Lori Compas was pretty much on her own when she launched a petition drive to recall Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, the powerful and well-financed Republican from Juneau who leads the state Senate.
"I think I got a phone call offering to help me validate my signatures when I was on my way to turn them in," says Compas, when asked what kind of support she got from the state Democratic Party.
Once she declared she would run against Fitzgerald - after no one else stepped up - the party offered some help fundraising and dispatched a paid staffer to coordinate her campaign. But it has put most of its resources into other recall efforts.
Compas, 41, doesn't look or sound like most politicians. Giving a pep talk at her campaign office in Columbus to a few dozen volunteers, she is soft-spoken, friendly and casually dressed. She is also candid and not afraid to admit when she doesn't know the answer to a question. If you didn't know any better, you might mistake her for one of the volunteers.
A communications consultant and freelance writer, Compas lives in Fort Atkinson with her husband, Eric, a professor of geography. She says she was moved by President Barack Obama's message of hope and change in 2008, but never paid much attention to state politics and did not consider herself an activist. The 2011 Capitol protests over Gov. Scott Walker's plans to eliminate most collective bargaining rights for public workers and cut funding for education and health care changed all that.
"It was like I just woke up overnight," says Compas.
Even more than the issues themselves, Compas was outraged by the process.
"[At the Capitol] we saw Fitzgerald repeatedly abuse his power," says Compas. "I realized that it's not enough to just cast a ballot once every two or four years. You have to watch the people you elect and hold them accountable."
Compas' transformation from apolitical citizen to activist to crusading candidate has earned her folk-hero status among her supporters.
"I've never been as inspired in my life as I am by Lori," says Karen Tuerk, who lives in Madison but volunteers for Compas. "She's a real leader."
The challenge to Fitzgerald is one of four efforts to recall GOP state senators on June 5, the same day recall elections will be held against Gov. Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch. The control of the Senate lies in the balance.
Democrats failed to win a majority in the Senate in last August's recall elections, but the recent resignation of GOP Sen. Pam Galloway has the body split evenly between Democrats and Republicans. Fitzgerald now shares leadership in the Senate with Sen. Mark Miller (D-Monona). If Dems win just one of the four Senate recall races, they will take back control of the Senate.
Although Compas led the effort to gather 20,000 signatures to recall Fitzgerald, she did not think she would also be the one to take him on at the ballot box.
"After the recall effort was successful, I had assumed more experienced politicians would step up to challenge him, but nobody did," says Compas.
Before taking the plunge, Compas needed some coaxing from other recall volunteers, who came to view her as a confident leader after she directly confronted Fitzgerald at a public meeting last December about one of his fundraising letters that called the recall effort "fraudulent."
Compas considers herself a Democrat but at first did not want to run under the party banner. "I wanted to run as an independent, because this isn't about me. It's about this movement, and this movement has been independent," she says.
But she decided that it would be important to have a "D" next to her name if the Republicans recruited a "fake" Democrat to run on the ballot, which is exactly what has happened in her race and the other three Senate recall elections.
Compas, in any case, has her work cut out for her. Senate District 13, which contains parts of Dodge and Jefferson counties, is traditionally Republican turf. Fitzgerald has won election five times since 1994, and the Democrats usually didn't even bother fielding a candidate against him. The district's voters have selected Republican presidential and gubernatorial candidates in every cycle since 2000. When Obama won the state by a 14-point margin in 2008, John McCain still pulled in 51% of the vote in the 13th Senate District.
And Fitzgerald has gobs more money on hand than Compas: $430,000 versus $85,000, as of Monday. She will also first need to get by the "fake" Democrat Gary Ellerman and Libertarian candidate Terry Virgil in the May 8 primary.
Compas is banking on the changed political climate following last year's protests to win her independent and Republican support. She says that in the process of gathering signatures she met several Republicans who were opposed to Fitzgerald's and Walker's budget cuts and efforts to weaken public-sector unions. Just outside the 13th District in Waupun, corrections officers, a conservative element of organized labor, have staged modest protests against Walker's budget and collective bargaining restrictions, which they claim have left them overworked and understaffed.
Compas says that Republicans who may agree with the substance of Fitzgerald's politics are upset with his take-no-prisoners approach to governing. Fitzgerald, who was Walker's key lieutenant on the collective-bargaining measure, presided over the state Senate's controversial decision to pass the bill despite the absence of the necessary quorum. Fourteen Democrats had fled the state to stall a vote on the legislation. Phone calls to Fitzgerald campaign staff requesting comment were not returned.
While some of Compas' supporters acknowledge that her effort is a long shot, Tuerk says Democrats should be taking more chances like this. She says it's critical that party strategists think beyond the current election cycle and spend resources contesting seats in traditional Republican territory. And she argues that Compas' campaign is also building a long-term organization that could successfully mount a challenge to Fitzgerald in the future.
"Clearly Lori wants to win," says Tuerk. "But part of this isn't about winning. It's about building something here. There should always be a progressive choice."
Compas says she will need to gauge the political landscape after the recall, but considers restoring collective bargaining, reversing cuts to BadgerCare and reinstating legislation guaranteeing equal pay for women workers some of her top priorities.
She is backed by the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, but does not see organized labor as a driving force behind her campaign. She has never been a member of a union, and union participation is minimal in many of the small towns and rural areas that make up her district.
Nevertheless, Compas says unions improve living standards for their members and non-union workers alike: "When union workers get paid well, have weekends and eight-hour days, that affects working conditions and pay for everyone else."