By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 18, 2006
WATERTOWN, Wis. -- In an exercise that one side calls democracy and the other considers a disservice, voters in 30 Wisconsin towns will cast ballots next month on whether the Bush administration should withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.
From Baraboo and Monona to Madison and La Crosse, antiwar activists invoked a 1911 state law to schedule a bring-the-troops-home referendum designed to send a message to Congress and the White House that the war is costing too many lives and too much money.
Watertown, a conservative city of 23,000 on the Rock River, voted strongly for President Bush in the past two elections, yet war opponents had no trouble gathering nearly 1,000 signatures to put the referendum on the April 4 ballot. The City Council objected, but it was overruled by a local court.
Letters from readers flew into the popular "Voice of the People" section of the Watertown Daily Times. Posters began popping up. Veterans groups, including the American Legion, have been discussing how to turn a referendum they oppose into a victory for U.S. forces.
Meaning and motivation are discussed as heatedly as the referendum itself.
"We got accused of splitting the community," said Penny Eiler, 59, an organizer of the ballot question. "We weren't the ones who split the community. It was split already. All we did was give the people who didn't have a voice a voice."
Nationally, three years after the U.S. invasion, 76 cities have passed resolutions calling for troops to come home, most recently Corvallis, Ore., and Lansdowne, Pa. Among them are Chicago; Berkeley, Calif.; Chapel Hill, N.C.; and Gary, Ind., as well as dozens of towns in Vermont.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll earlier this month found that 57 percent of Americans believe the Iraq war has not been worth fighting, with 52 percent saying U.S. troop levels should be decreased. Among that group, one-third said withdrawal should be immediate.
Peace groups have waged counter-recruitment drives at high schools and colleges across the country, pressing to provide information tables or teach-ins about alternatives to military service. Antiwar organizations have scheduled hundreds of protests and other events to mark the war's third anniversary this weekend, yet the national effort to end the war has proved fitful.
"Attitudes are a little more complicated than thumbs up or thumbs down," said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. "Americans do care about Iraq, but it doesn't have the personal impact that the war in Vietnam had. Secondly, this is a more patriotic time. Even though the public is disillusioned with the war in Iraq, it tends to support the concept of preemptive war at a time when most people feel we're at risk."
Objections to the war in Wisconsin, which has long had twin streaks of activism and iconoclasm, have been growing steadily, to the dismay of Watertown residents such as Steve Gillis, who wears a green T-shirt that says "Army tradition."
The father of a soldier who served recently in Iraq, Gillis spent more than 20 years in the Wisconsin Army National Guard, and he does not like what the referendum is doing to his town or the troops he admires.
"They say they're supporting the troops, but they're not," said Gillis, 53, a city worker who believes that the troops and the mission are inseparable.
Gillis sees in the Wisconsin initiative an echo of the 1960s protests against the Vietnam War in nearby Madison that helped sour a nation on the war and how it was fought. He said: "We gave up before our mission was accomplished, and we turned around and came home. I don't want to see that happen again."
The passion in some quarters in Watertown is as clear as the writing on the window of lawyer Ronald W. Ziwisky's downtown office and the words sent from Iraq by Army Capt. Jim Leslie, who left his City Council post late last year to serve as a chaplain in the 4th Infantry Division.
"Sent to their death by Osama: 2,189," Ziwisky's window read on a recent day, referring to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"Sent to their death by George: 2,296," referring to the number of American casualties since the Iraq war began.
As the council debated the referendum, Leslie wrote from Forward Operating Base Duke to urge them not to permit the April vote. He said "disagreement is an all-American pastime" but also said passing the measure would comfort the enemy and frustrate U.S. soldiers.
"We had five soldiers killed recently here from an IED," Leslie said, referring to an improvised explosive device. "Soldiers hate war. I saw with my own eyes what war does to soldiers, and I hope never to see it again. Please send us an encouraging referendum or don't send one at all."
The Watertown referendum, like most others in the state, began with the Wisconsin Green Party, which made a pitch to Eiler and her group in October. Drawing on a law from the Progressive Era that sanctioned "direct legislation" in municipalities as a curb on power, activists soon started gathering signatures -- a number equal to 15 percent of the people who voted for governor in the last election.
When the city clerk checked their work, 986 of the 1,000 signatures proved valid, six more than they needed.
The City Council objected, however, voting 5 to 4 that the issue was a federal matter unsuitable for local action. Eiler and fellow members of the Watertown Peace and Democracy Coalition filed suit.
A judge ruled in their favor and ordered the council to approve a resolution on its own or set a referendum. The council approved a citywide vote. But members also voted 8 to 0 to declare their opposition to the referendum.
"Be it resolved," the ballot issue reads, in language that differs slightly among the Wisconsin towns, "the city of Watertown urges the United States to begin an immediate withdrawal of its troops from Iraq, starting with National Guard and Reserves."
Mayor John David said the politics became personal, but he said he mostly hears comments that amount to spoofs, such as the person who collared him at a high school basketball game and said Watertown ought to vote on renaming Minnesota's official state bird, for all the influence the town has over national security policy.
"If it was something that no matter how it turned out, it might do some good, it might be worth discussing," said David, whose office in a Republican town is nonpartisan. "But we're having the discussion, and I'm not sure it's going to do any good. That's the sad part of it."
A number of anti-referendum organizations have established steering committees and Web sites in an effort to defeat the April 4 measures. One site urges "Vote No to Cut and Run" and admonishes readers to "let our troops git 'er done."
Chris Muller, chairman of the La Crosse Republican Party, runs Choosevictory.org, which aims to defeat the antiwar activists at their own game. Like their counterparts to the east, La Crosse council members permitted the referendum but voted 13 to 3 to oppose an immediate troop withdrawal.
"A defeatist attitude is not going to get us anywhere in the world, and it's certainly not going to help our children in the future," Muller said, adding that a yes vote would harm troop morale. "Constantly seeing the negative stuff and not seeing the good that they're doing over there, and having people essentially second-guessing them and their leadership has got to have an effect on them."
That is not how the referendum's supporters see the exercise.
"People always have to lead politicians. Politicians are waiting to see which way the wind is blowing," said Bill Reichertz, who gathered signatures for the petition in Watertown. "The fight is worth it no matter whether we win or lose, because democracy lets people have a vote."