The Capitol Tree

By Callen Harty

Standing in the rotunda of the Wisconsin State Capitol and looking up at a 36 foot tall tree one is struck by the irony and terrible symbolism of almost everything about that tree. It summarizes a great deal of what is wrong with Wisconsin at this moment and why so many people are willing to sign petitions to recall the Governor and Lieutenant Governor from office.

The first thing is its name. In releasing information about the tree Governor Scott Walker referred to it as a Christmas tree rather than a holiday tree for the first time in 26 years. When asked about it his press secretary said it was an intentional word choice. While many would argue that it’s not a big deal whether it’s called a holiday tree or Christmas tree the reality is that words do matter. In making it an intentional choice to call it a Christmas tree Walker clearly signalled that he does not care about separaton of church and state. He is putting Christ back in Christmas, which is great for Christians, but not so appropriate for governments and government officials. While putting Christian beliefs into the naming of an object which is clearly a religous icon anyway may not matter that much in the grand scheme of things it does matter when a governor and legislators impose their religious viewpoints on their lawmaking. The signal sent by Walker about the tree’s name should scare those who might be gay or who believe in reproductive rights, among others. It says that Walker’s conservative Christianity will be placed above all else when it comes to issues of public policy despite Constitutional protections of the separation of church and state.

How many Wisconsinites know that all of the lights on the tree were put up by prison labor? This, too, reflects on the reality of Walker’s Wisconsin. The state brought in no-cost labor in the form of prisoners to do the work rather than pay state employees whose job it is to take care of the Capitol. Our state and nation continue to incarcerate citizens at a rate well higher than most of the civilized world, and most of those are persons of color. Many states, including Wisconsin, are using prison labor more and more for cheap hard labor. According to “Walker’s bill strips unions of the right to claim certain work as a ‘union only’ job. As a result inmates have been able to step in and fill what used to be good-wage jobs not for pay.” The prisoners do the work in exchange for some time off of their sentences, but do not get paid; thus it costs the state nothing to use the labor. In addition to prison labor, Republicans like Newt Gingrich nationally and Robin Vos and Alberta Darling in Wisconsin are pushing to undo child labor laws. Bust the unions, use prisoners and children, and then let everyone else take whatever jobs they can get at lower wages than we’ve seen in years. Walker and his cohorts are okay with that, as are their corporate benefactors. There are no unions for prison or child laborers. They basically have no rights. The lights on the tree in the rotunda are symbolic reminders of that.

The decorations are filled with irony. The tree’s theme is “Honoring 163 years of Wisconsin’s Veterans” and all of the ornaments were hand-made by Wisconsin schoolchildren. When it was introduced Walker’s budget was slammed by the head of the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs because of what it would do to the Veterans’ Trust Fund. noted back in March that Scott Walker was “looking to cut state funds for homeless veterans by 53 percent and overall benefits by over $30 million.” In addition, cuts to Medicaid, besides being damaging to children and families, also hurt veterans who depend on Medicaid to cover medical costs not covered by their Veterans’ benefits. A November 11 AP article by Scott Bauer noted that the Republican-controlled budget committee approved $225 million in Medicaid cuts just last month. Yet, the Governor and the tree purport to honor our state’s veterans. The symbolic ornaments honoring them seem as empty as the pockets of Wisconsin’s homeless veterans.

The decorations honoring our veterans were all hand-made by school children. The likelihood is that a lot of the decorations on the tree were made because teachers paid for the supplies to make them out of their own pockets, something they have always done and something they will have to do more of after Scott Walker’s budget was passed. According to CBS back in March Walker proposed to cut aid to schools by 1.5 billion dollars. At the same time the new law does not allow for local districts to raise taxes to make up the deficits caused by the loss of state aid. Instead, all they could do was cut. There have been thousands of jobs lost, leaving larger class sizes, less supplies, and an overall deterioration in the quality of a school system that was one of the finest in the country. Each of the hundreds upon hundreds of decorations on the tree represent thousand upon thousands of dollars taken away from schools and given to corporate friends of the Governor. Perhaps all of the deocrations should have been teardrops to represent the sad plight of both veterans and school children in the state.

The greatest irony of all is under the tree, where a train endlessly circles the giant balsam fir. Given that Scott Walker, before he was even elected, demanded that the state turn down federal money that would have paid for a high-speed rail between Milwaukee and Madison, the idea of a train under the tree pretty much defines the idea of hypocrisy. That money went to other states that wanted it more. Refusing that funding in 2011 was akin to governors in the 1950s refusing Interstate highway funding. It was a refusal to accept the future. Yet, a train was placed under the state tree. Around and around it goes, reminding all visitors that we could have moved into the transportation future of this country but instead chose to put our money into highway funding, a business where Walker has many friends set to make tons of money on getting highway work from the state.

To top it off, the engine pulling the train is a beautiful red and grey Wisconsin & Southern Railroad engine. This is the company headed by Bill Gardner, a man who was convicted earlier this year of money laundering and exceeding campaign donation limits to–take a guess–Scott Walker’s campaign. His conviction was part of a continuing John Doe investigation surrounding employees and associates of Walker. But this is the engine pulling our state right now–it represents the corporate and insider interests that get Walker’s attention, while the people of the state stand behind a roped-off area where they can only watch from a distance.

This year’s holiday tree is perhaps the most symbolic in the history of trees in the Capitol rotunda. Here’s hoping that everything it represents will come down, like the tree, in the hopeful time of a new year.

Tree in the Capitol rotunda.

Train under the Wisconsin holiday tree in the Capitol.
Decoration on the state holiday tree.

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