WATERTOWN — The little blue Honda was traveling with the flow of Church Street traffic when the driver slowed slightly, honked his horn twice and then shot a "thumbs up" at the short, silver-haired man walking on the sidewalk in front of the Pick'n Save.
The friendly gesture and staccato horn blasts clearly tickled their target: Senate Republican leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau. Fitzgerald, known as "Big Fitz" around the Capitol, was spending the Saturday afternoon campaigning in his district.
As a GOP leader and one of the politicians most associated with Gov. Scott Walker's legislative agenda, Fitzgerald has grown used to people honking at him (usually to the cadence of "This is what democracy looks like!") and waving (in a manner of speaking).
So he couldn't help but laugh as he waved back at the man in the Honda. "It's a lot nicer than being on the Square," he said. "I get a different finger here."
Few could have predicted this. Even during the height of the protests against Walker and Republican leadership last year, and through an earlier round of recall elections that nearly cost the GOP its control of the Senate, there was little talk of challenging Fitzgerald. First elected to the Senate 17 years ago, he has been practically untouchable in the largely rural and strongly conservative district. In 2006, he wasn't even opposed.
Now, the 48-year-old Republican is facing his own recall election, organized not by the opposing party but by a political upstart operating largely on her own.
Lori Compas, 41, a freelance photographer and writer from Fort Atkinson, has become a legitimate thorn in Fitzgerald's side. And while polls show him comfortably ahead of Compas, that doesn't lessen the sting of finding himself suddenly back on the campaign trail, trying to convince voters he did the right thing, the right way.
"There is definitely a group of independent voters who agreed with what we did, but they just don't agree with how we did it," he said. "They feel we should have explained it better, or somehow articulated what we were doing more clearly. Now, will that be enough for them to vote for a liberal candidate? I don't think so."
Another question is, will voters see her as liberal, or will they see her as simply different, more accommodating, more agreeable?
"He keeps trying to paint me as a wild-eyed liberal who is crazy, but the people who know me know I am a moderate," Compas said. "And the people I meet on the campaign trail like the idea of electing a moderate, someone who actually understands compromise."
Fitzgerald was elected in 1994 to south-central Wisconsin's 13th District, which includes the cities of Oconomowoc, Watertown and Fox Lake. That year, he defeated 14-year incumbent Barbara Lorman in the Republican primary, mainly by being the most conservative voice in the race.
Fitzgerald was able to paint Lorman as too moderate for the district. Her defense of abortion rights was a big campaign issue. It is no small irony that the very thing that got him elected — his stubborn conservatism — is one of the big reasons Fitzgerald faces a recall.
Starting with the election of Walker in 2010, the senator found himself in a key position to help enact sweeping changes the GOP had discussed for years. Walker, Fitzgerald and his brother, Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, presided over a legislative session in which the GOP pushed through a series of controversial measures, including a historic reduction of collective bargaining power for public employees and more than $1 billion in cuts to education.
It was, by any measure, an ugly session, filled with rancor and turmoil. The Capitol became home to a monthlong continuous protest, which many Republicans came to view as a gantlet of anger and hate. "They were everywhere," Fitzgerald said. "And it could get scary."
The mood of the crowds was not helped by the Republican approach during the session, led by Fitzgerald himself, who bucked compromise and bent parliamentary rules to push Walker's collective bargaining law through a conference committee before it had passed the Senate.
Fallout from the session still is felt today. The two parties remain sharply divided, Fitzgerald has lost his Senate majority and now the governor, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, Fitzgerald and three other senators face another round of recalls.
'I kept waiting'
The Democratic Party never intended to make a run at Fitzgerald's seat. The party's goal for this latest round of recalls was pragmatic, not symbolic: Win at least one Senate seat and retake control of the chamber. Officials chose three seemingly vulnerable Republicans to recall: Sens. Pam Galloway of Wausau, Van Wanggaard of Racine and Terry Moulton of Chippewa Falls. Galloway has since retired.
To the Democrats, Fitzgerald seemed too tough a target. He won his two previous contested elections with about 68 percent of the vote. But none of that mattered to Compas. She was shocked no one was going after the person she held most responsible for passing Walker's controversial legislation.
"I kept waiting for someone to do it, and no one would," Compas said. "I thought he deserved it every bit as much as the governor."
Compas, who took part in the protests last year, filed paperwork in November to start the recall against Fitzgerald. At the time, she assumed someone else would step into the race, but again, no one came forward and in February she became Fitzgerald's challenger.
Compas laughs a lot. A mother of two with chestnut hair and a permanent smile, she seems more encouraging art teacher than hard-boiled politician.
She lives in Fort Atkinson with her husband, Eric, a professor at UW-Whitewater. Compas always has been active in politics but never as a politician. She said her inexperience and demeanor have caused some to underestimate her. "Nice people can be strong," she said. "And happy people can be smart."
On the same Saturday that Fitzgerald campaigned in Watertown, Compas greeted volunteers at a park in Oconomowoc, thanking them for taking up her cause. Her maturation as a candidate was visible. She shook hands with everyone, spending a few moments with each volunteer. The Packers-sweatshirt-and-jeans combo that used to be her campaign attire was gone; in its place was a smart, brown pantsuit.
"A couple of supporters cornered me after my first listening session and said, 'If you are going to be our candidate, you have to start looking the part,'" she said. "I have two suits now, a brown one and a navy blue one. I call them my uniform."
Still, Compas knows it will take more than a nice suit and firm handshake to unseat the Capitol's second-most-powerful politician. According an April Daily Kos/PPP poll, Compas trails Fitzgerald, 54 percent to 40 percent. Defeating someone with his experience, name recognition and fundraising advantage — $427,374 to her $103,822 — will be a tall order.
Still, when Compas started the recall, no one thought she could collect enough signatures. Without party help, she gathered about 12,000 of the 16,742 needed. Then the political organization We are Wisconsin stepped in and helped push her over the line. "I think it surprised everyone," Compas said.
Not buying it
So Fitzgerald is back on the campaign trail, two years early. He is shaking hands and telling people that he, and the other Republicans, did the heavy lifting for something the state really needed.
For the record, Fitzgerald said he doesn't buy Compas' Pollyanna image. He knows some people are painting the race as a David-vs.-Goliath contest. But Fitzgerald said he thinks her husband is one of the main forces behind her campaign, as well as unions and protest groups.
"I don't for one minute believe she is the organizing force behind this whole thing," he said.
When told of Fitzgerald's statement, Compas was audibly stunned.
"That is pretty insulting, but it does seem in keeping with his general views on women," she said. "He doesn't seem to have a lot of respect for them. That's OK; he can keep underestimating me."
Compas said that if Fitzgerald really doubts she is a serious candidate, he should accept her invitation to debate. "I have challenged him to five debates," she said. "If he thinks I can't handle myself, he should come out and face me."