Last Oct. 3, four people who had met by chance seven months earlier sat down together over Mexican food to hash out when to launch the recall effort against Gov. Scott Walker.
These board members of United Wisconsin, the political action committee created with the sole purpose of recalling the governor, along with founder Michael Brown via conference call, spent two and a half hours weighing the pros and cons of a decision that would pit the fervent hopes of thousands of deeply alienated Wisconsin citizens against a governor with fundraising prowess and an unflappable commitment to his conservative agenda. They were filled with angst at the possibility of making the wrong call.
With their grass-roots and county organizers, they had been pushing for a January or February launch date. But, sensing a political opportunity fueled by the John Doe criminal investigation into top aides of Walker during his tenure as Milwaukee County executive, and learning Walker's chief of staff was resigning to start up a recall campaign for his boss, they picked Nov. 15 instead.
"That was the night I was the sickest to my stomach," says Ray Yunker, one of the United Wisconsin board members who made the fateful decision. "But the political climate had changed. We were thinking we had three or four months to get ready and suddenly we had about 40 days."
The next day they told leaders of the state Democratic Party and labor unions of their decision.
The gamble paid off.
Two months later, on Jan. 17, they helped deliver more than 1 million signatures to the state's elections office. It was nearly twice as many as the 540,208 needed to launch a recall election. An additional 840,000 signatures were turned in to recall Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.
The four took the stage later that night at a celebratory party at the Monona Terrace Convention Center. It was the first time thousands of volunteers across the state and many in the media had heard their names and seen their faces.
They were political nobodies.
But Kevin Straka, Lynn Freeman, Ryan Lawler and Ray Yunker, through sheer will, savvy leadership and a determined grass-roots volunteer network, have pulled off one of the boldest political acts in Wisconsin history. A few months from now, they may see the culmination of their efforts: removing Scott Walker from the governor's office.
They came together as strangers, with different professional backgrounds, and successfully channeled the fast-growing, unwieldy energy of thousands into a focused movement.
None of the four had voted for Walker, but two have voted Republican in the past. Board chair Straka is a UW Health project manager and adjunct professor at Madison College; vice chair Freeman is the owner of AdviseU, a career and college planning firm; vice chair Lawler is an insurance professional; and Yunker is a former real estate developer turned bus driver. None are union members; only one is a state employee.
Their ongoing anonymity and decision early on to maintain a separation from the state Democratic Party and labor groups provided an attractive alternative for many Walker critics, allowing the organic recall movement to flower.
"United Wisconsin is the people's movement. It's not institutionalized. And that's the beauty of it," Straka says. "You don't try to control it. You appreciate it, learn from it and let it prosper. It has a life of its own."
• • • •
A man and a website. That's how United Wisconsin got started a year ago this month.
Brown, a small business owner from Appleton, objected to Walker's attack on union rights and his cuts to public education and health care. Brown launched the United Wisconsin website within days of the governor unveiling the details of his budget repair bill last Feb. 11. The site allowed people to sign a pledge to recall Walker.
By the time the recall against Walker was formally launched Nov. 15, the database contained 250,000 pledges.
Getting those signatures wasn't easy.
On March 4, Brown created and registered the United Wisconsin Political Action Committee, allowing the group to raise money and advocate. But Brown was burning the candle at both ends. He needed volunteers and he needed someone to take the reins and build on the momentum.
"He was battered," Yunker says. "You could tell he had been working on this effort for weeks."
That help came March 15 at a meeting at Madison's Wil-Mar Community Center.
Brown had advertised the meeting a few days earlier, capping attendance at the first 90 who responded. Driven by different reasons and experiences, Freeman, Lawler, Straka and Yunker all RSVP'd to attend, as did more than 400 others. The foursome made the cut.
"It sounds funny now, but that's how crazy it was from the get-go," Yunker says. "Had I not responded so quickly, I might not have been involved at all."
Straka, who 15 days later would be voted United Wisconsin's chair, was driven to action because of Walker's cuts to K-12 education.
"It's a known fact the industrial scene in this state is dwindling," Straka says. "If we don't retain all the students and the brain power that we take the time to educate, they are going to leave the state."
