Yesterday afternoon’s announcement in front of the Government Accountability Board by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin that more than one million signatures to recall Governor Scott Walker had been gathered eclipsed a smaller, yet very significant event that took place hours earlier at the same location.
Lori Compas and her band of a couple dozen volunteers delivered three boxes full of petitions to recall Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald into the Government Accountability Board just before noon. The boxes were emblazoned with red hearts inked around the tops, and each bore one word: “We” “Love” “Wisconsin.” Compas’s announcement consisted of one sentence: “These boxes contain our hopes, our hard work, and 20,600 signatures!” That’s 3,858 more than the number required to trigger a recall election.
After the announcement, she fumbled around in one of the boxes amidst cheering, tears, and embraces of the sixty well-wishers who gathered in the snow and finally came up with what she was looking for: a trophy. The election “trigger” award was given to Sam Cooper, an organizer with We Are Wisconsin who, unsolicited, showed up to help for the final push in the beginning of January.
While the campaign to recall Scott Fitzgerald is but one of thirteen senate recalls initiated in 2011, it is the only one that has not been organized and financed by the Democratic Party. Conventional political wisdom had it that Fitzgerald was untouchable and a recall effort would be doomed. The Democrats and the affiliated United Wisconsin recall group wouldn’t put any resources into Fitzgerald’s recall.
But these are not conventional times and another kind of wisdom is emerging. From her outrage at Fitzgerald’s abuses of power and betrayal of trust exhibited over the past year, Lori Compas took it upon herself to launch a campaign. She did so without any prior experience or the support of mainstream political groups. Lori took a couple thousand dollars and marshaled a small army of similarly indignant citizens to hit the streets of Beaver Dam, Ft. Atkinson, Watertown, and Deerfield in search of signatures.
In this conservative area of the state, volunteers braved insults and difficult interactions with people. In order to embolden them, Compas made up “F Bomb” pins and awarded them to people who had been targeted by verbal assaults.
The Recall Fitzgerald campaign focused on his unswerving loyalty to Scott Walker at the expense of his constituents, the open meetings law violation he committed when calling a vote on the Budget Repair Bill last spring without sufficient notice, and his role in legislative redistricting — a move that was shrouded in secrecy and carried out by high-priced lawyers who were awarded the job without going through a bidding process.
The success of this campaign is an object lesson in grassroots organizing. It gives the lie to the conventional wisdom that parties, highly paid political consultants, and lobbyists have to drive the political process. With her determination to unseat Scott Fitzgerald, Lori Compas has single-handedly demonstrated that politics driven by engaged citizens reaching out to and conversing with their neighbors about the concerns of the day can be a compelling and successful strategy.
Once the signatures have been verified and an election is triggered, the people of the 13th Senate District will be looking to Lori for her suggestions about a candidate to run against Fitzgerald. Many people think she should run herself. After all, she has already shaken the hands of thousands of people in the district, and even won a face-to-face debate with Fitzgerald during his office hours last December.
Rebecca Kemble is an Anthropologist who studied decolonization in Kenya. She serves on the Board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and as the President of the Dane County TimeBank.