Wautoma resident Ann Meyer Schmidt’s first act of democratic activism began in the middle of a snowstorm.
As thick flakes of snow fell around her, Schmidt and about 100 others gathered Feb. 20 outside the Waushara County Republican Party’s annual Lincoln Day dinner in the small town of Wautoma, several days after Gov. Scott Walker had shocked the state and brought national attention to Wisconsin by introducing his union-busting budget repair bill.
The outstate gathering was an early indicator that people weren’t just riled up in protest-prone Madison. Another sign: By early March, eight Republican senators from across the state were facing recall efforts for siding with Walker, including Schmidt’s senator, Luther Olsen of Ripon.
“Those signatures didn’t come from Madison,” says Schmidt of the 22,207 signatures collected from Senate District 14 to trigger a recall against Olsen. “There are plenty of people outraged out here in the boondocks. The people who want him out are paying attention.”
Schmidt and the other members of the “vocal minority,” as Walker often referred to the protesters, are proving a determined bunch. More than 136,000 signatures, roughly 39,000 more than necessary, were collected to trigger elections against six of the eight Republican senators they targeted for recalls.
This is a better success rate than the Republican-led efforts, in which only three of the eight recall campaigns were able to collect enough signatures to prompt an election.
From Green Bay to Fond du Lac, Oshkosh and beyond, those involved in the movement to remove their legislators who sided with Walker say it is their constitutional right to take action, and while they may not be hoisting signs and walking around the Capitol, they are working to change the makeup of those who serve within it. The Wisconsin Democratic Party and a coalition of union groups known as We Are Wisconsin are infusing volunteers and money into the recall efforts but the capital city is not driving the ground game, say activists.
“We are not requiring a lot of help from Madison,” says Jan Banicki, chair of the Democratic Party of Marquette County, who is coordinating with activists in several nearby counties in the recall against Olsen. “We have plenty of retired union people in Marquette County and lots of union workers from the prisons in Columbia County that have gotten involved in the recalls, especially in the southern portion of Marquette County. It’s farm country, but the people there have really taken the reins on the movement. They are willing to do whatever is needed, whenever it needs to get done.”
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And what is needed more than anything, say critics of Walker and his agenda, is to wrest the Senate from Republican control.
With so many seats up for grabs, the balance of power in the chamber could shift if Democrats gain a net of three seats. If Republicans lose control of the Senate, it would not only end the party’s hold on all three branches of state government, but it would give Democrats more seats on the powerful Joint Finance Committee, including a seat as co-chair.
That would put the brakes on what have been a flurry of conservative policies that have, for the most part, sailed through the legislative process since Republicans took control of the state Assembly, Senate and governor’s office in the November elections.
Given the potential fallout, it’s not surprising that Walker and his fellow Republicans have taken to downplaying the recall efforts.
“The upcoming recall elections are an inconvenience and a distraction to most Wisconsin voters,” says Cullen Werwie, a Walker spokesman, in an email. “The governor’s goal is to move forward to get Wisconsin working again.”
But moving forward without the distraction of the recall elections will be difficult. In the six Senate districts held by Republicans, there will be Democratic primaries July 12; in the three districts held by Democrats, there will be two Republican primaries July 19 as well as a general election in District 30 where Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, is the target of a recall effort. The six incumbent Republicans will defend their seats Aug. 9, as will two incumbent Democrats on Aug. 16.
Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, had intended to run for Hansen’s seat but the non-partisan Wisconsin Government Accountability Board on Monday ruled that Nygren did not have enough valid signatures to be on the ballot. Nygren may challenge the board’s decision in Circuit Court.
Joseph Tevaarwerk, 65, a Fond du Lac resident and teacher, says the recall elections are exactly what are necessary to break up the Republicans’ concentration of power.
“What we have right now is outright dangerous,” Tevaarwerk says.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Tevaarwerk drove to Jessica King’s Oshkosh campaign office to meet King, the Democratic candidate running against Sen. Randy Hopper, R-Fond du Lac, in a recall election. A former Oshkosh City Council member, King lost to Hopper in the 2008 Senate race by just 163 votes.
Too much concentrated Republican power has caused Hopper to “drop the ball,” Tevaarwerk says. “He is no longer acting as his own man,” he says. “Voting out Hopper is a way to make the balance of power right again.”
And that’s precisely what the recall process was designed to do.
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The roots of the recall process date to post-Civil War politics. Around that time, political machines began to take shape, combining the corporate interests of the privately owned railroad companies, banks, lumber, utility and road companies under the umbrella of the Republican Party.
“The recall was all about destroying the political machines,” says Dennis Dresang, a professor emeritus of political science with the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It’s a right voters gave to themselves during the progressive movement.”
When Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette first was elected to Congress in 1885, he got the backing of the Republican Party by going to the machine bosses and pledging his loyalty, “just like everyone else did,” Dresang says.
But when he decided to run for governor, La Follette’s meeting with the party bosses didn’t go as smoothly.
After being handed a bag of money to give to his brother — an Appleton-area judge set to rule on a case involving a railroad company — La Follette gave the money back, Dresang says.
“That’s when he developed the strategy that he would become so popular that they would have to put his name on the ballot,” Dresang says. “For the first time, he had to meet with people, not the machine bosses, to get elected.” His strategy worked; his popularity became so great the bosses, who at the time controlled the nominee process, had no choice but to put his name on the ballot.
After seeing people across the state suffering from the effects of corporate monopolies, La Follette became a prominent force in the progressive movement that swept the Midwest, West and such Eastern states as New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts. The movement introduced the secret ballot, suffrage for women, the direct primary, the civil service system and the recall, says Barry Burden, a UW-Madison political science professor.
In 1926, a year after La Follette died, Wisconsin voters approved a constitutional amendment that gave state residents the ability to recall their elected officials in local and statewide office without having to provide a reason. It’s only been used four times since then.
“Obviously some targets of recall efforts feel it is unfair they can be targeted, and they want to change things,” says Kevin Kennedy, director and general counsel of the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board. “But this is a right of the voters. The recall is a tool they gave to themselves through the constitutional process.”
The ability of Republicans to run six “fake” Democrats against the Democrats challenging the incumbent Republican senators dates back to the progressive movement as well. The political maneuver, which forces a primary, gives the incumbent Republicans more time to campaign and vote on issues, such as redistricting, before they potentially are voted out of office.
“People can’t believe that isn’t illegal,” says Kennedy. “But in Wisconsin, we don’t require voters to register to vote by registering with a party. So we don’t have a mechanism for tying a candidate’s political affiliation to the ballot. The political parties really don’t control who runs on their ballot. And that goes back to La Follette and our open-primary process.”
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Jessica King steps up on a box to give herself extra height as she prepares to fire up dozens of volunteers before they hit the streets of Oshkosh to campaign on her behalf. It’s a Saturday afternoon, five weeks before the recall primary.
“Over the last four months, we’ve seen extreme agendas put forth by lobbyists and approved,” King, 35, tells the volunteers. “If there is one line to remember while knocking on doors today, it should be this … ‘Wisconsin is open for business. But Wisconsin values are not for sale.’ ”
After King lost to Hopper in 2008, she was elected to the Oshkosh City Council. She says since her first round with Hopper, she has built up name recognition, while Hopper has built up a voting record.
It’s a record that doesn’t impress Oshkosh resident Rich Norenberg. A union member who teaches inmates at the Wisconsin Resource Center in Winnebago, Norenberg first lost faith in Hopper the week after Walker introduced the budget repair bill Feb. 11. Norenberg traveled to Madison and says he waited for hours outside Hopper’s office before being denied a chance to see his senator. Instead, he was asked to write a letter.
“It was abundantly clear to me these people (Republicans) did not want to listen,” he says.
When he got home, Norenberg created a Facebook page to recall Hopper. By the beginning of March he had collected more than half of the 16,000 signatures needed to recall the senator.
“I could immediately tell this movement was very, very real,” Norenberg says. “There were just thousands and thousands of people who had the same energy, the same idea at the same time.”
Joanne Staudacher is among the thousands who signed Norenberg’s petition to recall Hopper. Since then, Staudacher, a 34-year-old freelance creative writer and Oshkosh resident, has knocked on doors on King’s behalf a handful of times.
“I’d never canvassed before her campaign,” says Staudacher on a recent volunteer stint for King.
“I could never recite sections of the state constitution on recall elections, either. But I can now. Wisconsin is important to me. It’s part of who I am. That’s why I’m out here.”
And it’s why residents from Madison — who do not have recall elections in their home districts — are also involved in recall efforts around the state.
“When I first came on board, it was like trying to tame a tidal wave,” says 23-year-old Nick Niles, the Wisconsin Democratic Party’s outreach coordinator who oversees the party’s Madison office at 609 East Washington St. “Most people who walk through the door are just looking for ways to get involved.”
Since April 15, volunteers have worked some 2,700 shifts at the Madison office. Just last week, volunteers made more than 23,000 calls on behalf of Democratic candidates.
Zach Schuster, 28, one of these volunteers, was an intern in Sen. Mark Miller’s office when the 14 Democratic senators hatched a plan to go to Illinois to deny their Republican colleagues a quorum to vote on Walker’s collective bargaining bill.
