The Year of the Phoenix: A Look Back at 2011

The following is a guest post from Maine Rep. Diane Russell (D-Portland). Rep. Russell was named the Most Valuable State Representative of 2011 by The Nation magazine.

Despite millions of dollars in corporate money spent, a system unwilling to afford people their First Amendment rights, a Congress unwilling to do right by the people that elected them, and an economy unable to create jobs fast enough, 2011 was the year when the Phoenix dared rise up from the ashes.

In November 2010, a GOP wave — aided by record levels of corporate money — swept the country, switching several states entirely from blue to red. Almost as soon as the Republican governors took their oaths of office alongside their newly minted Republican Legislatures, they began unveiling an agenda that ran in sharp contrast to the values of working families. After preaching about “creating jobs” in 2010, the GOP launched bills that did anything but.

Within weeks, the GOP had lived up to its namesake — indeed there was a “Grand Old Party” going on as politicians began paying back their campaign donors with party favors decorated with corporate tax breaks, gutted pensions, rollbacks of workers’ rights and a sweeping resurgence of voter suppression initiatives.

It started in Wisconsin when Gov. Walker insisted that the collective bargaining rights of teachers and other public workers must be stripped to balance the budget – even though the unions had already met every single budget demand. Within days, tens of thousands of people had flocked to the streets of Madison in protest, taking over the capitol building for several weeks. I drove with friends from Portland to Madison to see the protests for myself, and to find out what was happening on the ground.

I knew whatever policies were pressing forward by Governor Walker would soon be pushed by my own Governor Paul LePage. Within weeks of my trip to Wisconsin, LePage began to prove me right.

In addition to pushing “Right To Work” (for less) legislation, corporate give-aways and a bill to put BPA back into baby bottles and sippy cups, Gov. LePage decided to take down the Labor Mural from the walls of the state Department of Labor. He would also champion rollbacks to child labor laws, tell the NAACP to “kiss my butt,” and tell the press that the only problem with BPA was that some women would get “little beards.”

The law straw for the people of Maine was when the Republican legislators passed a bill on near party-lines to repeal our state’s 38-year tradition of Election Day Voter Registration. Within 23 days of the Governor signing the bill into law, people from across the state had collected enough signatures to force a “People’s Veto.” The day before my birthday, we turned in well over the required number of required signatures to the Secretary of State.

A highly contentious battle ensued with the Maine GOP Chair, Charlie Webster, joining forces with the Maine Secretary of State, Charlie Summers, to lead a McCarthy-style full court press against voter fraud and motor vehicle fraud. Thousands of taxpayer dollars were poured into an effort to expose a near non-existent problem.

From attacks on college students to accusations of busses full of illegal immigrants voting, Charlie-Squared held news conferences, released ALL CAPS news releases (rampant with misspellings) and traveled the state pointing fingers at everyone they could think of who might just vote against a Republican. The state GOP headquarters hoisted a sign that read “Working People Vote Republican.” I spent much of the campaign wondering if someone might add a sign below it reading “…or else.”

The ALEC-linked Michigan-based group American Justice Partnership funded 75 percent of the campaign to repeal Election Day Registration. Most of the Michigan money went toward a TV ad warning Mainers about “out of state interests” attempting to influence Maine’s elections. We would not know this until 45 days after Election Day when those donors were required to file their disclosures.

Still, Maine people came to the polls in droves on Election Day to send a major rebuke – a single finger salute really – to the GOP’s voter suppression. An incredible 61 percent of the electorate voted to restore Election Day Registration.

Shortly after Election Day 2011, Wisconsinites had collected more than a half-million signatures to recall Gov. Walker. The recall campaign follows a summer campaign that recalled two Republican State Senators and brought Democrats within one vote of the majority. One of the new Democratic Senators is an alumnae of Emerge America, a group that trains Democratic women how to run for office.

And of course, one of the most lasting impressions of 2011 centers around #OccupyTogether. What began September 17th as a small protest on Wall Street, turned into an international collective of protests and smaller occupations. Encampments set up across the country as people found local ways to engage in the debate around the corporate ownership of our government. The “99 Percent” found its voice through the occupation, despite remarkable footage of police brutality, right-wing denouncements, a lack of early media coverage and finally forcible evictions.

During the summer, the media spoke ad nauseum about the debt ceiling thanks to the Tea Party’s near shutdown of Congress. There was very little discussion about corporate greed. By Election Day 2011, the media had nearly switched the dialogue entirely, thanks largely to the work of the #Occupy movement. By November 5th, more than 600,000 people had switched their checking accounts (some were arrested while doing so) from Wall Street banks to local credit unions. In contrast, about the same number had done so in all of 2010.

Out of the ashes of the 2010 corporate buyout of government, working people rose up from all corners of the country and around the world to fight back. The question for 2012 centers around just how far the Phoenix will fly now that it has risen.