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Walker's Wisconsin Senate Majority in Peril as Thousands Work for Recalls
Updated On: Mar 19, 2011

By Tim Jones - Mar 14, 2011 11:01 PM CT

The chanting has ended, protesters have quit marching around the Capitol, and a quieter struggle is under way to deny Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker the Senate Republican majority he used to curb public-sector union rights.

A record number of recall efforts have been started against 16 members of the Wisconsin Senate, both Republicans as well as Democrats who left the state to stall Walker’s bill curbing collective bargaining. A net loss of three Republican seats means Democrats would control the chamber, 17-16.

The state’s recalls, enabled by Internet social networking, reflect a polarized national mood, said Joshua Spivak, a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College. Across the U.S., fights over ousting elected officials are reaching unprecedented proportions, he said. Today, residents of Miami-Dade County will decide the fate of Mayor Carlos Alvarez in the largest such municipal vote in history, Spivak said.

Wisconsin is part and parcel of a larger expansion of recall,” Spivak said in a telephone interview from New York. “There’s a broad technological revolution driving this, making it easier to collect signatures and money to put these on the ballot.”

Jim Mileham, 67, walked the streets of suburban Milwaukee on March 12 as a crowd police estimated to be as large as 100,000 protested at Madison’s Capitol Square. Mileham, a retired French professor at the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee, knocked on doors in his neighborhood seeking signatures to oust veteran Republican Senator Alberta Darling.

Shoe-Leather Effort

“I don’t like to see a lot of recalls, but Walker didn’t declare his intentions to do this before the election,” said Mileham. “They’re going out of their way to hurt working-class people.”

Darling did not respond to a telephone call and e-mail seeking comment on the recall campaign.

Since 1913, Spivak said, 13 state lawmakers nationwide have been recalled from office, and 20 ouster efforts have been placed on ballots in five states. Sixteen simultaneous campaigns in one state -- against eight Republicans and eight Democrats -- are unheard of, he said.

Eighteen states allow the recall of state legislators, Spivak said. Eight of the 13 legislative recalls have occurred since 1983, he said.

Omaha Escape

In 2003, Gray Davis became the second governor in U.S. history to be recalled, when California voters turned him out. In Nebraska, opponents of Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle forced a recall election on Jan. 26. Suttle survived by a vote of 51 percent to 49 percent.

Today, Alvarez faces voters after closing a 2011 budget deficit partly by raising property taxes as real-estate values plunged.

The most recent successful recalls of state lawmakers occurred in Wisconsin. Senator Gary George, a Democrat, was recalled in 2003 after his conviction on corruption charges. And in 1996, Republican Senator George Petak was bounced after he cast the deciding vote on a tax increase.

The current recall campaigns against Senate Democrats are aimed at eight of 14 members who fled in February to prevent a vote on the collective-bargaining bill.

The committee trying to oust Democratic Senator Jim Holperin said in papers filed with the state’s Government Accountability Board that Holperin is “not representing taxpayers.” The group has until April 25 to turn in 15,960 signatures.

Fight for Life

The target of a recall in Wisconsin must have held office at least a year, according to state law. Recall proponents are required to collect signatures representing 25 percent of the vote for governor in their district, within 60 days.

Signature efforts against the eight Republican senators are rooted in protests over their support for the collective bargaining curbs on public workers.

Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said unions and Democrats “feel as if they are fighting for their lives.”

“But it’s too easy to read into the size of the crowds that these Republican legislators will be swept out of office,” Franklin said in a telephone interview from Madison. “I don’t think we can easily translate the protests into electoral strength in recalls.”

Fast on Facebook

In 10 hours of canvassing, Mileham said he collected 36 signatures. He was one of nearly 1,000 volunteers trying to gather 20,343 names in 60 days to put Darling’s recall on the ballot, said Kristopher Rowe, a respiratory therapist who launched the drive March 2.

Rowe floated the recall idea on his Facebook Web page in late February, he said in an interview at the campaign’s Shorewood headquarters. Hundreds of people initially responded. Now there are more than 4,300 supporters on the social network, Rowe said. The Internet has made it easier to stay in contact, he said.

Recall efforts were underway at the March 12 rally in Madison. A table set up by “We Are Wisconsin,” a group to recall Walker created amid the nearly four weeks of protests, drew 20,000 people from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. alone, said Ben Young, a 29-year-old volunteer from Madison. Because Walker, who took office Jan. 3, can’t be recalled yet, people signed up only to receive information.

“We want to keep enthusiasm high; we’re trying to capture the energy,” Young said.

At a March 11 news conference in Madison, Walker, 43, said he is “absolutely not” concerned about the recall threat against Republican senators.

Mileham, wearing blue jeans and a black parka, said it doesn’t bother him when people yell at him and he’s not discouraged when dogs and not people answer the door.

“I really feel passionate about this,” Mileham said as he knocked on another door.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tim Jones in Milwaukee at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at


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