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MADISON, WIS. - Nearly a year after they ringed the State Capitol with massive protests, opponents of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker returned Tuesday armed with more than 1 million signatures demanding a recall election that could end his tenure.
It would be Wisconsin's first gubernatorial recall election and only the third in U.S. history.
Shouting "This is what democracy looks like!" and singing "We Shall Overcome," volunteers, union activists and Democratic partisans delivered a truckload of petitions to the state's Government Accountability Board, virtually assuring that Walker will face a recall election this year, probably in the summer.
The total delivered to the board, which is charged with verifying the petitions and determining whether an election should be held, is 460,000 signatures beyond what is needed to trigger a recall of the Republican governor. Walker is beginning his second year in office and has made a law to curb public employee unions one of his centerpiece achievements.
Ryan Lawler, a vice chairman of United Wisconsin, the umbrella recall group, said the number of signatures is "beyond legal challenge," and supporters urged Walker's forces to avoid challenges and prepare for an election.
"We call on Scott Walker to stand before the people as soon as possible," said Mike Tate, chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party.
'Total recall' ahead?
Walker, 44, who has said for months that he expected to face a recall election this year, defended his record Tuesday and expressed hope that voters will "stand with me and keep moving Wisconsin forward."
Walker said he looks forward to talking to voters "about my continued promises to control government spending, balance the budget and hold the line on taxes." He added that he eliminated a $3.6 billion deficit last year without raising taxes.
Wisconsin law allows for the recall of public officials for political reasons, so long as petitioners garner at least 25 percent of the signatures of those who voted in the last gubernatorial election. Tuesday's petitions were aimed not just at Walker. Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and four Republican state senators, including Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, are also the target of petition drives and could face recall elections.
That would add to the sense of "total recall" that has swept Wisconsin since Republicans took the governorship and both houses of the Legislature in 2010. Last summer, there were nine recall elections of state senators, and two Republicans were unseated.
It is not clear how long it will take the board to examine the petitions or whether there will be court challenges. Most observers predict that the gubernatorial recount would occur no sooner than June and possibly be later in the summer.
Attention will shift next from the petition drive to finding the right Democratic challenger.
Potential candidates include Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who lost to Walker in 2010; former Dane County executive Kathleen Falk, who failed in runs for governor in 2002 and attorney general in 2006; David Obey, a former longtime congressman from northwestern Wisconsin; and state Sens. Tim Cullen, a moderate Democrat, and Jon Erpenbach, a leader of the Democrats who fled the state last winter to keep the Senate from approving the anti-union bill.
The election would serve as a prelude to the presidential battle in this battleground state, and Erpenbach said he believes it will have national implications because Democrats feel they are fighting an assault on the middle class. But he said the Democrats will not win with a simple protest candidate.
"'Vote for me because I'm not Scott Walker' is not going to do it," Erpenbach said.
There are larger implications to the recall for Republicans as well. Walker is a hero to his side for standing up to public employee unions and forcing those workers to accept many of the same sacrifices that have been asked of private-sector workers.
"When Wisconsin voters went to the polls in 2010, they wanted a leader who would make tough decisions to turn the state around," said Ben Sparks, spokesman for the Wisconsin Republican Party. Voters, he argued, got what they wanted.
One of the senators subject to the recall effort, Van Wanggaard of Racine, said the recalls will cost the state money it cannot afford and argued that the Democrats planned for them even before losing in 2010.
"It is their attempt to have a revote," he said.
Despite snow flurries and an icy wind, the liberal enclave of Madison had a celebratory atmosphere Tuesday.
Lisa Sheldon of Janesville was among the volunteers who carried a box of signatures to the state offices Tuesday. She rolled up in a wheelchair due to a recently broken ankle, but she broke into a broad grin when supporters cheered her.
"One million!" she exulted.
Larry Peters, a union bus mechanic and petition gatherer from Green Bay, attended the event with his dog, Fritz.
"It's supposed to be 'We the people,' not 'We the Walker,'" Peters said. "What his bill did is say the things we bargained for for 40 years were no longer in existence."
Pat Arndorfer of Sun Prairie linked the Madison protests to worldwide uprisings.
"I'm a spiritual person, and I believe there's a shift in consciousness happening,'' Arndorfer said. "This is just part of a global change that's going on right now. People are rising up and taking back the power."
Andy Andre, a mechanical engineer from Glendale, hefted a huge papier-mâché icon of Walker. He said the union changes didn't bother him, but he felt Walker and Republicans have not used their power properly.
"When people abuse the power the way they did, one has to stand up and be counted," he said.
While governors have been removed from office through impeachment, only two U.S. governors have been recalled by voters: Gray Davis in California in 2003 and Lynn Frazier in North Dakota in 1921.
Recall supporters said their million-signature effort -- the exact number was not available Tuesday -- represents 46 percent of those voting in the last gubernatorial election and comes close to the 1.12 million votes Walker received.
Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042