Total Recall: Back in District 13, Compas and newly politicized progressives digging in for the long haul
Post by Christie Taylor on 6/7/2012 2:47pm
Lori Compas supporters will tell you that she put up “a hell of a fight.” The Fort Atkinson photographer, who decided to recall Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald despite the Democrats’ initial decision not to, collected 20,000 signatures using her living room as a headquarters. Then, as a political novice who had to transform her very wardrobe for the effort, she ran for his seat.
Compas’ campaign quickly became the face of the grassroots branch of the statewide recall campaign. On January 17, at a rally celebrating the delivery of millions of petition signatures to the Government Accountability Board headquarters, Compas--not scheduled to speak--was still forced to take the stage because the chanting and applause at the very mention of her name was so intense. She had both independents and Republicans rooting for her.
And she lost. By normal election standards, she quite thoroughly lost, by a margin of nearly 20 percent--not a shock after recent polls showed Fitzgerald leading by double digits.
But at her election night party at the Keystone Grill in Cambridge, more than a hundred of her supporters still showed up to cheer her on--deafeningly at times--and the gathering was high-energy, hug-filled one that kept laughing even after Compas announced that she’d conceded the race. In her concession speech, reminiscing about the sometimes-humorous highlights of the campaign, she had nothing to say about defeat, and everything to say about the work her supporters had helped her accomplish of getting the powerful Fitzgerald on the ballot at all, of getting him to sit down for a debate, of gathering more votes than had ever been gathered against the largely unchallenged senator.
“She won the battle just by getting him recalled,” said supporter Kate McGinnity. “This all came out of nothing.”
Many of the people with her Tuesday night had never been involved in state politics in this way before, beyond voting for a candidate. Some didn’t even know Scott Fitzgerald, made famous by the conference committee that passed the union-stripping Act 10 with less than 2 hours’ notice, was their senator or that he could be recalled until Compas began circulating petitions. And before the recall effort started, most of them had felt alone, as progressives in a firmly Republican district.
“There were several people who didn’t know a neighbor a block away was just as involved and just as engaged as them until they were canvassing on a street corner together,” one Compas support said. “And strangers became friends quickly.”
“I think a lot of us felt very isolated seven months ago, felt like ‘I’m the only one in my town who has concerns, or I’m the only one in my town who’s paying attention,’” Compas said. “And now we see no, they’re everywhere.”
“We’re one of the few campaigns that had more volunteers show up than spots available,” said campaign manager Darryl Teske. Overall, 1,000 volunteers had made more than 50,000 calls and canvassing visits for Compas. By the end, by still-unofficial estimates, he said she’d raised well over $200,000, twice what she was hoping for. “We knew we couldn’t outspend (Fitzgerald),” Teske said. “But the grassroots support is there now. We’ve built a foundation.”
And the people in that foundation don’t think the district’s pro-Walker vote says everything about the chances of progressive candidates in future elections.
“I don’t think the results are indicative of what the true issues were,” said Tom Levi, a Watertown resident. “A lot of people were against the idea of recall. We’ll see in a couple years when Mr. Walker is up for reelection.”
Compas supporters Tuesday were certain she could win if she ran again, over the longer timeframe of a more usual election cycle. And as she congratulated them on a campaign enthusiastically and cleanly run, her supporters broke in with a chant of, “2014, 2014, 2014.”
But Compas isn’t committing to a repeat performance at this point. “This was an extraordinary circumstance,” she said, adding that her life, before the campaign, had been a good one. She is, however, focused on keeping the network strong enough to support future progressive candidates in the district. (Or, technically, the region: The 13th district, split by redistricting, will put some of Compas’ bloc in Luther Olsen’s district next year.)
“This isn’t the end. This is the beginning,” she said. “We’ve seen there are a lot of people throughout the district who are paying attention to their government and who are going to be vigilant moving forward.”
Deerfield resident and Compas volunteer Jackie Schuh was one of them. She said she’d never done more than vote until the day she watched the video of the conference committee. “From now until the day I die, I will be a progressive with boots on the ground working to turn this state and this nation around,” she said Tuesday night. And, she said, Compas had been a trailblazer in bringing important issues into the public dialogue. “Even though the night is very sad, I’m very inspired by what’s going on,” Schuh said. “I think people are awake.”
Scott Walker struck conciliatory notes in his victory speech Thursday night, and has said he’s reaching out to Democratic members of the legislature to talk about how to move on from the divisiveness of the past 18 months. And Compas and her supporters all think talking, certainly, is going to be a big part of what comes next.
Just as recall supporters have said the recall effort itself was necessary because democracy doesn’t end with elections, Compas says the ideas brought to the surface in the past year shouldn’t stop at this election either.
“I think what we realized during this campaign is that campaigning is really teaching,” she said. “To really get some of these ideas across, you have to speak in more than quick little sound bites. They’ve got their little phrases--‘It’s working’--that really worked.
“We need more people to realize that democracy is a continuing process. I think people think, ‘Oh a few days before an election, I’ll research the candidates and I’ll vote and I’ll forget about it for two years or four years.’ We really need to be vigilant all the time.”
Turnout across the state broke records for (ordinary) gubernatorial elections, with long lines and, at some polling places, hundreds of new voters registering. In district 13, nearly 33,000 people voted for her -- the number she had thought would be enough to secure a win. The problem was that 47,000 turned out to vote for Fitzgerald. Compas said that regardless of how the votes shook out, the turnout was still something to feel good about. “It shows that people are really engaged,” she said. “I’m thrilled.”
And even though she’s not sure she’ll run for office again, Compas is still looking forward at ways to shape the debate, with money--and getting it out of politics--one of her chief concerns.
Since she began her race, she’s been a proponent of the work of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a watchdog group that advocates for more openness and less money in government. “I am probably going to call (WDC director) Mike McCabe tomorrow...and say, ‘What can I do to help you?’” she said Tuesday night. “When you see your opponent racking up this money and you know you’ve got this message that’s clear and you think will resonate, you ask how big a megaphone can I buy? His (Fitzgerald’s) is so big.”
Christie Taylor (@ctaylsaurus) covers science, environment, and, depending on the season, state politics for dane101. She verbs a lot of nouns, including rollerskates, radio, and Kurt Vonnegut. A Madison native, she's not sure she'll ever quite manage to leave Wisconsin, and that's just fine by her. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.