The clock started ticking on the statewide petition drive to recall Gov. Scott Walker on Tuesday. On Monday night, hundreds of people jammed Hawk's Bar & Grill on State Street to sign the very first recall petitions at a minute past midnight.
On Tuesday morning, Julie Wells, a forklift driver from Fort Atkinson, marched into the Government Accountability Board and filed the official recall paperwork on behalf of United Wisconsin, the state political action committee formed last spring to recall Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.
Activists now have 60 days to collect 540,208 signatures. More than 200,000 Wisconsinites have already signed United Wisconsin's online pledge to recall the governor.
Wells, who had never been involved in politics before this year, signed the pledge last spring when she came to the historic protests around the Capitol. "I felt like I had to do something," she says.
Although Wells is not in a union, Walker's attack on public employees' bargaining rights bothered her. She also worried about the rollback of environmental regulations and the effects of budget cuts to the public schools on her 12 grandchildren. By late summer, she had become recall coordinator for Jefferson County.
At her first organizational meeting on Nov. 1, 30 people RSVP'd, but 120 showed up, she says. "We've trained more than 250 to circulate petitions."
"The liberal people in Jefferson County are not out there as much as in Madison - they're more afraid," Wells says. "But Walker has woken us up. People are seriously fired up."
The same is certainly true in Madison.
"I'll have signs, petitions and T-shirts big enough to wear over your coat, all on my front porch on Nov. 15," Eva Shiffrin told a group of about 50 neighbors Sunday at the James Reeb Unitarian Church near East High.
Shiffrin has scoped out two spots on East Washington Avenue for drive-through signature gathering during rush hour. She'll also be at the UW women's basketball games on Nov. 18 and Nov. 30 with recall petitions - along with a lot of other energized Walker recall volunteers.
All over the state, volunteers have begun collecting signatures door-to-door, at shopping malls, rallies and festivals. There will be drive-through petitioning on busy thoroughfares. There will be people blogging and tweeting their "office hours" at local coffee shops so folks can stop by and sign.
At the recall office at 330 E. Wilson St., there is a picture of a massive crowd from last spring's protests around the Capitol and the words, "Don't Give Up the Fight." Recall organizers hope to get the same kind of crowd to a recall rally on the Capitol Square Saturday, Nov. 19. A group named Recall Walker PAC is also holding a pep rally Friday at the Barrymore Theatre.
"We want to show that we can get the energy back that we had in March, that it was not just a white flash," says James "Skip" Sonneman, a veteran Democratic Party field organizer working with United Wisconsin.
"It's a monumental task," he tells a group at a recent training session on East Wilson Street. "This has never been done before in Wisconsin."
United Wisconsin is trying to do it by relying on the energy and determination of grassroots volunteers like Wells and Shiffrin.
Block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, the drive to recall Walker is an intensely local, grassroots effort.
"We are collaborating with as many groups as we can that share our goal," says Meagan Mahaffey, United Wisconsin's spokeswoman.
A huge network of volunteers will turn in petitions to 50 United Wisconsin field organizers in more than 20 offices around the state. Field workers will check that petitions are filled out correctly and track the effort's progress online, sending volunteers from saturated areas to those that need more help.
Sonneman shows a sample petition and explains that signers must fill out the date and their address. Since the year will change in the middle of the drive, volunteers should double-check the date. Another sticky detail: Voters must put down the name of the village or town where they vote. This is a key issue in places like Fitchburg, Maple Bluff and the town of Dunn. If people who live there print their address the way the post office does - in Madison - their signatures won't be valid.
The United Wisconsin petition, along with instructions, can be found on the group's website, unitedwisconsin.com.
Sonneman also addresses concerns that Republicans might sow confusion with their own phony recall drive, or simply throw away petitions.
If someone grabs your petition or circulates a petition and then throws it away, Sonneman tells trainees, "Get the details - we need to know who they are. They can be prosecuted for fraud."
"Don't yell back at yellers," he adds.
"We are trying to make sure the grassroots groups are trained well enough, and they're very serious about this, and it's awesome," Sonneman says.
Madison police officer David Dexheimer, who is getting trained to do a petition drive near his home in Monona, expresses concern about the fake recall announced by a Walker contributor. What effect will it have?
The answer: It gave the governor 11 extra days to raise unlimited corporate cash to fight the recall effort. State law exempts public officials targeted for recall from campaign finance limits. But technically it will have no impact on the citizen effort. The 60-day window for the recall drive remains the same.
The Republican Party has denied any connection to this filing. But the Democrats aren't buying it.
"[Scott Walker] is unethically using this loophole to get the money he earned with his policies," says Graeme Zielinski, communications director for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.
"I'm worried about all that money," says Dexheimer, "but we just have to remember, we have the people on our side."
The results of the recall vote in Ohio last week gave a boost to Wisconsin organizers' belief that citizens can overcome the power of money. Americans for Prosperity and other right-leaning groups poured money into Ohio to try to persuade voters not to support the recall of legislation that ended collective bargaining for public employees. The citizens won. Now Americans for Prosperity is running a statewide ad campaign against the Walker recall in Wisconsin.
There is no set date for the Wisconsin recall election. It depends on when the GAB confirms that there are 540,208 valid signatures, and could be delayed further by legal challenges. Two prospective Democratic candidates, former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk and Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin president Mahlon Mitchell, appeared with Julie Wells at the Recall Walker headquarters on East Wilson Street Tuesday morning, and made short speeches before marching with her to the GAB. But so far, there is no declared candidate to challenge Walker.
Until there is an actual candidate, and an actual campaign, the recall effort, like the protests last spring, is being led from below.
Rachel Friedman, a social worker and activist, was, like Wells, galvanized by the Wisconsin uprising (She also plays a starring role in a documentary film about the Capitol protests by Los Angeles filmmaker Amie Williams.)
When Friedman was starting the East High/Eken Park neighborhood recall group, she posted a recall meeting flier on her neighborhood listserv. She soon discovered that people had printed it out and spread it around. When she saw a giant copy of her note on a neighborhood kiosk, she says, she burst into tears.
"In 20 years as an activist I'd never had the experience of going out to do fliers, and finding that someone had already fliered ahead of me," Friedman says. "This is grassroots at its best. It's really moving."