Why the Coalition Trying to Recall Scott Walker Is Splintering

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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

Madison, Wis.

Every weekday at noon, several dozen Wisconsinites gather at the state capitol in Madison to translate their anger into song. Sometimes the gathering is inside the gleaming rotunda, where thousands bedded down on the marble floors last winter to protest Governor Scott Walker’s fiscal reform. Sometimes they meet outside in the square, by a weather-worn memorial that was dedicated in 1893. The hour-long protest is dubbed the Solidarity Sing Along, and it began on March 11 of last year as a way to sustain the spirit of protest kindled by Walker’s “budget repair” bill.

On a beautiful day last week, about 60 people basked in the sunshine, crooning and dancing to folk tunes with tweaked lyrics that blasted Walker and his conservative benefactors, the Koch brothers. The protesters — a mix of grandparents, 20-somethings, aging hippies and blue collar professionals — blew vuvuzelas and trumpets, jangled tambourines and passed out songbooks to gawking onlookers. They hoisted signs denouncing conservative groups and Wisconsin’s Republican legislators. There was a stuffed monster from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and placards spoofing Walker’s campaign slogans. Some of the protesters were upset over the restrictions Walker applied to public workers’ negotiating rights. Others groused about his disregard for the environment as well as the ongoing “John Doe” grand-jury investigation that has ensnared several former staffers. Still more blanched at cuts to education and budget reductions that favor the wealthy. Wisconsin’s progressive activists have enough grievances that there’s no agreement on which to redress first.

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The members of the Solidarity Sing Along are a microcosm of the anti-Walker movement: passionate about public policy, eager to fight for their values, invested in the community they have forged — and yet, not entirely on the same page. Despite the outpouring of anger at Walker, on an electoral level, the governor’s opponents have struggled to channel the enthusiasm that garnered more than 1 million recall signatures into a successful campaign.

As a result, the campaign to recall Walker is sputtering, and the governor has pulled ahead in the polls with a little over two weeks to go until the June 5 election. “There’s a lot of despair, a lot of anger,” says Chris Reeder, 41, an activist who helps lead the Solidarity Sing Along. “The polls are very scary.”

To begin with, recall proponents could have used a consensus candidate to pit against the incumbent. Tom Barrett, the Milwaukee mayor who will square off against Walker on June 5, was defeated by the governor in 2010 and advocated for some of the same changes to union benefits (including increasing the amount most public employees contribute to their pension and health care costs) as the governor. Barrett’s record of tangling with unions led labor to squander several million dollars on Dane County executive Kathleen Falk, a liberal primary challenger whom Barrett clobbered by nearly 20 points.

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Walker moans about the out-of-state union money arrayed against him, but the truth, say Democrats involved in the recall fight, is that labor is tepid about Barrett and depleted by costly battles in Ohio and Indiana. The Milwaukee mayor has relentlessly attacked Walker, which is to be expected in a race that is by nature a referendum on the incumbent, but Barrett has done little to articulate a clear agenda of his own. When Republicans call Barrett a cipher, they aren’t without a point.

To protect their imperiled star, the GOP has assembled a solid ground game buoyed by robust fundraising and a clear economic message. By contrast, Walker’s opponents are a fractured force: a loose constellation of Democrats, political-action committees and labor groups with overlapping goals but spotty coordination. The Democrats have been unable to drive a consistent message, careening from collective bargaining, Walker’s purported dishonesty and the “war on women” to jobs and education.  In part, that’s because the recall push remains balkanized, with the state party, labor groups and PACs like We Are Wisconsin and United Wisconsin each acting autonomously. And some of them are fine with the mixed messaging. “You always see liberals suffering from it to a certain extent,” says Reeder, the Solidarity Sing Along leader.

“In the same way the Occupy movement didn’t have a coherent message, that’s not necessarily the point,” says Erik Kirkstein, the 30-year-old political director of United Wisconsin, which spearheaded the recall and is now focusing its efforts on voter registration. A collection of motivated volunteers, it has just five full-time paid staff. As a nonpartisan group, United Wisconsin didn’t endorse a candidate in the Democratic primary, a stance that dovetails with its emphasis on citizen engagement rather than electoral results. “This is a human response to making middle-class people bear the brunt of a bad economy,” he says, sipping coffee in the group’s sparsely furnished storefront office on the east side of Milwaukee, which has T-shirts for sale and labor-printed signs plastered to the walls. “People are engaged politically to a level that’s scarcely been seen anywhere.”

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While Walker casts his adversaries as a collection of out-of-state union goons, the reality, as his opponents note, is that he is the one riding a wave of out-of-state cash. Many of his foes weren’t political activists before last winter, and they have brought a convert’s enthusiasm to the task. Confronted with the problem of how to continue protesting when darkness set in by the evening rush hour, Lane Hall, an English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, launched a group called the Overpass Light Brigade, which hoists anti-Walker slogans spelled out by battery-operated LED lights above local freeways around the state. “It’s people power vs. money power, corporate power,” says Hall, 56, who started Overpass Light Brigade with his partner Lisa Moline, a Web designer. “Everybody gets all worked up about the union busting, and I’m not negating that, but for me the biggest deal is his assault on education, his basic attacks on social services, on women’s rights and environmental issues.”

The DNC’s tentativeness about plunging into the contest, which Republicans attribute to fears that a loss would tarnish President Obama’s chances in the state, has irked some local activists, who note that two-thirds of Walker’s $25 million haul came from out of state, while the RNC pledged to go “all in” to protect its imperiled star. “It’s very disheartening,“ Reeder says of the DNC’s absence in the race. During an interlude in the singing, he instructed his brethren to “call the DNC, tell them we need the help. We are on the front lines. We need it now.” The mention of the national party sparked a few boos.

But even as he bemoans the David-vs.-Goliath feeling, Reeder says the point is the act of protest, even if the end result isn’t what the protesters envisioned. “For us, it’s not about this electoral battle as much,” he says. “Whatever happens, this community doesn’t end here.”

But in some ways it will. After nearly 15 months, the daily solidarity gathering in the shadow of the capitol will stop meeting the week of June 5.

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