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Can Mediation Bridge Wisconsin's Divisions?

Experts explain how the state can heal and move on

Jun. 13, 2012
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Now that Gov. Scott Walker has survived a recall attempt, will the people and elected officials of Wisconsin start to work with one another?

Three professional mediators say it's possible.

Veteran mediator Howard Bellman said Wisconsin has a long tradition of using negotiated agreements to resolve public policy disputes.

"It has a track record of some considerable success for us," Bellman said at Friday's forum at Marquette University on restoring faith in government, a daylong conference organized by former state Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske.

The Wisconsin Style

Bellman said mediation has helped to resolve major policy conflicts in the state, including desegregating school districts, handling land-use questions and defusing racially charged violence on boat landing sites when Lac du Flambeau tribe members asserted their spearfishing rights in the 1980s and 1990s.

Bellman said the roots of mediation as a way to resolve the state's policy disputes go back to the beginning of the 20th century, when UW-Madison economist John R. Commons developed a process for creating workplace and worker safety regulations by involving regulators, industry and workers.

"Historically, mediation has been an element in the often-invoked Wisconsin style of policy-making, the across-the-aisle reaching that we refer to so much now," Bellman said. "It's manifested for decades in our unemployment compensation and worker's compensation councils, where labor and management confer and negotiate the policy as they develop those two very important programs."

Bellman was involved in the mediation process when former Gov. Tony Earl needed to deal with the unemployment insurance fund's insolvency and when former Gov. Tommy Thompson needed to resolve the Milwaukee sewer wars and the Lac du Flambeau spearfishing conflict.

Bellman said that three recent political conflicts could have been helped by mediation: the exodus of 14 Democratic senators to prevent a vote on Walker's collective bargaining changes; the closing of the state Capitol to protesters; and Supreme Court Justice David Prosser's attack on fellow Justice Ann Walsh Bradley in her office.

He said that redistricting and voter credentialing were also prime subjects for mediation.

How It Works

Bellman said mediation techniques are fairly familiar by now: The mediator meets with the parties together and separately, discusses their needs and goals and fears, and attempts to negotiate a settlement that is supported by all parties.

He said that oftentimes the rhetoric and the surface dispute don't reveal the real conflict that has caused an impasse. For example, he said, a conflict over the siting of a new landfill isn't just about environmental regulations and land use. It's really about the kind of neighborhood or community residents want to live in. Mediation can help all of the relevant parties come together over the best outcome.

Another lesson, Bellman said, was to create a framework for moving forward that all parties can live with.

"The result of the negotiations is not simply determining who is right or wrong on the points being litigated, but what will be done in the future with regard to the matter at hand," Bellman said.

California-based mediator Susan Carpenter said that mediators need to frame a discrete, concrete issue in a way that all parties can support, instead of creating a yes/no issue that generates more polarization.

Perhaps most importantly, Carpenter said that creating a fair process is essential to creating a successful environment for mediation.

"So many times when you're upset about a case, it's not the substantive outcome as much as it's the way the process was conducted," Carpenter said. "I can't tell you how many times I've gotten a case where people are so angry and it's because, [they said], 'The government didn't give us enough time.' It's process. Or, 'Somebody did that without talking to us. They did it unilaterally without consulting us.' That can be the source of more conflict."

Panelist Susan Podziba said it's essential for those who are divided to meet face to face, even if it's very difficult.

"It's important to meet with people who disagree with you," Podziba said.

She recalled meeting with six women leaders on both sides of the abortion issue after two women's health clinic workers were fatally shot in Brookline, Mass., in 1995. The meetings were strictly confidential, held in a windowless basement, and were intended to reduce the violent rhetoric that was contributing to the violence.

Podziba said she had originally intended to convene four meetings over the course of one month. But the women created such a deep dialogue that they met for the next six years in secret.

The women didn't build a consensus on abortion policy. But they were able to understand the impact of the words they and their supporters used. They no longer saw their opponents as "the devil," Podziba said.

"They realized that the other side operated from a moral basis," Podziba said.

She said successful mediation of policy issues requires the political will to solve problems when the status quo isn't sustainable.

"So we need to ask, 'What will it take to create the political will to break through the polarization?'" Podziba said. "How much pain will we need to suffer before people are moved to act?"

She said that community leaders and members shouldn't shy away from conflict or tough issues, but that they need to deal with these conflicts with respect for those who don't share their views.

"Conflict is integral to representative democracy," Podziba said. "The democratic system suggests that, from a crush of interests, beneficial solutions will emerge to many of our public problems. But in today's public climate, when actual conflict has been replaced by personal attacks, we risk falling behind because of inaction. We can do better, and we have done better."


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