“The day Mark left was a turning point for me,” says Schuster, a UW-Madison graduate with a master’s degree in water resource management. “That was the day politics went from being an abstract thing that I followed … to something personal.”
Wisconsin has a great history of bipartisanship with respect to the environment, he adds, but “that has now been shattered.”
And while none of the six Republican senators facing recall elections are from Madison, and do not represent him, Schuster says their votes affect him just the same.
“Alberta Darling runs the finance committee. Luther Olsen is on an education committee,” says Schuster of two of the Republican senators facing recalls. “How these senators vote impacts all of us. These elections don’t just affect individual districts. They impact Wisconsin.”
These are the reasons Madison residents continue to volunteer and carpool on the weekends to work on recall efforts across the state. Niles says he hasn’t had a day off since Memorial Day, and is working 80 to 100 hours a week.
“Our goal is to take back the Senate,” Niles says. “What we are a part of is statewide solidarity.”
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With most elections, the key to victory lies in voter turnout. And this summer’s recall elections will be no different, says Charles Franklin, a UW-Madison political science professor.
Since district-specific polling data is not available for each of the recall races, Franklin says the best indicators for how recall elections could go can be found in the results of April’s state Supreme Court race as well as a Public Policy Polling survey released earlier this month.
The survey of 1,636 Wisconsin residents from May 19-23 shows there has been little change in how voters feel about Walker since the protests started in February.
That means he continues to have strong standing with the Republican base. The May survey found Walker’s approval rating with Republicans was 87 percent, while his popularity among Democrats remains very low, at 9 percent.
Wind farm developer and Green Bay resident Dave VanderLeest, who organized the effort to recall Hansen and is now running against him, cites the PPP survey as proof the Republican agenda has the support of most Wisconsin voters.
“A lot of the strategy on the other side is protesting Republican events,” VanderLeest says. “As the poll suggests, they can’t win on the issues.” He took action to recall Hansen after the senator left for Illinois with the other Senate Democrats. “He wasn’t doing his job,” VanderLeest says.
Additionally, of those surveyed, only 3 percent had no opinion on the governor, meaning there are very few voters available to be swayed to one side or the other heading into the recalls.
“The numbers suggest to me the state really became polarized in February. People had their minds made up then, and that hasn’t changed,” Franklin says. “Victories in the recall elections will come down to who can do a better job mobilizing (voters), and as we saw with the Supreme Court race, both sides can get out the vote.”
The April Supreme Court race, in which incumbent Justice David Prosser narrowly defeated JoAnne Kloppenburg, an assistant attorney general with little name recognition outside of Dane County, was portrayed by many Kloppenburg supporters as a referendum on Walker’s policies. Candidates in the past several Supreme Court races have generated about 400,000 votes each, Franklin says. Prosser and Kloppenburg each surpassed that total by 350,000 votes. After a statewide recount, Prosser was declared the victor by 7,004 votes.
Katie McCallum, a spokeswoman with the Wisconsin Republican Party, says the recall elections, like the Supreme Court race, will measure whether voters want to move backward or continue moving forward.
“Back in November we had a lot of success because voters were sick of the status quo,” McCallum says. And she says Republicans have delivered. “We’ve taken the $3.6 billion structural deficit Jim Doyle and the Democrats left us with, and drastically cut the state’s debt.”
Not surprisingly, many campaigning for the Democrats say the cuts made by Republicans are too drastic, putting the environment, middle-class families, education and programs for the poor and elderly at risk.
Pat Schmidt, a teacher with the Wautoma Area School District for 35 years, is a registered Republican. She is a member of the Republican Educators Caucus that meets annually in Washington, D.C., and has voted for Sen. Olsen many times over the years. But now she is helping We Are Wisconsin by knocking on doors for Rep. Fred Clark, D-Baraboo, who is running against Olsen.
She says she is disappointed that Olsen would vote in favor of a budget that cuts roughly $3 million from her school district.
“As Republicans, we are losing sight of the children,” says Schmidt, who remains supportive of Clark even though he was caught on tape saying he wanted to “smack around” a female constituent who hung up on him. “It’s time for a fresh face.”
Schmidt (no relation to Ann Schmidt) was among the crowd of protesters in Wautoma who showed up in the snow back in February. Ann Schmidt says she realized when she looked over and saw her Republican friend how serious the situation had become across the state.
“I think Abraham Lincoln would be rolling in his grave to learn what has become of his populist Republican Party,” Ann Schmidt says. “This movement started in the depth of winter, and it will not end until we have a bright sunny day of democracy reborn in Wisconsin.”