It's Working: Wisconsin's Recall to End all Recalls

by Abe Sauer

Recall is the new Occupy. Today, seven states will see at least 26 separate recalls in 11 jurisdictions. And starting November 15th, a massive Wisconsin-wide petition drive will attempt to fulfill a promise from February to recall Governor Scott Walker. It’s a massive undertaking, and there is reason to believe it will succeed, but also reasons it will fail. Once filed, the recall effort will have 60 days to —

Suckers! On the afternoon of Friday, October 4th, a former Walker donor submitted a petition to recall the governor under the committee name “Close Friends to Recall Walker.” The filing, which noted it was done “to fulfill my friend’s last request,” triggers a rule allowing Walker unlimited fundraising during the 60-day period and comes, magically, days before Walker begins a fundraising trip to, amongst other places, California, Arizona and Wichita. (Gee, what’s in Kansas?)

In late October, Public Policy Polling assessed the prospects of a successful Walker recall as “dimming.” The PPP called Walker “still not popular” but noted that 49 percent were opposed to a recall. Further, the group could not find a single challenger who would best him. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, his 2010 challenger, falls short, 48-to-46 percent. That’s down from a 50–43 advantage in May. Democrats’ last great hope, Russ Feingold, has declined to run for either governor or Herb Kohl’s senate seat, happy instead to martyr himself in a doomed crusade to convince both parties to stop accepting so much campaign cash.

An October Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI) poll of Wisconsinites found 49 percent did not support a recall, while 47 percent did.

But that same poll found that though 42 percent “strongly” or “somewhat” approve of how Walker “is handling his job as Governor of Wisconsin,” a full 45 percent “strongly disapprove.”

WPRI is one of those conservative “free market” organizations that puts “Institute” in its name so dim people think it’s research extends beyond hypotheses like “How much money can we get for this study?” PPP, meanwhile, is a leftist pinko propaganda organ. With the sampling error basically washing out any meaning, these polls tells us nothing about what’s to come, except more polls.

In liberal Madison, yard and window signs calling for the governor’s recall are commonplace. But then, as the governor himself has said, “You’ve got a world driven by Madison, and a world driven by everybody else out across the majority of the rest of the state of Wisconsin.” (This idea that a state’s major metropolis is not a “real” part of its state is not just for New Yorkers anymore! A Minnesota supreme court judge recently said the same about the Twin Cities.)

In what the governor considers “real” Wisconsin, Recall Walker bumpers stickers and signs are not as common, but not completely absent. In part, this is because Walker enjoys a lot more support outside Madison (and Milwaukee). It is also because, in smaller towns, residents forced to live in proximity work hard to avoid open conflict. When petitioners go door to door and small-towners are given the private opportunity to speak, anything could happen. Just be careful out there petitioners: Wisconsin’s new concealed carry gun law was just complemented by new “castle doctrine” legislation. Were you just asking for a signature or did the homeowner act reasonably against you with deadly force? Who knows!

To listen to state Democratic Party Chair Mike Tate is to believe Walker’s defeat is a foregone conclusion. Many Recall Walker supporters are realistic about their enthusiasm. Yet four or five of the state’s politics bloggers I spoke with privately expressed skepticism about the uphill battles of both getting all of the signatures and then actually beating the governor.

While all of the attention is on Walker, Democrats will likely try and recall a number of state senators and representatives as well. The governorship may be the jewel in the crown. But with the 17–16 control of the state senate, the successful recall of one Republican would put Democrats in position to counter and block all Walker legislation going forward.

If mutually assured destruction was good enough for the Cold War, it’s good enough for Wisconsin. Republican state leaders have also expressed interest in recalling as many Democrats as possible. In November, 11 Republicans will qualify for recalls. Six Democrats in office for more than one year, the requirement for recall, will also be vulnerable. Another four Democrats and two Republicans who saw recall efforts against them fail for ample signatures will also be eligible. That is all in addition to the nine senators (three Democratic and six Republican) who were recalled this summer.

