Wisconsin’s Recall Drama Down to Nail-Biting Finish

Wisconsin’s recall is, as reporter John Nichols put it, the kind of “renegade politics” that are disdained by the national Democratic party and even some state Democrats. It is being driven by the same activists who turned out by the thousands to occupy their capitol when Governor Scott Walker attacked workers’ right to organize and bargain collectively.

Now, a day before the biggest recall yet—of Governor Walker, Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, and four Republican state senators—the fight will be won or lost where it began: on the ground.

There’s a lot of big outside money pouring into Wisconsin, mostly to pump up Walker’s attempt to hang on to his seat, but the one thing that money can’t buy is an excited, driven grassroots movement. If Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett beats Walker on Tuesday, it will be because of thousands of volunteers getting out the vote person by person.

“This is really a case of Walker raising $13 million against possibly the most widespread grassroots get-out-the-vote effort in the state’s history,” Matt Reiter, co-president of the Teaching Assistants’ Association at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, told AlterNet.

What’s At Stake

“People really see this as a referendum on Walker,” Bruce Colburn, vice president of SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, told AlterNet. “People understand that the direction he wants to take this state in is one where workers don’t have rights. That’s why it’s been really difficult, with all the money in the world, to change people’s minds and get the kind of lead you’d expect.”

Scott Walker, at this point, needs no introduction to the voters of his state. The people know whether they love him or hate him. The people who’ve been involved in the recall effort have felt Walker’s cuts to healthcare and attacks on workers’ rights personally. Shannon Duffy, a union representative with the United Media Guild who traveled to Wisconsin to volunteer with the recall effort, told AlterNet that one union member explained that Scott Walker had cost him $8,000 this year alone. It’s no surprise, then, that unions remain in the forefront of the fight against Walker and his GOP cronies.

“When you want to disenfranchise people, you attack education,” said Mary Bell, the president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC). “It is about disenfranchising people, it’s been about that from the beginning. If you divide and conquer a state by saying that public employees should somehow be treated differently than others, you’ve disenfranchised them. If you say that one group of people who likely don’t have a photo ID can’t vote, you’ve disenfranchised them. If you say to elderly people that they now have to go back and get a birth certificate to vote, you’ve disenfranchised them.”

Colburn noted that recent video of Walker saying that he’d like to make Wisconsin a “right-to-work” state, attacking public workers first and then going after private sector unions, has become a hot issue on the campaign trail as well, and indications that Walker may himself be the target of a criminal corruption “John Doe” investigation has led some Wisconsin political watchers to speculate that even if he wins Tuesday’s election, he’s not long for his office.

On the other hand, Tom Barrett, who lost the governor’s race back in 2010 only to return and win the Democratic primary for a rematch, wasn’t much of organized labor’s first choice to face Walker. SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin and WEAC had endorsed Kathleen Falk in the primary; the TAA, which kicked off the capitol occupation last February, opted to endorse the recall of Walker but not endorse Barrett. “The TAA in good conscience had to say no to austerity no matter what party it’s coming from,” Reiter said. “The Democratic party went on record saying the main campaign issues for them are the war on women, the John Doe investigation, and job loss, and that leaves out the labor question. What’s being missed is the immediacy of repealing these reforms.”

Bell and Colburn were more positive about Barrett, saying that their members had no problem pivoting to support Barrett in the recall, but they all stressed the importance of removing Walker from office.

Barrett’s running mate is a genuine hero of the Wisconsin labor uprising, the young, charismatic firefighters’ union president Mahlon Mitchell, challenging Kleefisch for lieutenant governor, was a symbol of the refusal of unions to be divided by Walker’s policies. Firefighters and police were left out of Walker’s attacks on public workers’ rights, but Mitchell and other firefighters plunged straight into the fight on the side of the teachers and healthcare workers who lost their collective bargaining rights, and the Madison Professional Police Officers’ Association, among many others, has supported Mitchell’s campaign.

