Spring in Wisconsin: The things we do with friends
On February 14, 2011, after word had spread about the surprises in Governor Walker’s draconian budget, I went to Wisconsin's Capitol square by myself to see what was going on. Over the next few weeks, I went many times again, always alone, to participate in the growing protests. I didn’t ask anyone to come with me because l didn’t know my neighbors’ political leanings and didn’t want to put anyone on the spot or start a fight. Maybe my husband and I were the only people in our neighborhood who didn’t vote Republican. Who knew? Not me.
In my suburban village north of Madison, I voted but didn’t have time for political activities. I went to work, went shopping, sometimes went to church and to neighborhood picnics. Having the standard social graces, I made sure never to talk politics.
Then on March 9, 2011, Wisconsin’s Republican leadership, having locked up the capitol building following weeks of protest, posted guards and illegally short-circuited the legislative process so that they could strip Wisconsin public employees of collective bargaining rights. They decisively threw citizens out of the governing process to serve their campaign contributors instead.
These were the actions that finally and fully revealed the Wisconsin Republicans’ willingness to discard the rule of law and democracy itself in their pursuit of government-by-corporation—and the actions that finally broke down the wall of political silence between me and my neighbors.
This past weekend, Wisconsin observed the first anniversary of those dreadful events. Friday night was the sneak preview of We Are Wisconsin: The Movie. I had the tickets when my husband and I got separated in the crowd outside the theater, so I went in to get seats before I came back out to look for him. My hand was stamped by a woman from our village with whom my husband and I had collected recall signatures—a woman who was a stranger a year ago. I asked her to keep an eye out for him, and we were soon reunited.
At the refreshment counter, I ran into a friend from a previous job, whose political beliefs I had not known until this year. In the lobby on our way out, we ran into two other couples, new acquaintances we’d met this past year at various protest, teach-in, and recall activities.
Saturday was the big rally. Instead of going alone, as I’d done so many times last winter, I called a woman from my husband’s church, whom I had seen at previous rallies. “Sure, we can car pool,” Karen said, “I’m driving Janice, too. It’ll be a hoot to go together.” Karen’s husband, John, came along too.
Police say 35,000 people were there on Saturday; organizers said 65,000. For once, I suspect the organizers are closer to the truth, as I recall what it felt like last March 12, when more than 100,000 (by everyone’s estimation) gathered to welcome back the 14 state senators who had fled to Illinois to slow down the legislation.
The crowd on the north side of Madison's Capitol square, March 10, 2012. A similar crowd filled the west side with more on State Street.
A full year without collective bargaining rights and with only a tenuous hold on democracy itself is hardly cause for celebration. But this was definitely a celebration. What we have accomplished in a year! I have been only a foot soldier, but days like this highlight the honor and joy of being a foot soldier.
In the past year, we successfully turned two legislators out of office, narrowing the Republicans’ advantage in the state senate to only one, the honorable Dale Schulz (R-Richland Center.) His single vote protected Wisconsin’s northern lakes and forests from a new mining-permit process that would have excluded public participation and, in another piece of legislation, protected the recall process itself.
Sen. Jennifer Schilling (D-La Crosse), spoke about the recall elections completed last summer. She had been elected to replace one of the booted-out senators. Describing herself as a “mom with a minivan and a mortgage” she had been asked to run for office a few times before 2011, but had always politely declined. Then “it suddenly became clear on that March night. I didn’t recognize my state.” The people who had run for office while she sat at home, “were in Madison acting like democracy was optional or something.”
In the past year, we have also collected more than enough signatures for another round of recall elections, this time recalling Governor Scott Walker. We collected so many signatures that the Walker campaign declined to challenge any. So just last week, the recall was certified and the election date set for June 12.
Mary Kay Henry, state president of the Service Employees International Union, spoke about the work we’ve done collecting signatures. She told us of a blind woman in Milwaukee who learned to ride the city busses so she could circulate recall petitions among fellow riders. I was reminded of a day when I'd found myself collecting signatures in an unexpected location. I’d been wearing a button that said “I have a petition with me. Ask if you want to recall Walker.” The woman bagging my groceries said that she and a few other cashiers and baggers hadn’t signed yet. If I could wait, she could take a break. She and the cashier quickly consulted about the best place where the bagger could meet me, and I ended up with a temporary petition-signing station in the ladies room at Woodman's grocery store.
In the past year, we also collected more than enough signatures to recall Sen. Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), the Senate Majority Leader who plays the whip-smart and whip-wielding Dick Cheney to Walker’s intellect-challenged Bush.
Lori Compas of Fort Atkinson, the citizen-hero who initiated recall petitioning in Fitzgerald’s conservative district against the wishes and initially without the support of either the Democratic Party or the labor unions, also spoke on Saturday. After the rousing speeches by the labor leaders, her softer voice floated over the crowd, quieting us the way a kindergarten teacher can quiet a rowdy class by starting softly to sing.
She spoke of the Sandhill cranes she had seen the night before, “flying low above the cornfields outside our town. Every year their return reminds us that even after the most difficult winters, new life is stirring and new beginnings are under way.” Noting the rally was “not to mourn what we lost a year ago, but to celebrate what happened next,” she held what she called "Fitzgerald's pink slip" above her head. It was the memo from the state’s Government Accountability Board certifying a sufficient number of valid signatures to recall the snarling Sen. Fitzgerald. That made us noisy again.
Compas is now Fitzgerald's opponent in the recall election, and she acknowledges she’s an underdog in the race. In a television interview, she said she was “almost paralyzed by fear” at the thought of the campaign ahead, the amount of money Sen. Fitzgerald will raise, and the nastiness of the ads he is sure to buy.
“I was frequently told,” she said, “that I seemed to be too nice to get into politics, that I did not have enough money.” Compas said she thought about that, but ended up asking herself, “Why should the meanest people with the most money get to make the rules for the rest of us? Government should be about ordinary people stepping up to serve.”
“I know there’s no way I can raise as much money,” she admitted “I’m planning to win this election through people power. The way we’re going to win this is friends talking to friends, neighbors talking to neighbors.”
Yep, I've learned that lesson. Friends talking to friends, neighbors talking to neighbors. That's not only the most effective way to win back democracy, it's the most fun.