Behind Wisconsin Democrats’ Million-Signature Show of Force in Walker Recall Effort

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Mark Hirsch / Getty Images

Volunteers walk by supporters outside the Government Accountability Office on their way to deliver a box containing signatures to recall Governor Scott Walker in Madison, Wis., on Jan. 17, 2012

Asked why he signed a petition to recall Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, George Shiver, 55, emptied a bag of prescription medications onto the coffee table in his untidy Eau Claire apartment. “These are the drugs I take to stay alive every month,” says the single father of four, who is on disability, food stamps and Medicaid. In 2003, he says, doctors told him that a bout of influenza had caused a neurological disorder that routinely manifests itself in dizzying, seizure-like spells. He takes three medications for high cholesterol, one for his kidneys, morphine for back pain, Advair for severe asthma and an anti-depressant he’s been on since his wife committed suicide in March of 2010. “If the governor has his way and keeps cutting things,” Shiver says, “where will it not only leave me, but people like me in the future?”

(PHOTOS: The February 2011 Showdown in Wisconsin

In the 60-day window state law gives recall committees to gather enough signatures to force an election, Thursday evening marked Steve Shilts’ third sweep through Shiver’s low-income block. The volunteer for United Wisconsin, the committee commanding the effort, handed a clipboard to Shiver, who gamely signed his name in support of ousting the governor, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and a local state senator, Terry Moulton, one of four Republican state senators targeted in the drive. Shilts and three other volunteers spent an hour on the block and gathered 15 signatures, which they would later submit to officials at United Wisconsin, who need signatures from 540,208 eligible voters to trigger a recall of governor Walker. On Tuesday, the deadline for filing the signatures, the group announced it had turned in more than 1 million names to the state’s Government Accountability Board, a show of political force for the Democrat- and union-backed movement to make Walker just the third governor in U.S. history to be ousted from office in a recall election.

If the signature-gathering effort is any indication, Wisconsin Democrats want to make the recall debate about Walker’s cuts to the social safety net, not the collective bargaining restrictions that launched mass union protests and a spate of senate recall votes last year. Shiver’s hard-luck story was exactly the kind of cautionary tale Shilts was telling to residents last Thursday. Shilts is a member of a teachers union, but his pitches didn’t stray into labor politics. Instead, he focused on Walker’s cuts to health benefits and school districts. Shilts is an educational psychologist at elementary schools in the nearby Chippewa Falls school district, which could face up to $3 million in cuts next year under Walker’s latest budget. The plan closed a $3.6 billion shortfall.

(MORE: A Coup in Wisconsin: How the Governor Got His Way)

As a result of Walker’s budget plan, Shilts says he and his wife, a second-grade teacher, have lost at least $800 a month in take-home pay and have switched to health insurance plans with higher deductibles. But the self-described progressive Democrat insists his motives for volunteering are not financial. “When you take $800 million out of public education it hurts children,” he says. “That was number one. Not to mention other things that hurt seniors and the working poor. It’s not hard to get off the couch and get out there and get this guy recalled.” Shilts, who has been canvassing since Nov. 15, says face-to-face encounters have rarely been hostile, even when there was ideological disagreement. Petition sites on street corners, meanwhile, have seen more ugliness, as passers-by have shouted slights like, “You’re the haves and we’re the have-nots!”

Now that Democrats have submitted their signatures, the street fight to wrestle the governor out of office will likely move to the courtroom. Walker’s campaign has already struck a legal victory against the Government Accountability Board, which a judge ruled must take more stringent measures to validate signatures than it did during last summer’s recall elections of nine state senators—two of whom Democrats successfully ousted. The GAB is not anticipated to contest that ruling, but the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that the board might request an extension on the 31-day period it has under state law to determine whether a recall election should go forward. The GAB has said it will need at least 60 days to approve the petitions against Walker and Lt. Gov. Kleefisch, which could push the potential recall vote into March. If Democrats, who have yet to coalesce around a single challenger, decide to hold primaries, the recall vote might not happen until summer. Costs to state and local governments could rise–the GAB estimated the recall’s price-tag to be $9 million, not accounting for primaries—and the board will need court approval for any extension.

Beyond the courtroom, the GOP will use its volunteers to scrutinize the rolls for invalid signatures, providing a check on the GAB and a potential basis for more legal challenges. Walker’s campaign is coordinating with the state party to recruit volunteers for the joint verification effort, says Ben Sparks, communications director for Wisconsin’s Republican Party. He says more than 5,000 residents have already signed up on Walker’s campaign website, and that the party has opened ten field offices across the state. At one of those offices in Eau Claire on Monday night, about 75 people showed up for an informational session hosted by party officials, says Brian Westrate, chairman of the Republican Party of Eau Claire County.

It’s all part of a groundswell of GOP activism that Westrate says he hasn’t seen in a decade of his involvement in Wisconsin Republican politics. Last summer, the party set up a booth at the local Bob and Rocco Gun Show, where he said he saw unprecedented support for Walker. “People came up to us really upset at what they believed was the hubris of public employees,” he says. “We’ve seen a lot of the benefits [of Walker’s policies]. Property taxes have gone down. Budget gaps have turned into budget surpluses.” Sparks, of the state GOP, points to a private sector net job gain since Walker took office. (By December, the state has gained about 16,000 private sector jobs, notes, which has been tracking Walker’s promise to create 250,000 private sector jobs by 2015. But it lost 11,700 in November alone, the largest monthly job loss since Walker took office). “The simple truth is that this recall effort is a partisan power grab on behalf of Wisconsin Democrats,” he says. “Walker campaigned on balancing the budget without raising taxes and he did just that.”

Shiver, the ailing father, agrees that Walker fulfilled his campaign promises, and says he may have voted for the Republican before he got sick. That happened while he was living in Florida, where Shiver worked for a military contractor, Computer Science Raytheon, as a telemetric technician with salary and benefits. Although Shiver was a union member, he also considered himself a faithful Republican for some 30 years. Then sickness struck him and his wife. Laid off and facing eviction in 2007, he moved to Wisconsin with his family on the advice of his son, who told him about the state’s generous health care benefits. Now he attributes those benefits to alleviating much of his pain and allowing him to progress toward his short-term goal of being healthy enough to go fishing with his daughter.

Last fall, Walker and his Republican allies were pushing forward with $500 million in cuts to close a shortfall in the state’s health care plans. Such a move would drop coverage for 65,000 enrollees, according to the legislature’s budget office. But the state recently lowered its estimates to a $232 million shortfall and Walker has said he’s open to making a deal with the federal government that would prevent those cuts. In any case, Shiver wants to protect his benefits. “He is doing what he promised,” Shiver says of Walker. “But the people who put him in office, they’re the people who have insurance. That’s why I signed the petition.”