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Continued: Recall fight grips Wisconsin

  • Article by: RICHARD MERYHEW , Star Tribune
  • Last update: April 10, 2012 - 5:09 PM

RIVER FALLS, WIS.

It's mid-afternoon on a Wednesday as John Danneker steers his silver Ford pickup along the winding two-lane roads of western Wisconsin bluff country.

Stacked in the back of the truck with the "Thanks Scott Walker" bumper sticker are red, white and blue Walker campaign signs that Danneker, the county's Republican Party chairman, must deliver before day's end to the governor's supporters. "People are concerned; they are really concerned," said the self-employed window technician and former Marine. "And they want to get involved.''

A few miles north, in the bustling college town of River Falls, John Hyland, a retired English professor, knocks on the doors of local Democrats to deliver campaign literature and rally support in the nearly yearlong effort to force the Republican governor from office. "This time," Hyland tells an elderly couple, "we're going to win."

The battle for Wisconsin has begun, again. Come June, for one of the few times in U.S. history, a sitting governor will be subject to a recall election forced by an extraordinary grass-roots petition campaign that mustered more than 900,000 voter signatures demanding his ouster.

It's the latest chapter in an epic political showdown that began when Walker, 44, took office early last year and boldly moved to cut spending and balance Wisconsin's budget by curtailing collective bargaining rights for most public employees -- a step that led thousands of workers to storm the Capitol in Madison in protest, even as Republicans coast to coast rallied to his side.

Now, the battle is revving up again for the looming recall, with both sides mobilizing in every corner of the state, saying there is no time to waste.

Fresh lawn signs for and against Walker are popping up in neighborhoods and along rural roads throughout western Wisconsin.

In the scenic river towns of River Falls and Hudson, organizers on both sides are putting in long days working phones and knocking on doors, hoping one more call or another doorstep chat will give them the edge in a bitter fight that is newly dividing neighborhoods, friends and families.

Money for TV and radio ads is pouring in, too, as special interest groups watching from afar try to influence the outcome. By the time the vote is history, a record $60 million to $80 million is expected in gubernatorial campaign fundraising and spending, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a watchdog organization that tracks spending on state politics and elections.

"Everybody thinks civics are boring," said Hyland, the Democratic Party volunteer. "But this is really going to heat up. So much is riding on this."

High stakes

The June 5 election is the first gubernatorial recall vote in state history and only the third in the United States.

But the outcome has implications far beyond a governor's fate or the political futures of four state senators and a lieutenant governor, all of whom are recall targets.

Framed as a fight for the future of America's working class, the battle will likely carry into November, when President Obama seeks re-election and voters decide which party controls the U.S. Senate.

"Governor Walker's agenda has been an agenda for governors and legislators in many states," said Charles Franklin, visiting professor of law and public policy at Marquette University Law School. "So his recall, whether successful or unsuccessful, represents sort of an early vote on that agenda."

Franklin said monthly polling by the law school shows that only about 5 percent of voters are undecided. Depending on the poll and the challenger, he said, Walker is running neck and neck with all four potential Democratic candidates.

"Our call would be a very tight race with a slight tilt toward Walker," Franklin said. "But other polls show the Democrats leading by 1, 2, or 3 points."

In River Falls, many are bracing for a frenzied finish.

Walker is such a polarizing figure that in many circles, people refuse to discuss him.

"It's business suicide," one businessman, who asked not to be identified, said over coffee at the South Fork Cafe.

"It doesn't ever come up in mixed company because it can get real, real ugly," said Michele Thurston, a stay-at-home mother who works part time at a greenhouse. "It's 'I know what I know. You're wrong. The end.' You're not going to change any minds at this point."

Said Rick Blakeley, a retired 3M employee and former school administrator and board member, "There are really strong opinions. You have to be careful."

Blakeley knows well. He and his wife, Sandy, a retired school teacher and union member, generally have similar perspectives on political issues, but not when it comes to how Walker balanced the budget.

"I do hope he is a one-term governor," said Rick Blakeley, who has other concerns about Walker's work. "But I think he did the right thing, but perhaps not in the right way, in lessening the grip on public employee unions on our budget."

Said Sandy Blakeley, "I just don't like to discuss it with him. We agree to disagree."

'People are motivated'

Last week, hours after the recall was set, Danneker began driving Pierce County roads to deliver Walker campaign signs. By Friday, he had only two dozen left from a supply of 150.

Demand was even stronger at the Walker "Victory Center" in Hudson, where nearly 1,000 signs were scooped up by mid week. "People are motivated," said Jesse Garza, chairman of the St. Croix County Republican Party. "And they are mad."

As Garza spoke, party volunteers worked the phones behind him, surveying voters "to identify who stands with Walker and who does not," he said.

At the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, college Republicans gathered outside the student center to distribute Walker bumper stickers and campaign signs. The group plans to set up a table in the student center in coming days to distribute more literature and encourage passersby to vote.

"It's just like it's November," said Carlan Strand, a senior.

Those working to oust Walker are equally motivated.

University Democrats recently made plans to promote voter registration and to scribble messages in chalk on campus sidewalks encouraging students to vote Democratic.

"If the markings are stylized and a little bit attractive, that really helps to capture students' attention," said Lauren Evans, a senior marketing major and the group's president.

At the Democratic Party Resource Center in River Falls, Barb Greub, a volunteer married to a retired college professor, pulls daily shifts answering phones and greeting voters who stop in.

In past election seasons, the office was open only a few months. But with recall mania now dominating state politics, it has been open full time since October.

"A good many of us did nothing about politics until a year ago," Greub said. "But many of us are learning. We're all working together, trying to reclaim Wisconsin."

Much of the Democrats' volunteer work lately has focused on gathering signatures for candidates hoping to challenge Walker. Under Wisconsin law, a recall challenger for the governor's office must submit nomination papers with at least 2,000 voters' signatures to have their name on the ballot.

So far, four Democrats have announced for the May 8 primary: Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who lost to Walker in 2010; former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk; Secretary of State Doug La Follette, and state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout of Alma.

Hyland was among several volunteers to hit city streets and the campus last week to get signatures. It's a familiar role for the retired professor, who has driven to Madison several times over the past year to protest with anti-Walker forces.

"The activists are getting tired and worn down," Hyland said. "But they still keep on because they know there is so much at stake."

Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425

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