The Senate campaigns haven’t gotten nearly as much attention as the governor’s race, but after the resignation of former State Senator Pam Galloway, one of the Republicans who would have been facing recall, the Senate is evenly split between Dems and the GOP. That means only one of those races has to be won by a Democrat in order for them to retake that chamber—and two of them appear to be winnable. Another, which the Dems don’t really expect to win, is nevertheless an exciting race, as Lori Compas, a fierce activist, did what many thought was impossible and forced a recall against the Senate Republican leader, Scott Fitzgerald (whose name is often combined with Walker’s for the nickname “Fitzwalkerstan”).

The unions and pro-labor groups are working independently of the official Barrett campaign and the Democratic party. Indeed, the recall from the beginning has been outside of official party goals, and was driven almost exclusively by volunteers, both union and non-union. Election laws require that unions and coalitions like We Are Wisconsin operate as independent expenditures and don’t coordinate with the candidate—which leaves them free to have their own message. “Everybody in the TAA who is engaged, people who voted to not endorse Barrett, they are still getting out the vote, are still using their own time and their own money to recall Scott Walker,” Reiter noted.

It remains, to the end, a grassroots battle. Leah Luke, the 2010 Wisconsin Teacher of the Year, who’s been a part of the fight against Walker from the very beginning, told AlterNet, “All the money that’s coming in to the state to support Walker, I contrast that with my little humble $25 donation here or $5 donation there, but when it comes down to it I still get a vote, my neighbor still gets a vote. They can pump all the money in from out of state they want but it all comes down to voters.”

Organized People vs. Organized Money

“There’s this perception that somehow labor is not excited. Our folks are on fire, this is what they have been waiting for since February 14, 2011,” Mary Bell said. “The election itself is historic, we’ve never been through this before, there have only been three of these in the country.”

The fight in Wisconsin has indeed been going on for so long that it seems hard to believe that there could be an undecided voter anywhere in the state. Instead, it’s all coming down, in the final days, to a massive get-out-the-vote effort. “The kind of phony ads that are usually run aren’t really having much influence,” Colburn pointed out, because most people know which side they’re on.

Kevin Pape, a regional director with Working America, the AFL-CIO’s affiliate that organizes nonunion workers, has been leading an effort in Wisconsin since before Walker rolled out his anti-union bill. “20,000 people joined our organization in the first week after Walker passed Act 10,” Pape told AlterNet. “It was really remarkable for us to see. We’ve been organizing nonunion folks since 2003. After Act 10, people that were opposed to Walker’s policy really wanted any connection to the labor movement that they possibly could have. We had a huge uptick in people wanting to join, whether through our normal door-to-door program or going to our website.”

“We could have conversations at a level of detail about collective bargaining and what it meant at a level we’d never been able to have,” Pape continued. “Since this recall effort has been in high gear we’ve been coordinating with We Are Wisconsin to talk directly to the voters.”

Leah Luke had taken a break from calling a list of 50 voters in her neighborhood to speak with AlterNet Sunday morning. “It’s really encouraging to me personally to make these calls, to have people say ‘Absolutely, we’re going to be there, don’t worry about that honey!’ It’s good to talk to people who aren’t just union people.”

Shannon Duffy, knocking doors in Milwaukee’s lower-income neighborhoods, said, “I have never been treated so well knocking on doors during a campaign, people shaking my hand, calling me brother, saying we have to get Walker out of there. Every four-way stop had at least two huge signs on it that just said ‘Vote Walker Out’ with a huge exclamation point.”

“One of the things that we’re really trying to do in this election that’s different than many is really to focus on much more neighbors talking to neighbors, friends talking to friends, coworkers talking to coworkers,” Colburn explained. “In Milwaukee we’ve had an adopt-a ward effort — three or four activists in a ward are building ward committees, to take some ownership, to talk to neighbors. At SEIU we’ve had an ongoing program of members talking to members who voted in 2008 but didn’t vote in 2010. It’s not usually changing their minds, it’s a combination of explaining that it’s important enough to vote and taking responsibility to have that conversation.”