Like the others, he attended the Capitol rallies and was moved by what he saw.
So was Freeman, who is critical of Walker's agenda and leadership style. But what she saw at the Capitol also led to mounting frustration. She didn't think the weeks of protests, by tens of thousands of people, were enough to deter Walker from his agenda.
"What we're doing isn't going to matter," Freeman says she felt at the time. "This is how the next four years are going to be."
So she attended her first-ever activist meeting, set up by Brown on Feb. 19, two days after 14 Democratic senators left town in an attempt to block the vote on Walker's budget repair bill.
The size of the protest at the Capitol that day broke a record. Freeman and a few dozen other volunteers handed out 5,000 business cards that directed people to United Wisconsin's website where they could sign the recall-Walker pledge. The card also said to "pass (it) forward."
The fiscal conservative of the group, Yunker has voted predominantly for Republicans. In the 2010 governor's race he voted for a third-party candidate.
A former developer, Yunker started a new career as a private bus driver when the real estate industry collapsed.
His real estate roots, though, had him closely following former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle's pursuit of $810 million in federal stimulus funds to extend high-speed rail service from Milwaukee to Madison.
At the time, Walker was running for election with a campaign promise to "Stop the Train." Two days after Walker won the election, Doyle suspended the train project, and Walker ultimately rejected the money.
"From that moment on, my radar was up," Yunker says. "I know infrastructure is important to a community, to real estate development and to creating jobs."
By February, he was working 60- to 70-hour weeks, bringing busload after busload of protesters to the Capitol. On Feb. 17, he drove a group of River Valley High School teachers from Spring Green to the Capitol protests. Left on his bus were some copies of Walker's budget repair bill, formally known as Act 10, which contained the sharp curbs on collective bargaining for most public workers.
With a few hours to kill, he grabbed a copy and took a seat on his bus. By the time the teachers were ready to go home, he was done reading.
"That was the moment I knew I had to do something about this," Yunker says.
When he got an email notification about the Wil-Mar meeting less than a month later, he responded immediately.
By chance, he sat next to Lawler.
A property and casualty risk senior specialist with a large, local insurance company, Lawler, 35, is the youngest of the group, who jokes that his hair is graying from the stress of the experience.
Because of his professional success as a non-union private employee, he says most people would probably view him as insulated from Walker's attack on collective bargaining rights.
"He certainly wasn't attacking me and my right to work," Lawler says.
But he says his parents raised him to know the difference between right and wrong. And what Walker was doing didn't feel right.
His mom is a retired special education assistant and his sister currently works as one. His cousin is a teacher, and his grandfather is the late Keith Lawler, a captain with the Madison Fire Department, known for delivering rolls to the stations for years after his retirement. Walker's attack on union rights compelled Lawler to take action.
His first move was protesting at the Capitol.
His next was attending the meeting at the Wil-Mar Center.
"I went there expecting to be asked to canvass or phone bank," Lawler says. "I showed up expecting to get marching orders."
Instead, Yunker recalls a look of shock on Lawler's face when he saw the surging but unbridled ambition of the crowd.
"It wasn't a look of abject horror. I'd say it was more like watching children running with scissors," Yunker says. "I knew from that moment he wasn't going to accept failure in this effort."
Turns out, none of them were.
• • • •
A few days after the March 15 Wil-Mar Center meeting, between 12 and 15 people went out for coffee and to strategize. Brown, Freeman, Lawler, Straka and Yunker were among the group.
From there, the organizational structure of United Wisconsin quickly began to take shape. Board members were picked March 29. Straka was named board chair three days later.
In the days ahead, using markers and strips of white paper, the board began to flesh out the organization behind United Wisconsin.
They needed volunteers with messaging, communications, public relations, fundraising, legal and financial experience.
To get any of that help they needed to be able to quickly communicate with the growing number of pledgers in their database. But software to mass email some 200,000 people is expensive. They needed money.
And despite heated rhetoric from Walker and Republicans that "union thugs" were driving the recall effort, big checks from labor and the Wisconsin Democratic Party weren't pouring in.
"We all only wished we had seen some of that big union money," jokes Lawler. "We were scraping by with virtually nothing for months. We've always been fully funded by individuals, not unions and big corporations."
Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, says plenty of his members volunteered to help collect recall signatures, and union halls were used as drop-off points.
He says referring to United Wisconsin as "union thugs" is a long-standing GOP tactic to deflect from the real issue, which is what Walker is doing to union rights in Wisconsin.
"The leaders (of United Wisconsin) are new faces," Neuenfeldt says. "To say otherwise is a disservice to all those involved."
By the time United Wisconsin and state Democratic Party leaders began meeting in April, it was clear a recall effort was going to be launched against Walker, says Mike Tate, chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party.
"The recall would absolutely not have happened without them," Tate says. "They had the most powerful tool, the database."
Freeman says there was discussion early on over whether to turn the pledge database over to the state Democratic Party.
"But our volunteers wanted us to own it. They wanted us to maintain our independence," Freeman says. "But I couldn't strategically see how to do this without institutional partnerships, including the Democratic Party."
Of United Wisconsin's decision to launch Nov. 15, Tate says it was "the right call."
"If we had attempted to wait, someone else (on our side) would have started the recall," Tate says. "We didn't want to have one big mess on our hands."
Straka describes the getting-to-know-you process between the two as a tentative dance, with the two sides feeling each other out to see how a working political relationship could develop. Over time, when disagreements did arise, Tate says the party would back off from an idea if United Wisconsin was "adamant we not do it."
Otherwise, the two groups maintained an open line of communication. When Tate went on MSNBC's "The Ed Show" Nov. 14 to announce the recall would be launched the next day, he made a point to credit United Wisconsin.
"I mentioned United Wisconsin about half a dozen times in a two-minute segment," Tate says. "That was not an accident."
United Wisconsin board members say one of the bigger assets the party brought to the table was its expertise gathered from the summer's recall efforts against six Republican senators, two of which were successful.
United Wisconsin learned how many people had voted, and where and how many people had signed petitions. They also learned how many signatures were collected at large festivals and events, prompting them to limit door-to-door canvassing and to focus volunteers on high-traffic locations.
With a goal to gather 720,000 signatures in the allotted 60 days, volunteers had to collect an average of 11,000 a day.
Tate announced Dec. 15 via a live webcast from Milwaukee that more than 507,000 signatures had been collected in 30 days. But at the time he, along with labor and United Wisconsin leaders, were pretty sure they had already hit the needed 540,208-signature mark.
The groups always had two sets of numbers: the hard, or verified numbers, and the soft numbers, which had yet to be checked for duplicates or proper signatures.
"We knew we had it," Freeman says. "We had a raw number that was higher, but it hadn't been verified."
A month later, Freeman, Lawler, Straka and Yunker would join 68 other volunteers in a celebratory walk, transporting boxes of petitions from the back of a U-Haul truck to the state elections office.
People were literally dancing in the streets.
"This recall would have happened no matter what," Freeman says. "But it happened as big and as successfully as it did because of our partnerships between lots of grass-roots organizations and the Democratic Party."
With the success of the petition drive behind them, the four are now channeling their "super PAC of volunteers" to counter with people power and votes the millions of dollars pouring in for Walker. As of the last filing period, the governor had raised $4.5 million in a five-week period ending Jan. 17. United Wisconsin has raised under $100,000.
Freeman says the group will focus on mobilizing its 9,000 dedicated United Wisconsin volunteers across the state. Those volunteers will engage their neighbors in conversations about the gubernatorial race and return to events and street corners to talk about the issues affecting Wisconsin, just like they did when collecting signatures.
"We must continue to educate people about the damage the Walker administration is doing to Wisconsin," Freeman says.
Volunteers also will help people understand the new Voter ID bill, help them obtain an ID and register to vote, if necessary, and get people out to the polls.
With numerous Democrats expressing an interest in running and former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk and Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, officially entering the race, a Democratic primary is likely to be needed before Walker will face re-election.
The United Wisconsin leaders say they are neutral about who will ultimately challenge Walker. In the meantime, they are concentrating on the issues and how Walker's policies have affected families across the state.
"This is what we'll be focused on in the months ahead," Freeman says. "It's that simple. That's how we will take back Wisconsin."