Meanwhile, Republicans, who still control both houses even after the successful recall of two state senators this summer, have become the Natasha and Boris of legislative bodies. When not hemming and hawing over where Wisconsinites will and will not be able to pack heat, Walker’s allies are scheming up any dastardly plan possible to trip up the recall effort. In this respect, the Wisconsin legislature has become an M.C. Escher drawing of strategic incompetence.

Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin, has become a one-senator anti-recall superstar. NFL commentators would say she’s “got a lot of motor.”

First, she proposed a new law requiring petitions with recall signatures be officially notarized. Then, Lazich proposed another law that would activate the new district maps for senators, but not for the Assembly, effectively setting up different recall rules for the state’s two legislative bodies. Proving herself a budding satirist, Lazich said of the proposal, “We can’t have disenfranchisement going on.” No, we cannot, which is probably why, back in 2000, Lazich voted for a bill that deleted the requirement that circulators of nomination papers or election-related petitions make an affidavit under oath.

But that stipulation is nothing next to the Republican interpretation of its own recently-passed electoral redistricting plan.

The gerrymander bill passed this summer clearly states, “This act first applies, with respect to special or recall elections, to offices filled or contested concurrently with the 2012 general election.” But now, Republicans are pushing to use the redistricted map for the upcoming recall battle, well prior to next November.

The Government Accountability Board has taken the outrageous position that any recalls take place under the old district maps, just as the new law states. It’s a decision that has brought the wrath of the state chapter of the Club for Growth, which called the board’s decision — a decision that follows the very bill Republicans passed just months ago — a conspiracy of “The Saul Alinsky school of political vandalism” to create chaos so that “the radicals take what they want.”

This Keystone Cops slapstick suggests the possibility that the Republicans will take legal action against their own just-passed law in order to make any recalls more difficult. As Wisconsin politics and law blogger Illusory Tenant put it: “Wisconsin Republicans Get Set to Sue Themselves.”

Then, on Halloween, Senator Lazich did everyone one better. The senator suggested the new districts be enacted immediately only for senators, with the assembly districts left to follow the rules as Republicans wrote them earlier this year. But wait, there’s less! In her case for a batty re-sorting of district rules, Lazich repeatedly cited, to make her case, a pending federal lawsuit against the entire redistricting bill on the grounds of its unconstitutionality. To be clear, to obstruct the recalls, a Wisconsin state senator was citing a lawsuit against a bill that she had authored and passed.

But then, how is a humble state Senator to keep so many elections rules straight? It’s not as if Lazich is the chair of the state senate’s elections committee. What’s that? Lazich is the chair of the elections committee? Oh my.

Lazich’s effort was defeated by the one vote of Senator Dale Schultz. Schultz, a moderate Republican who came out against the governor’s union-busting budget bill earlier in the year, has come to be known as “Governor Schultz” because of the tie-breaking vote power he holds following the recall loss of two GOP state senators in August. (One of those recalled state senators, Randy Hopper, recently celebrated his new unemployment with a post-Packers game DUI, during which he told the officer, “Never run for office.”)

“Time for him to be thrown out of office,” wrote conservative Victor Janicki on Facebook, about Schultz’s vote. The night after the vote, the windows of Schultz’s Capitol office were hit with eggs. (It was the latest salvo in Wisconsin’s battle of ingestibles. In September, a GOP man wearing a dress poured a beer on a Republican state senator in a bar. Conservatives later auctioned the dress on eBay for $255, which was donated to a Walker campaign fund.)

The Government Accountability Board meets on Wednesday, November 9th, to discuss how redistricting will mesh with any recalls. Activists are worried a fast-one will be pulled favoring the new districts. Reid Magney, the Board’s public information officer, assured me that since Schultz blocked Lazich’s bill, no changes will be made at the meeting and any recalls filed in the immediate future would go forward under the old districts. But Magney noted that should recalls against individual senators be filed, say, next June, the new districts may go into effect to avoid mass confusion with the 2012 general election.

