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.
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