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Intensely local, block-by-block Walker recall drive launching across Wisconsin
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Approximately 50,000 Gov. Walker and Lt. Gov. Kleefisch recall petitions await distribution at Littel Printing Company in Madison, Wis. on Nov. 10, 2011.
Credit:Phil Ejercito

Eva Shiffrin is ready. "I'll have signs, petitions and T-shirts big enough to wear over your coat, all on my front porch on Nov. 15," she says, holding up a giant "Recall Walker" T-shirt in front of a group of about 50 neighbors Sunday at the James Reeb Unitarian Church near East High High.

Shiffrin has scoped out two spots on East Washington Ave. for drive-through signature gathering during rush hour. She'll also be at the UW women's basketball games on Nov. 18 and Nov. 30 with recall petitions -- along with a lot of other energized Walker recall volunteers.

The clock starts ticking on the statewide petition drive to recall Gov. Scott Walker on Tuesday. United Wisconsin, the state political action committee formed last spring for the sole purpose of recalling Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, will have 60 days to collect 540,208 signatures. More than 200,000 Wisconsinites have already signed the group's online pledge to recall the governor.

There will be "midnight madness" house parties around the state Monday night where petitions can be signed at 12:01 a.m. A Madison recall countdown party at Hawk's Bar & Grill on State Street begins at 9 p.m. Monday night, with petitions available at midnight for people to sign and circulate. Additionally, a group named Recall Walker PAC is holding a pep rally at the Barrymore Friday, Nov. 18. The Democratic Party of Wisconsin provides more details about events and offices in its online recall headquarters.

In addition to door-to-door petition drives, volunteers will be collecting signatures at shopping malls on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving), rallies and festivals. There will be "drive-through" petitioning on busy thoroughfares all over the state. There also will be people blogging and tweeting their "office hours" at local coffee shops so folks can stop by and sign.

At the recall office at 330 E. Wilson St., there is a picture of a massive crowd from last spring's around the Capitol and the words, "Don't Give Up the Fight." Recall organizers hope to get the same kind of crowd to a recall rally on the Capitol Square Saturday, Nov. 19.

"We want to show that we can get the energy back that we had in March, that it was not just a white flash," say James "Skip" Sonneman, a veteran Democratic Party field organizer working with United Wisconsin.

"It's a monumental task," he tells a group at a recent training session on East Wilson Street. "This has never been done before in Wisconsin."

The way United Wisconsin is trying to do it is by relying on the energy and determination of grassroots volunteers like Shiffrin.

Block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, the drive to recall Walker is an intensely local, grassroots effort.

"We are collaborating with as many groups as we can that share our goal," says Meagan Mahaffey, United Wisconsin's spokesperson.

A huge network of volunteers, including neighborhood groups like Shiffrin's, will turn in petitions to 50 United Wisconsin field organizers in more than 20 offices around the state. Field workers will check that petitions are filled out correctly, and track the effort's progress online, sending volunteers from saturated areas to those that need more help.

"Don't leave petitions sitting around in a pile in your house somewhere," Sonneman tells his trainees, advising that petitions be turned in every three days.

Sonneman shows a sample petition and explains that signers must fill out the date and their address. Since the year will change in the middle of the drive, volunteers should double-check the date. Another sticky detail: Voters must put down the name of the village or town where they vote. This is a key issue in places like Fitchburg, Maple Bluff and the town of Dunn. If people who live there print their address the way the post office does -- in Madison -- their signatures won't be valid.

Sonneman also addresses concerns that Republicans might sow confusion with their own phony recall drive, or simply throw away petitions.

The United Wisconsin petition, along with instructions, can be found on the group's website --

If someone grabs your petition or circulates a petition and then throws it away, Sonneman tells trainees, "Get the details -- we need to know who they are. They can be prosecuted for fraud."

"Don't yell back at yellers," he adds.

"We are trying to make sure the grassroots groups are trained well enough, and they're very serious about this, and it's awesome," Sonneman says.

One trainee asks Sonneman nervously, "Have you triple-checked your math? Are you sure you can turn these in to the Government Accountability Board the day after MLK Day?" (Since Jan. 15 falls on a holiday weekend, the petitions won't actually be submitted until Jan. 17.)

Sonneman assures everyone that the GAB has issued a specific ruling on this.

Madison police officer David Dexheimer, who is getting trained to do a petition drive near his home in Monona, expresses concern about the fake recall announced by a Walker contributor. What effect will it have?

The answer: It gave the governor 11 extra days to raise unlimited corporate cash to fight the recall effort. But technically it will have no impact on the citizen effort. The 60-day window for the recall drive remains the same.

The Republican Party has denied any connection to this filing. But the Democrats aren't buying it.

"It just confirms that Scott Walker is open for business. He is unethically using this loophole to get the money he earned with his policies," says Graeme Zielinski, communications director for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

In Zielinski's view, the phony recall filing is just one more example of the Republican focus on fundraising as a way to overcome the will of the people.

"The first words out of the chairman of the Republican Party's mouth about the recall were not, 'We believe the people of Wisconsin stand with Gov. Walker.' They were, 'We can raise $100 million.' That's their argument: If they can raise all this corporate cash, why would we take them on?"

"I'm worried about all that money," says Dexheimer, "But we just have to remember, we have the people on our side."

The results of the recall vote in Ohio last week gave a boost to Wisconsin organizers' feeling that citizens can overcome the power of money. Americans for Prosperity and other right-leaning groups poured money into Ohio to try to persuade voters not to support the recall of legislation that ended collective bargaining for public employees. The citizens won. Now Americans for Prosperity is running a statewide ad campaign against the Walker recall in Wisconsin.

There is no set date for the Wisconsin recall election. It depends on when the GAB confirms that there are 540,208 valid signatures, and could be delayed further by legal challenges. There is also no declared candidate to challenge Walker. But some activists are already worrying about the next big hurdle to recalling the governor: Wisconsin's new voter ID bill.

Mary Metz of Northside Action, a local group that works with Organize for America, stopped by the East High/Eken Park neighborhood meeting at James Reeb to ask recall volunteers if they would help register voters during the recall drive, and trouble-shoot voter ID problems using Organize for America's voter list.

People who live in apartments may not have filed their change of address within 20 days of the election, as the new law requires, Metz said. Others won't have photo ID.

She urged neighborhood activists to become special registration deputies, and to help clear up voter ID problems for people on the Organize for America voter list.

The East High/Eken folks were reluctant.

"I hope you don't feel railroaded," Rachel Friedman, who was leading the meeting, said after Metz left. The group voted to take a pass on the Organize for America drive and keep focusing on the recall for now, but to hand out fliers explaining the new voter ID law.

Friedman, a social worker and activist who was galvanized by the Wisconsin uprising, plays a starring role in a documentary film about the Capitol protests by Los Angeles filmmaker Amie Williams.

Contrary to Republican claims that the recall drive is the creation of the Democratic Party and big labor, Friedman and her neighbors seem driven by spontaneous determination to recall the governor, not by party affiliation or any larger organization.

Friedman recently posted a recall meeting flier on her neighborhood listserv, and then discovered that people had printed it out and spread it around. When she saw a giant copy of her note on a neighborhood kiosk, she says, she burst into tears.

"In 20 years as an activist I'd never had the experience of going out to do fliers, and finding that someone had already fliered ahead of me," she says. "This is grassroots at it's best. It's really moving."

Metz, who worked on the state Senate recalls and the JoAnne Kloppenberg campaign for Supreme Court, is also energized. "People are just pouring out to help us," she says. "I feel like I'm drinking from a fire hose."

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