Outside volunteers—rather than the outside cash fueling Walker’s campaign—have been an important part of the effort as well. The AFL-CIO has a tool that allows activists to match their Facebook friends with the voter file so that they can do personalized outreach, and groups like Democracy for America have been rallying supporters to make get-out-the-vote phone calls as well as traveling to the state to knock doors—an email from the group says they hit 15,342 doors on Saturday alone.

Duffy explained his involvement in the recall: “We just came up, it wasn’t like we got a phone call. People are just walking in, saying, ‘Hi, I’m from Cleveland, can I help?’ People are getting in their cars and driving here, going to We Are Wisconsin offices, labor councils. This is not like labor reaching out its tentacles, these are people saying, ‘I’ve got to be a part of this’ and just jumping in their cars.”

“Just to know that we have that support outside of the state, that people are aware of what our situation is and are rooting for us, it really helps invigorate the work that we’re doing here,” Luke added.

Of course, not all the out-of-state activists are there to get out the anti-Walker vote. Luckily for the grassroots campaign, Wisconsin’s vote-suppressing Voter ID bill won’t be in effect for the recall, but voter suppression remains a problem. “When you have national tea party folks being bused and flown into the state, they’re not here to get out the vote,” Mary Bell said. “They tried before and I believe they will continue to try to suppress the vote in places where people will be frightened away from casting their ballot.”

Early voting in Wisconsin ended Friday, but if informal reports are accurate, turnout is at record levels already. Pape, Duffy and Bell noted that they were coming across lots of voters on canvass lists who’d already waited in lines, sometimes for over an hour (even on Memorial Day) to cast their ballots. “They want to make sure that they are not disenfranchised this time,” Bell said.

Keeping the Momentum Post-Election

The biggest lesson from Wisconsin’s uprising and the recall movement has been that working people have to stay involved in the democratic process beyond election season. “What happened in Wisconsin was more of a wake-up call for older members of unions to revive this idea that they did have other avenues—they did have a voice outside of electoral politics, through popular protest, through grassroots activity,” Matt Reiter said. “There’s still this disconnect, I think, between what the working people of Wisconsin want and what larger political parties are prepared to work on.”

The movement has also changed how the unions and community activists in the state work together. “The unions here in Wisconsin both public and private sector had been very conversational, we worked together on various projects, but we did not have nearly the bond we have now,” Bell explained. “Act 10 forever changed how we approach our work, how we approach our membership and our communities.”

Kevin Pape, whose group had been organizing in Wisconsin since before Walker put union rights on the national stage, pointed out that even if Democrats do defeat Walker and win back the Senate on Tuesday, there will still be a need to hold them accountable to the folks who put them in office.

“It’s built with the idea that it lasts,” Colburn agreed. “Certainly we’ll have other elections in the fall, but we’ll have a whole series of issues, based on restoring collective bargaining. There will be a huge fight over restoring the education cuts, repealing the corporate tax breaks, over the next year.”

He continued, “It makes a change in politics when you don’t have to rely on one party or the other but you have your own organization, you develop new alliances between community and labor, develop issues, lead into other issue campaigns.”

Wisconsin was perhaps at a bit of a disadvantage compared to Ohio, which was able to overturn its own anti-union law with a ballot referendum—Reiter noted that many in the TAA were nervous about heading into electoral politics because politicians like Walker have a cash advantage. But whatever happens on Tuesday, Mary Bell and other union members and activists have helped build an infrastructure for a resurgent labor movement in the face of a bipartisan austerity agenda.

“The energy, the sense of purpose that people have when they’re doing this, is very, very real and it’s contagious,” Bell said. “They connect with people and they get other people engaged. It’s really a great thing for our future, for our state, for our citizen action form of government. That won’t be forgotten after June 5th.”