Kathleen Falk is not kidding around.
The first Democrat to jump in the race against Gov. Scott Walker, she has been relentlessly building her campaign, traveling the state and gathering endorsements from all the big labor and environmental groups, including AFSCME, WEAC, SEIU, Clean Wisconsin Action Fund, IBEW Local 159, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and AFT.
Falk has also put together an impressive team. Megan Mahaffey, who, as director of United Wisconsin, oversaw the petition drive that collected more than 1 million signatures to launch the recall against Walker, is now managing her campaign. Scot Ross of One Wisconsin Now does her press. Falk recently grabbed Ed Garvey's right-hand woman, Lily Johnson, who does the heavy lifting to put on Fighting Bob Fest.
Falk is not about to take Garvey's advice and refuse money from unions and PACs, however. "I so wish we had campaign finance reform, but we don't yet," she says, noting Walker's massive fundraising advantage. "To have field offices and staff takes some resources."
EMILY's List just sent out a national fundraising letter on Falk's behalf.
At a recent meeting of the Oconomowoc Democrats, near Falk's childhood home in Waukesha County, she impressed the crowd. Wearing an electric blue blazer and delivering a stump speech packed with applause lines, she came across as the frontrunner, speaking after the other declared Democrat, state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma) and before soft-spoken independent Dr. Hari Trivedi, who announced, almost shyly, "We need a thrilling candidate. That's why I am running."
"We don't have time to wait," Falk told the 75 Democrats gathered in the public library in Oconomowoc.
She warmed up the crowd with a story about fishing with her dad in the nearby rivers and lakes, and then held up an old article from the local paper about the conservation club she started in Waukesha County when she was 8 years old.
She pivoted to an attack on Walker before wrapping up with a reminder that there are only two and a half months to go before the likely election, and asking audience members for their vote.
Then she left for the next stop on that day's schedule, which included a nurses conference, a meeting with union painters, a laborers dinner in Fond du Lac and a speech in Oshkosh to the Winnebego County Dems.
Falk is quickly emerging as Walker's most likely opponent.
As the event wound down, Dwayne Block of the Oconomowoc Democrats thanked all the speakers and mentioned that more candidates, including Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, might get in the race. "I mention [U.S. Sen.] Herb Kohl. People say he's too old, he doesn't want to do it," Block said, adding, hopefully, "But these are tough times. He may do it yet…. By the way, he wins every county in the state when he runs, including Waukesha County."
The persistent wish for another candidate - someone, anyone, with statewide name recognition, star power and across-the-aisle appeal - comes up again and again.
Former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, the most-fantasized-about non-candidate, has begun sounding testy on the talk-show circuit as he promotes his new book, only to be asked over and over, by Jon Stewart, Bill Maher and, most recently, Amy Goodman, whether he really, really means to stay out of the race.
When I mention this adoration for Feingold to Falk, she smiles and says, "Awww."
"I love Russ," she adds. "I speak to Russ on the phone all the time."
As for the continuing speculation about people who have not declared, Falk says people's wish for the perfect candidate speaks to the importance of the race.
"People want a knight in shining armor," she says. "The reason that person hasn't stepped forward," she adds, "is that person doesn't exist."
The person who has stepped forward is Kathleen Falk.
The former Dane County executive and environmental lawyer, Falk brought developers and environmentalists together to save public lands around Madison and designed a smart growth plan. With her somewhat stiff manner, Falk faces some of the same criticisms that dogged Hillary Clinton in her 2008 presidential run, when Clinton was repeatedly asked if she was "likable" enough.
Falk chalks up the style criticism to sexism.
She recounts her days as state public intervenor - before Tommy Thompson eliminated the office - when, apart from a stenographer, she was often the only woman in the courtroom. She remembers the snide questions she fielded about who would care for her son and whether she could balance a budget when she ran for county exec.
Falk has cut a path for women. "We've come a long way," she says. "We still have a long way to go."
As for connecting with an audience, "different candidates have different strengths," says Ross. Some are baby-kissers and some "really know policy." He puts Kathleen in the second camp.
Falk has certainly demonstrated she can balance a budget - for 14 years in a row as county executive.
That record has become a staple of her stump speech. But there were some bruising battles over budget cuts, especially in human services.
"She pushed people hard to do the best we could with our resources," says human services manager Ron Chance. "But she didn't just walk away. She got right in the trenches and actually met with low-income families and got them jobs."
Whatever her shortcomings, by getting in the race early and building such a strong organization, Falk has a huge jump on the competition.
The window is closing for one of those knights everyone talks about - Feingold, Kohl, former Congressman Dave Obey, or even Barrett, who lost to Walker last time - to suit up.
The unions, meanwhile, have placed their bets on Falk. In a 4,000-person conference call, AFT leaders recently explained to their membership why they made their endorsement.
Falk gave "the best, most complete answer" when asked about restoring public employees' collective bargaining rights, they said.
That answer - in the form of a signed pledge to veto any state budget that does not explicitly restore the union rights Walker infamously eliminated - could be a political liability in a general election.
Even Falk's supporters worry that voters who care about a broad range of issues won't like the idea of holding the whole budget hostage to a single issue.
But Falk isn't backing down.
"It's honest," she says. "Last time I checked, campaigns were about telling people what you would do and how you would do it."
The budget is the only means of imposing final, executive authority on policy, she points out. And the budget is the only bill that must pass. So if a governor is unwilling to veto the state budget over an issue, "you've made yourself impotent as governor," she says.
"We're in this mess because Gov. Walker was not honest. I am, and I have been. That's why all these organizations trust me."
Falk also dismisses concerns about her being labeled a Dane County liberal. "It's a Republican talking point because the Republicans are worried that a Dane County Democrat can win," she says. Feingold won three times, and former Gov. Jim Doyle won five times in statewide races: "We elect more statewide leaders from Dane County than anywhere."
Most of all, Falk argues she is the best candidate because she's the one who has committed herself to doing the work to get elected. And there is no time to wait.
"I share people's angst. We have only one shot at this. We have to win."
That's why, she says, "I am committed to work morning, noon and night."
And with that, she's off to the next campaign event.