have lost on that issue... when voters have had a chance to support transit, majorities have been favorable. But, Democrats didn't stand FOR transit.
The pending recall election will not be a bold step forward for the people of Wisconsin. It has settled into old patterns. It is a re-run. Tom Barrett could make a break with the past by setting forth a program and telling voters exactly what he hopes to accomplish. So far, his campaign has settled for vague platitudes, hoping the passion of the recall campaign might rub off on him, at least a little.
Voters may want more than a candidate who promises not to start divisive, ideological battles. When it comes to electing an individual to office, voters may look for some substance. Voters may want to know what the candidate is for, not just what they promise not to be. Barrett promises to "focus like a laser on job creation," but doesn't say what he will do to create jobs. Walker promised 250,000 new jobs... which he miserably failed to deliver. What will Barrett do that is different?
A firm commitment to authorize local voters to make local decisions about funding local transit systems would be a good start. After all, RTA's and dedicated sales tax funding promise property tax relief to homeowners, and better ways for people without work to find their way to where the jobs are.