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Hearing the Call of the Recall

by Brianne Mueller

I would like to begin this article by saying, “thank you” to Scott Walker, the governor of my home state of Wisconsin. Maybe that is a bit odd, especially as I have spent hours convincing others to sign recall petitions to enact a statewide election to remove him from office, but it is sincere and heartfelt. A dialogue has now been opened and people have realized all the moral and personal inventory they need to do. Many, like myself, decided they could no longer sit on the side lines.

Like many grassroots political movements, the recall effort in Wisconsin is much more than what it appears to be. It started with money, but has turned into a full-fledged battle about civil rights, governmental reach and, most importantly, the reevaluation of personal and political values. If an outsider to U.S. politics needed a visual of our current economic, social, and political climate, the Recall Walker movement would provide the perfect snapshot.

To those who may be unfamiliar with Walker’s recent government policies, it is best explained within the parameters of “99 Percent” analogy. It is abundantly clear that Walker has favored the top 1% of Wisconsin residents by handing out over $117.2 million in tax breaks favoring the top earners in the state, while removing tax breaks on working families.

Adding insult to injury, immediately after passing this legislature, Walker proposed a bill requiring a 2/3rd super-majority in the Senate and State Assembly in order to pass any future tax increases, stating that, “Wisconsinites can't turn to raising taxes to balance their own family budgets when times get tough”. The bill passed in the Senate on February 8th, 2011. Three days later, he proposed Act 10.

Act 10, otherwise known as the “Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill”, remains the most controversial of Walker’s policies. It reduced the income of public sector workers, raised worker’s individual contributions towards benefits and retirement, and cut funding for such programs as childcare assistance, public transit, including a whopping $900 million reduction in state aid to K-12 districts over the next two years. I spoke with teachers who told me how their classrooms have nearly doubled in size, while their salaries have been cut, as well as their pensions, making retirement all but impossible.

Unfortunately, these measures were hardly the most controversial part about Wisconsin Act 10. What caused the most uproar was his proposal to all but end union collective bargaining rights. This is a particularly sore spot for many reasons. Not only are 15% of the employed represented by a union (compared to the national average of 11.9%), but Wisconsin has a long, proud history of paving the way for workers and union rights in the United States.

Over 10,000 people from all across the state gathered at the Capital in Madison to protest the newly proposed legislature. I was living in Brooklyn at the time, feeling helpless as I watched the events unfold from half a country away. And, for the first time, I felt remorse for not being in my home state.

As I watched the passion of my cohorts on the news from New York, their anger was palpable. I was surprised to find that many people in the Big Apple didn’t seem to have any idea what the protests in Wisconsin were about, or that they were even going on. The conversation of income inequality and a possible regression in civil rights had barely entered the national consciousness.

What many people don’t remember is that six months before people decided to Occupy Wall Street, Wisconsonies drew the lines on their own political battlefield. A large part of me wonders if Americans would have been more outraged, more active in supporting the Recall, if Walker introduced Act 10 after the first protestors decided to occupy Wall Street.

The protests, holed up almost exclusively inside the Capital, hardly lasted more than a month. Although a dedicated few remained steadfast, they too eventually filtered out of the Capital building. Walker was confident that people would eventually calm down and move on, with Wisconsin flourishing soon thereafter.

Nearly a year later, this flourish remains to be seen, but the evidence of Wisconsin’s disapproval are clearly displayed. Bumper stickers are everywhere – cars, bikes, buildings, and street signs. “Recall Walker” signs are so prevalent on the lawns in Madison that they are our most popular lawn ornarment. Petition circulators are outside grocery stores, shopping malls, concerts halls and everywhere in between. Indeed, no where wants Walker out more than Madison, the city the governor and I both call home.

The uniqueness about the Recall is that, despite initial stereotypes, people’s decisions either to support or not support the movement truly transcends political persuasion. Many longtime conservatives who work in the public sector have communicated a sense of betrayal. I know many liberals who do not support the Recall because of their faith in the democratic process; some believe it to be a waste of time and manpower.

My decision to volunteer for the Committee to Recall Scott Walker was a gradual one. Initially I had downloaded the recall petition on my laptop and printed the forms out at home, with the mere intent on getting only my Madison friends to sign. Some local bands I had befriended mentioned to me they wanted to promote the recall at one of their shows, so I dutifully packed up my supplies and brought them in order to gain signatures outside the venue. I received eight signatures that night, but by the next morning, I decided it wasn’t enough. I needed more. I needed to do more.

Around a week later, I arrived at the Committee to Recall Scott Walker’s east side offices. It was here, located just blocks from the Capital building in a 50’s era red brick building, that I would spend the majority of my time making phone calls to potential volunteers around the metropolitan area. I also did my fair share of canvassing, or collecting signatures at designated ‘hot spots’ around the city. Let me assure you, these ‘hot spots’ are nothing of the sort, particularly during a frigid Wisconsin winter.

The dedication of the employees and volunteers of the recall was only matched by their passion and knowledge, feeding my ever-growing curiosity. I learned about Wisconsin’s current policies and electoral history. I learned that in Australia, it is illegal NOT to vote in election (if they don’t, they pay a surcharge in their taxes). But mostly, I enjoyed learning about the people themselves.

Many of the organizers had been involved in some kind of political campaign before, but there were plenty of first timers such as myself. Teachers, social workers, health care professionals; young, old, union and non-union were all giving what little time they had to fight for what they believed is right. Many had been unemployed and spent up to 18 hours a day working tirelessly, counting and recounting each and every signature.

One of the most touching moments I experienced was the first volunteer I managed to recruit over the phone. With a knee surgery around the corner and living on disability checks from the government, she was friendly, soft-spoken and probably in her late 70’s. She had initially told me she was unable to volunteer and willing to accept defeat. We chatted about her personal life. It eventually emerged how she had been severely impacted by Walker’s policies and views on Medicare. That impetus convinced her to volunteer in the recall offices.

Just as the occupy movement has changed the national conversation, so has the Walker recall shifted the dialogue in Wisconsin. The thrill I received for engaging in a forum that required open political discussion was truly invaluable. Some of the most passionate individuals were those who had done activist work for decades. One veteran activist, an elderly volunteer told me, “It starts with people’s rights being taken away, then they can do whatever they want”.

Thanks to Scott Walker, I have connected with dozens of new people. My beliefs have transformed and solidified at a far more rapid pace if I hadn’t made those one-on-one connections. When the required 540,208 signatures are officially tallied at the end of this week, the battle will be far from over. Even if the recall is not successful (though it will be), the movement has forever changed the dialogue in this cheese eating, beer drinking, gun toting state of mine. Thanks to Scott Walker, I have never been more proud to be a Wisconsin state resident.

Main image courtesy of Sue Peacock. All others courtesy of the author.

Bri Mueller is a life-long music enthusiast with a recent passion for film. An aspiring music video director, she is a theatre arts major (Psychology minor) from Lawrence University, currently employed as a Marketing Coordinator. Bri enjoys gluten-free brownies, parenthetical phrases and rock 'n' roll. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of Daniele Teodoro. Contact Bri at bri.mueller[at]theinclusive.net.