My older son did magic shows as a kid. He learned early on that the key to fooling the audience was a steady stream of patter and something to draw their attention so that they wouldn't notice the trick unfolding before their eyes.
I was reminded of his sleight-of-hand routine when a small group of Tea Party supporters approached me in Madison on Saturday, the sixth day of protests at the Capitol. They pointed to my sign: "Stop the Attack on Wisconsin Families."
"Are you one of those freeloaders?" one guy asked. The others started chanting: "Freeloader, Freeloader." They were filled with rage.
I hastened to assure them that I'd never been an executive at Goldman Sachs or Lehman Brothers or any of those Wall Street firms that crashed the economy and then took TARP money to pay big bonuses. "I never lobbied the government to get rid of regulations on financial institutions," I said.
Turns out that wasn't what they were angry about. They were up in arms (not, I was glad to see, literally) about public employees.
Gov. Scott Walker hopes Wisconsin voters will forget about the people who caused the economic crisis -- the big banks and a host of other reckless CEOs. Instead, the governor would have us believe that nurses, home health aides and teachers are the villains.
As a Wisconsin taxpayer, I'm not buying it.
The governor and his wealthy corporate backers say public employees are the "haves" and demand they share the burdens inflicted upon other Wisconsin workers, naming those at Harley-Davidson and Mercury Marine.
The Institute for Wisconsin's Future has reported that Mercury Marine of Fond du Lac had profits of $1.1 billion from 2000-2007. During that time, it paid nothing in corporate income taxes to our state. The New York Times highlighted Harley last summer as one of the companies finding "surging profits in deeper cuts." As the article pointed out, the benefits of those profits "are mostly going to shareholders instead of the broader economy."
Workers at Harley and Mercury Marine -- who were told how lucky they were to have a job at all -- had to accept huge cuts not because their employers were in danger of going under but because those highly paid execs wanted to keep more money for themselves.
It seems clear the CEOs on Wall Street and at Wisconsin corporations who are sitting on record profits while cutting jobs here, shipping jobs overseas and paying out record bonuses to their executives are the ones who should be the target of the budget-repair bill.
Not the woman who teaches severely disabled teens. Not the school librarian whose job was eliminated in the most recent Milwaukee Public Schools cutbacks. Not the technicians who test the blood of every newborn in the state and already are struggling after several rounds of wage freezes and furlough days.
Teachers, nurses and home health care providers aren't close to being the "haves." They're hardworking people who have organized and bargained to make sure they have a voice in their working conditions. They've struggled to ensure that employment is a way out of poverty, not another form of poverty.
For illusionists like Walker, here's the trick: State politicians give tax incentives and other breaks to large corporations that gouge their workers. The politicians then use the sacrifice of those workers as a sledgehammer to blame budget shortfalls on public employees who are in unions. Workers and the unions take the fall, making big corporations and their politicians even more powerful.
The losers? The middle class. Small businesses whose customers have less to spend. The unemployed whose need for a job is being trumped by politics. Wisconsin families who will be the ones to feel the real-world impacts of rollbacks in family leave, health care and education.
But the governor and his supporters have underestimated the Wisconsin people. Matching misery is a trick we cannot afford and will not tolerate.
Ellen Bravo is executive director of Family Values @ Work Consortium, a network of 15 state coalitions working for policies that value families.