While the unions and activists for the Walker recall have been preparing their effort, a small group of activists have maintained a constant protest presence at the Capitol. At the Facebook page “Shit Scott Walker is Doing to My State,” videos are posted nearly daily of some activist arrested for videotaping in the legislative chambers. When a 12-year-old was threatened with arrest for doing her homework in the gallery, with a message scrawled on the back of her notebook, it was seen as the height of idiocy. That idiocy is either the police state that’s been created inside the Capitol or young children used to make a political point. Pick your poison.

November 1 was “Concealed Camera Day,” when 18 were arrested in the Assembly gallery for possessing photographic equipment. The event coincided with the first day concealed handguns were allowed in the Capitol. When he took a photo of another demonstrator being arrested, the editor of The Progressive, Matt Rothschild, was himself arrested (meta-arrested?). The subsequent court hearings for those arrested have been an embarrassing circus, with prosecutors not always sure what the charges are. These actions have helped maintain some momentum through the dry months after the first recalls. But the actions have also hardened pro-Walker forces, who don’t necessarily see any difference between the anti-Walker activists and the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Whether or not the Occupy Madison movement will join with the recall effort is unclear. Quite honestly, the Occupy efforts in Madison have, if anything, handicapped the recall’s reputation. The peak moment of face-in-palm embarrassment was when the Occupy Madison protesters were denied a fresh permit. Now, to have a protest permit revoked in the People’s Republic of Madison takes an extraordinary act, like, say, jerking off in front of people or something. (Handily, public masturbation was cited as one of the complaints about the protesters. )

And the logistics facing the recall are daunting. Currently, volunteers are being trained to collect 540,206 signatures, according to the rules, in 60 days across 72 counties. The recall movement has the distinct advantage of a massive existing activist infrastructure from the spring protests as well as the subsequent summer recalls. This foundation — its lists, phone banks and volunteers — will be leveraged quite quickly to gather signatures. As the movement stretches for the sprint, some inside have begun grumbling about what they see as a Democratic Party highjack.

Several major groups have spearheaded the recall drive, amongst them political action committees United Wisconsin, the Committee to Recall Scott Walker and We Are Wisconsin. Recall activities are being coordinated by the coalition group United Wisconsin, a group some “grassroots” activists feel has been taken over by the state’s Democratic Party.

One gripe is that the party is being less than open about the process. One example an activist gave me is that “They are now running a recall training program that is less than transparent. One can not even write about it after leaving the meetings.”

One of those upset with the Democratic Party’s “highjacking” told me that certain other groups were considering filing their own recall petitions. A sort of protest filing, these groups would trigger their own 60 day windows. So, by the time the United Wisconsin files on Nov. 15, there could be as many as three, four, or even ten different official recalls.

This is important because while different recall groups can combine signatures, those signatures must all have been collected in the same 60 day period. And since any recall submission is sure to involve every lawyer in Wisconsin, it’s just another way things could go wrong.

The Wisconsin Democratic Party did not respond to requests for comment. Nonetheless, the activist who spoke to me about dissension about the recall’s new top-down management style is optimistic about the recall’s chances. He told me all involved might “just ‘kill’ each other” but added that “we’ll get the signatures — all the drama aside.”

Speaking of killing each other, did I mention that Wisconsin has gone gun crazy? After being one of only two states left without a concealed carry law, as of November 1, visitors can just assume all Wisconsinites are packing heat. (No joke, that is the NRA’s logic for the increased lawfulness provided by concealed carry.)

By just the fourth day, 20,381 had applied for a permit. Originally, the emergency rules for carrying a concealed gun required four hours of instruction with a weapon. Those rules were suspended soon after by a legislative committee. That means pointing a gun at someone now fulfills the time requirement for concealed carry training.

Amidst all the gun talk, some dope on a recall Walker Facebook page wrote, “Rather than recall him… Can we kill him instead? Just curious.” Despite a toxic atmosphere of partisan spite, hope for a cooperative future Wisconsin was evident when parties on both sides had a good laugh at the single doofus remark on Facebook. Just kidding.

