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Walker recall activists shoot for a million signatures
Supporters claim to make inroads in red-leaning counties
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Credit:Phil Ejercito

Now that they have gathered more than half a million signatures on petitions to recall Gov. Scott Walker, recall organizers have upped the ante.

On Dec. 15, the same day Democratic Party Chair Mike Tate made the dramatic announcement that volunteers had gathered 507,533 signatures in just one month, state Democrats and United Wisconsin, the groups overseeing the recall effort, set a new goal of 720,277 signatures. That's 33% of the 2010 general election turnout, as opposed to the 25% required by law to launch a recall.

But some activists say even that number is too low.

"My advice was always to talk about 1 million - to say, 'We are one million strong,'" says social media and technology consultant Bryan Bliss, who works with the activist group Wisconsin Wave. "All our internal projections show we are going to land with one million signatures by January. There's a lot more support than just barely enough to trigger this."

Julie Wells, the forklift operator from Fort Atkinson who filed the papers that launched the recall drive, agrees. "We want that million," she says.

"It's going really well," Wells says of the recall drive in Jefferson County, which gave Walker more than 60% of its votes in 2010. "We're kind of struggling right now with the number of volunteers. We need more. But our motivation has not flagged."

That's despite what Wells describes as mounting hostility from the opposition, with yard signs disappearing and a lot of heckling of recall volunteers.

"We've got old ladies sticking their tongues out, and giving us the finger," she says. "Guys drive by and yell at us. It really surprises me - the ugliness of the other side."

Nevertheless, Wells says, volunteers are ready for a new phase of signature gathering. In order to get across the finish line, they are planning to move from staking out public places to a more arduous door-to-door campaign.

Tanya Lohr, a high school social studies teacher in West Bend who heads up the recall effort in Washington County, says volunteers in her area have also encountered hostility while collecting signatures. Lohr ran the ultimately unsuccessful recall drive against State Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) in what the state GOP website calls "the reddest county in the state" - 75.5% of voters went for Walker there in 2010.

One incident sparked the only felony charges so far in the state against someone for attempting to destroy recall petitions (by scribbling out names).

"We have volunteers whose cars and houses were egged," Lohr says. "I think the resentment has turned violent because people were not prepared for the fact that in super-red Washington County, thousands of people would be lining up to sign recall petitions."

The felony incident actually had a rallying effect, Lohr says. "We are getting more thumbs-up than thumbs-down lately. The screaming, etc., has gone down in the last week.

"I've had people say they weren't going to sign a petition, but now they are signing because they don't want to be associated with that kind of behavior," Lohr adds. "I really think in the red counties it's a whole different ballgame."

Just how different is hard to tell, however, from the available data.

United Wisconsin has declined to release the numbers of signatures gathered in Washington and Jefferson counties. "But both counties are doing very well," insists the group's executive director, Meagan Mahaffey.

In general, both United Wisconsin and the Democratic Party have kept a tight lid on the recall numbers.

Rumors that they'd already hit their goal of 540,000 raced around the Internet in advance of Tate's announcement on Dec. 15, since there had been no update in almost three weeks.

The information blackout did not sit well with Bliss of Wisconsin Wave, which is leading a parallel effort to collect signatures.

"They didn't want to tell people, 'We're getting closer and we're almost there,' because they were worried people would slack off," says Bliss, who participates in weekly conference calls with United Wisconsin and other groups involved in the recall.

"I expressed my disagreement with hiding the numbers," he says. "A lot of the grassroots support for recall is from people who are rebelling against the lack of accountability and transparency in the Walker administration."

"People don't like that," he adds. "It's not a grassroots way to do things."

Wisconsin Wave launched its own recall petition drive in the fall to attract volunteers who might object to the "top-down" strategy of United Wisconsin and the Democratic Party.

Originally, Bliss says, organizers of the Wisconsin Wave recall petition drive were motivated by concerns that the Democrats might abandon the recall effort if they thought they might fall short of the target number.

Now that the official recall is going so well, that's not really a concern anymore. Any signatures Wisconsin Wave gathers can be added to the total that United Wisconsin and the grassroots groups it is working with submit to the Government Accountability Board.

Just as Tate was announcing that the recall had crossed the half-million mark on Dec. 15, United Wisconsin released signature totals from five counties from all corners of the state to show, as Mahaffey puts it, "this is not just a Dane County and Milwaukee County phenomenon."

These include:

  • 8,007 signatures, or 128% of Walker's total vote in Douglas County.
  • 22,365 signatures, or 124% of Walker's total vote in Eau Claire County.
  • 21,558 signatures, or 91% of Walker' total vote in Rock County.
  • 7,375 signatures, or 84% of Walker's total vote in Oneida County.
  • 6,972 signatures, or 81% of Walker's total vote in Grant County.

The first three are closely divided counties that went Democratic by small margins in the 2010 governor's race. The last two lean Republican. Oneida County, in the far northern part of the state, voted for Walker by more than 10 percentage points in 2010. In Grant County, on the Western border, Walker won by less than 10% of the vote.

"From Superior to Beloit to La Crosse to Milwaukee and all points in between, the people of Wisconsin are rising up," Tate said at his press conference.

"We have no doubt the Democrats are rallying their left-wing base around their blatant power grab for the governor's mansion," responded Ben Sparks, Republican Party of Wisconsin communications director in an email statement last week. "The simple truth is that Gov. Walker was elected by an overwhelming majority of Wisconsin voters who were tired of the Democrats' job-killing agenda, and they have zero desire to go back to the failed policies of the past."

In his press conference, Tate pointed out a recent report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that shows Wisconsin leads the nation in job losses, even as the governor justifies cuts to schools and social service programs as part of a job-creating strategy. Walker is "kicking more than 65,000 families off health care coverage just in time for Christmas," he added.

"The people of Wisconsin have said enough is enough," Tate declared.

Other groups that are circulating their own petitions - and targeting voters who might not generally vote Democratic - include the Sierra Club, which is turning in its petitions to United Wisconsin.

"The reason we decided to endorse the recall when the other environmental organizations did not is that we want to make sure people recognize that the recall isn't just about collective bargaining," says Elizabeth Ward, Conservation Programs coordinator for the Sierra Club. "We wouldn't have endorsed it if that were the only issue. It's not just about workers' rights."

Sierra Club volunteers are gathering hundreds of signatures, Ward says. "These are people who really care about the environment."

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