While massive rallies at the state Capitol in Madison have garnered national attention over the past month, the nitty-gritty battle for Wisconsin’s future is under way on small-town street corners, in suburban shopping malls, on factory floors and at neighbors’ front doors.
An energetic, deliberate and calculated campaign to recall eight GOP state senators who backed Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union and educational budget-cut agenda is under way. The two-front campaign aims first to retake Wisconsin’s Senate for the Democrats — and ultimately unseat Walker himself.
One major effort is happening now 150 miles east of the Twin Cities in La Crosse, home district to teetering Republican Sen. Dan Kapanke.
Kapanke, who stood fast with Walker on key votes, has been identified in a recent Daily Kos poll as the most vulnerable Wisconsin state senator. According to the poll, 55 percent of voters in Kapanke’s western Wisconsin district would vote for a generic Democrat over him. Kapanke’s district, by the way, went 61 percent for President Obama in 2008 over Sen. John McCain. Walker barely won Kapanke’s district in November.
“He walked off the plank with Scott Walker,” said Wisconsin Democratic Party Communications Director Graeme Zielinski. And, so, Kapanke is a target.
How Wisconsin’s recall law works
Wisconsin’s election recall law is pretty simple: Get 25 percent of the voters in a district to sign a petition seeking the recall of an elected official who has been in office for at least one year. The petitioners don’t have to prove or even assert that their targeted official has done anything wrong … legally, politically, morally or otherwise. (In Kapanke’s case, he’s been in office for six years, and 15,588 signatures need to be collected.) Have the signatures verified. If the petitions are in order, an election is scheduled for six weeks hence. The target of the recall is allowed to run to retain his or her seat. If there is more than one challenger, then a primary must be held. So, in effect, a “recall” triggers a full election challenge to the incumbent.
Presto! Then, someone like Kapanke survives — assuming he wants to run again — or a new lawmaker takes his seat in Madison.
Besides his Walker backing, Kapanke has faced ethics charges. It’s led to signs at public gatherings that read: “Recall Hanky-Kapanke.”
Right now, the Republicans control the Senate 19-14. If the Democrats can flip three of the districts, they would gain control 17-16.
Using an NCAA tournament metaphor in discussing Wisconsin’s own brand of March Madness, Zielinski told MinnPost Wednesday, “Right now [Kapanke] would be the No. One seed. But, remember, there are four No. One seeds.”
Four recall victories and Wisconsin’s political landscape would begin to shift.
Dems say their recall efforts are broadbased
In the hinterlands, the signature gathering is going great guns, organizers say. Zielinski wouldn’t divulge exactly where the petition campaigns stand, but allowed that just three weeks into many efforts, the drive is ahead of goals. Headquarters at union halls and Democratic Party offices are buzzing. And it’s not just left-wing, Solidarity-Forever activists. Not by a long shot.
“Just about everybody’s got a petition for their friends and family to sign,” Theresa Carey said. She’s a small-town lawyer/business owner who helps mediate divorces. She admits to usually voting for Democrats. But she’s been concerned about Walker-backed cutbacks to small towns and schools like hers, Viroqua, population 4,300.
Doings in Madison, she said, are “making activists out of people who have usually been on the sidelines.” That includes her: She set up a Facebook page, one of several to organize recall efforts.
Carey said at a recent “listening session,” Kapanke defended his support for Walker. But he didn’t satisfy the crowd. After the session, Carey said one longstanding Republican sought her out and signed a Kapanke recall petition.
It all begs the question of how Walker won last November and why even some union members — Democrats mostly — cast their vote for him. But they did and now, to a certain extent, they are scrambling for a do-over.
Thus, from Viroqua to the powerful union halls of Milwaukee, the petition campaign is intense.
“I’m helping to get boots on the ground,” Patrick Weyer, president of Brewery Workers UAW Local 9, told MinnPost Wednesday. On the executive board of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council, Weyer said members of his union are circulating petitions in recall districts in and around the Milwaukee metro area.
“People are coming out of the woodwork,” Weyer said of volunteers. “There’s pretty much a groundswell . . . And I don’t mean just labor. I haven’t seen anything that’s energized the middle class like this. I think this recall effort is going to surprise a lot of people. People are saying to Walker, ‘You went too far.’ “
Unprecedented recall efforts
The proliferation of recall efforts in Wisconsin is unprecedented in U.S. history. Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter Craig Gilbert has written that since 1913, only 13 state legislators in the country have been recalled. Right now in Wisconsin, there are efforts to recall 16 senators.
Wisconsin is now ground zero for what seems to be a growing recall movement in the United States. “After a century of existence, the recall is ready to come into its own,” Joshua Spivak recently wrote in Politico. He explained the rise of technological innovations — such as all the websites and Facebook pages — allows for more recount wildfire in Wisconsin and elsewhere. As if to prove the point, Spivak, a senior fellow at Wagner (N.Y.) College’s Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform, is the creator of “The Recall Elections Blog.”
There is an effort to recall eight Democratic state senators, too. Much of that is supported by a Salt Lake City organization called the American Patriot Recall Coalition, which is affiliated with a right-wing group called Americans Against Immigration Amnesty.
Democratic leaders believe their party’s targeted lawmakers, are, generally, in safe districts that they can defend. “Our members are very good fits for their districts,” Zielinski said.
Minnesota’s recall law
By the way, Minnesota’s recall law and the state’s Constitution have significantly higher hurdles than in Wisconsin. Petitioners must show malfeasance or nonfeasance and any recall action for state offices must be reviewed by the Minnesota Supreme Court. Three recall attempts have been made in recent years, first on Attorney General Mike Hatch (2001), then on Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer (2004). All fizzled when the Supreme Court said the petitioners hadn’t met their burden to prove malfeasance.
In Wisconsin, assuming all deadlines are met and all legal challenges are swept back, the Democratic Party is looking at a possible June 28 Election Day for the Senate recall tests.
“There’s going to be a Democratic Senate by midsummer,” Zielinski predicted.
He added: “What these recalls do is build an infrastructure. It helps us grow this movement, help educate the public. We have lots of happy warriors right now.”
That recall infrastructure, from Viroqua to the breweries, will be ripe for the ultimate recall campaign.
“You hear people saying, ‘This is going to blow over,’ “said Zielinski. “It’s not going to blow over.”
Gov. Walker was inaugurated on Jan. 3, 2011. Expect the recall petitions to remove him to start circulating on Jan. 3, 2012.