Opponents urge Walker to veto mascots bill
MADISON — Pressure is mounting on Gov. Scott Walker to break with his party and kill a Republican bill that would make it harder to strip schools of American Indian mascots, but the governor still isn't saying what he might do with the contentious measure.
The Assembly passed the measure in October and the Senate followed suit earlier this month. Walker can sign it into law or veto it at any time. If he doesn't take any action by Dec. 12, however, he faces a six-day window to make a move under the Wisconsin Constitution. If he does nothing by the end of that span the measure would become law automatically.
The bill has become one of the most charged issues the Legislature has undertaken in recent months. Republicans contend the current process for removing race-based nicknames, mascots and logos is too slanted against schools and the bill creates a fairer process. Democrats, though, have branded the proposal racist.
The governor, who faces re-election next year and is mulling a 2016 presidential run, has said he's not interested in bills that don't focus on improving the economy. But he hasn't said publicly what he'll do with the mascot bill. His spokeswoman says he's "evaluating" the measure.
Mordecai Lee, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee political science professor and former Democratic Assembly representative, said he expects Walker to sign it and to do so quietly.
"He rarely has indicated he's deviating from Republican doctrine on social issues or other issues," Lee said. "The bottom line is, politics is about appearances. He doesn't want to appear antagonistic to native Americans. On the other hand, even without a big hoopla, by signing it into law he pleases the base."
Under current state law, a single complaint about a school nickname means the state Department of Public Instruction must decide whether to order a school to drop it. DPI has ordered three districts to do so since the law went into effect in 2010.
One of those districts, Mukwonago, has refused to drop its "Indians" nickname, citing decades of tradition and the costs of changing uniforms and equipment. The new bill is tailored to help that district preserve its moniker by invalidating any existing DPI nickname orders. The bill would require a petition to trigger a state review, which would be handled through the state Department of Administration — which the governor controls — rather than DPI.
The policy task force for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, which administers Wisconsin's Chippewa tribes' off-reservation rights, adopted a motion on Nov. 7 urging Walker to veto the bill.
Commission executive director Jim Zorn wrote to Walker that the bill could foster racist attitudes toward Indians that were prevalent in the 1980s, when white anglers protested Chippewa walleye spear-fishing rights at boat landings.
"Whether intended or not, the new bill easily could be viewed as tacit social license for reinvigorating the types of misinformed attitudes, stereotyping and hateful behavior that we saw at boat landings and in our schools back in the 1980s," Zorn wrote. "Tribes and tribal communities alone are entitled to claim and control their symbols, their titles and their culture."
Senate Democrats followed up with their own letter to Walker on Wednesday, warning the governor that allowing race-based nicknames teaches students to tolerate racial stereotyping.
"It is very difficult for our children to learn authentic information about Wisconsin's tribes and native people when schools have one-dimensional stereotypes of Indian people hanging on their walls and embedded in their gymnasium floors," the letter said.
Joe Heim, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, which changed its nickname from "Indians" to "Eagles" in 1989, said Walker has little to lose by signing the bill into law. He may anger American Indians, but they're not a force at the polls, Heim said.
"It wouldn't burnish his conservative image by vetoing it," Heim said. "Older voters who don't like change would probably applaud this thing."