“Governor Walker Target of Online Death Threat” read the MacIver Institute headline. No question mark. A day later, Capitol Police said they were interviewing the poster. Literally 30 minutes after that statement came another, announcing that 200 rounds of live ammunition had been found at a Madison elementary school playground. “This will only end in something,” said everyone.

The one sure thing is that nobody in Wisconsin seems particularly concentrated on “job creation” right now. Even the hopeless Democrats seem far more concerned with the noble, if cloudy, First Amendment battle over allowing cameras in the Assembly gallery. The failure to create jobs may ultimately torpedo the USS Walker. The governor promised 250,000 private sector jobs in his first four years. After nine months, he’s at just 29,300.

Wisconsin may be struggling to bring jobs back to the state this year, but one industry the state has excelled at is the process by which a dollar bill is manufactured into a TV issue ad.

The nine Senate recalls cost state and local governments just over $2 million to facilitate — but more than $44 million was spent on campaigns and third party issue ads.

The petition to recall the governor by a former Walker donor follows a summer when Republicans ran fake candidates to force Democratic primaries , bleeding out more fundraising time. Walker is now free to raise unlimited funds through all 60 days of each recall filled against him. This fundraising can continue through the GAB’s 31-day signature certification period — a period Magney more or less promised me would take at least twice that long. Any other recalled politician will also be allowed unlimited fundraising during the petition period.

One detail Magney stressed is that while those threatened with recall may raise unlimited funds during the signature collection process, any of that money beyond regular limits ($10,000 per individual or $43,000 per committee) must be spent to combat the recall. After the certification process, funds raised over the usual caps can only be spent on legal fees pertaining to the recall petition. That means all those unlimited funds are like Cinderella. After midnight it turns back into plain old limited funds. For example, if David Koch gives Walker $10 million next week, Walker can only use $10,000 of that during any recall campaign. The governor must spend the other $9,990,000 on anti-recall ads — or what Magney called “positive image ads.”

With a flood of unlimited money for more ads, the governor may be able to afford the real Morgan Freeman.

Then again, recall candidates may not get spit. The trend in Wisconsin is entire elections controlled by third-party messaging. Hell, why give money to a candidate for messages not absolutely under one’s control when messages that you’re absolutely sure to control can be bought directly?

For the last few weeks, Americans for Prosperity and The MacIver Institute have teamed to sponsor the pro-Walker campaign “It’s Working.” Consisting of a website, banner ads and TV commercials, “It’s Working” is “committed to providing the facts to Wisconsin taxpayers.”

A nicer term for “lipstick on a pig,” a “positive image ad” is any that aims to positively spin an issue. In countries we joke about with leaders who wear sunglasses and/or a lot of medals, these ads are called “propaganda” and often come from an arm of government with the term “ministry” in its name.

So far, most of Walker’s supporters believe his reforms have magically transformed the state into a budget-balanced job-creating juggernaut in the space of just six months. To back this up, Walker has leaned heavy on how reforms have saved school districts millions of dollars. The Kaukauna School District has been the poster child for Walker’s reforms, which the governor and “It’s Working” claim left the school with a $1.5M surplus. Closer examination proves the school district maybe saved nothing and almost certainly handicapped itself forever. Meanwhile, the Elmbrook School District Walker claims as a savings success actually achieved those savings by closing one of its popular schools. It’s working!

Getting Walker supporters and those on the fence to believe “it’s working” long enough to beat the recall is the current goal of the administration. And that’s working. But Wisconsin has always been a state where political winds change first and this cycle seems to be going faster than ever. The first crack: State Tea Party-endorsed Rep. Reid Ribble (R-8) has begun working with House Democrats . Then the former roofer hauled his huge testicles over to the Christian Science Monitor and trashed Grover Norquist’s tax pledge.

If the governor is fazed by a state that’s so divided by his existence that his very name is now a battle call or profanity, he’s either too confident or too dim to show it. Walker’s reply to all of the criticism about flailing jobs promises, animosity and a pending recall effort: The capitol tree’s official name will change from “holiday” to “Christmas.”

Abe Sauer can be reached at abesauer at gmail dot com. He is also on Twitter. His book How to be: NORTH DAKOTA is out this month.