MADISON, Wis. — Seeking a way to counter a growing protest movement, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker cited his email, confidently declaring that most people writing his office had urged him to eliminate nearly all union rights for state workers.
But an Associated Press analysis of the emails shows that, for close to a week, messages in Walker's inbox were running roughly 2-to-1 against his plans. The tide did not turn in his favor until shortly after desperate Democrats fled the state to stop a vote they knew they would lose.
The AP analyzed more than 26,000 emails sent to Walker from the time he formally announced his plans until he first mentioned the emails in public – a span of seven days.
During that time, the overall tally ran 55 percent in support, 44 percent against. In the weeks since, Walker has continued to receive tens of thousands of emails on the issue.
The AP obtained the emails through a legal settlement with Walker's office, the result of a lawsuit filed by the news cooperative and the Isthmus, a weekly newspaper in Madison. The news organizations sued after the governor's office did not respond to requests for the emails filed under the state's open records law.
Walker's comments about the emails came on the evening of Feb. 17, as roughly 25,000 protesters packed into the Capitol's ornate rotunda and filled its lawn outside. They could be heard screaming outside the conference room where he met with reporters in a news conference broadcast live by several cable news networks.
"The more than 8,000 emails we got today, the majority are telling us to stay firm, to stay strong, to stand with the taxpayers," Walker said of the emails. "While the protesters have every right to be heard, I'm going to make sure the taxpayers of the state are heard and their voices are not drowned out by those circling the Capitol."
But for several preceding days, the emails of support Walker received had been vastly outnumbered by those opposed to his plan.
On Feb. 11, the day Walker formally outlined his "budget-repair bill" and his proposal to dramatically curb union rights, the emails sent to his office ran more than 5-to-1 against his plan. Much of that opposition came from public workers directly affected by the proposal, many of whom responded to an email sent by Walker that offered a rationale for his proposal.
The gap closed over the next five days, as protesters arrived in large numbers at the Capitol and the Republican-controlled Legislature set a course to pass the bill in less than a week.
By the end of Feb. 16 – the eve of a planned vote in the state Senate and a day in which Madison schools were forced to close due to high number of teacher and staff absences, presumably to protest at the Capitol – Walker had received more than 12,000 emails in all, and they ran roughly 2-to-1 against the bill.
Things changed dramatically the next day as the tide of emails shifted in Walker's favor. By the time his press conference began, the gap had closed significantly as emails of support arrived by the hundreds every hour.
At 5 p.m., 15 minutes after he took the podium, the governor's office had received nearly 5,900 emails of support that day to roughly 1,400 against. Still, at that point, the overall tally was split roughly down the middle.
Walker's spokesman, Cullen Werwie, told the AP last week the governor's comments were based on information that he provided.
Werwie said he counted all the emails received up to that point and then took a "brief sampling of the ones we received to get a rough idea about the proportion of those in support or opposition."
Werwie said he alerted the governor when there was a dramatic shift in support, which led Walker to talk about the emails for the first time at the news conference.
Walker said he called several of the people who sent emails, both in support and against, but the thousands of messages that came in didn't influence his actions.
"We've never based support for the bill on how many emails we got," Walker said.
As Walker spoke at the news conference, a massive spike of emails in favor of his proposal poured into the governor's inbox. At the end of the day, he had received more than 9,400 emails cheering him on – three times the number of messages of opposition. The final overall tally through the end of the day: 54 percent in support, 43 percent against.
The AP's analysis was based on an individual review of each email, which was categorized as either pro, con, ambiguous or unrelated. Some authors noted clearly they were from out of state, while others said they were teachers and other Wisconsin public employees who would be directly affected by Walker's plans.
"Thanks for the 10% pay cut," wrote a Department of Corrections employee. "I can't believe that I voted for you. Get bent."
Many emails encouraged Walker to fire the teachers who called in sick to attend protests at the Capitol, specifically citing President Ronald Reagan's action against the nation's air traffic controllers during a labor dispute in 1981. Walker later compared the stand he was taking to Reagan's during a prank phone call he thought was from billionaire GOP donor David Koch.
"That was the first crack in the Berlin Wall and led to the fall of the Soviets," Walker said on the call taped by a New York-based blogger.
The emails did not represent a scientific measure of public opinion. Some on both sides were profane. Others were deeply personal.
Jean Eichman, a special education teacher in Walworth County, said in her note to Walker that his father, a minister, had performed her wedding ceremony in 1978 and Walker himself had once babysat for one of her children more than 20 years ago.
"It's hard to criticize people you know," Eichman said, but the importance of the issue compelled her to email Walker.
An email typical of the supporters came from Gail Whittier, an accountant in Racine who said she and her husband have struggled during the recession. She wrote to Walker that public employees should make sacrifices as well, and said in an interview that he needed to know – as the protesters got so much attention – there were people who supported him.
"I just wish that people would kind of sit back and look at the facts," Whittier said in an interview. "I wish people wouldn't just run on emotion."
In the weeks that followed, the protests grew at times to include more than 75,000 people. Democrats in the state Assembly launched a 61-hour filibuster before the bill passed in the middle of the night. And Senate Republicans eventually used a parliamentary maneuver to force a vote without the missing Democrats present.
The law requires all public workers, except most police and firefighters, to pay more for their benefits, equating to an 8 percent pay cut on average. It also limits most public workers' collective union bargaining rights to wages only, and caps potential wage increases to the rate of inflation. That means they can no longer negotiate issues such as work conditions or vacation time.
Walker has signed the law, but Democrats have challenged it in court, arguing that Republicans violated the state's open-meetings law in their efforts to push the legislation through.
Associated Press writers Troy Thibodeaux and Shawn Chen contributed to this report.