MILWAUKEE- With most polls showing Democratic challenger Tom Barrett a few points behind Governor Scott Walker, Barrett’s backers are counting on outstanding turnout to secure an upset in today’s election. Several statewide organizations are deploying paid and unpaid canvassers in hopes that Walker’s opponents, who last year out-mobilized his supporters 100 to 1 at the capitol in Madison, can bring him down at the ballot box. During the past week, I followed canvassers from four groups – Working America, We Are Wisconsin, the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, and Organizing for America – in and around Milwaukee, the largest population center in the state.
“If Milwaukee comes alive,” Rev. Jesse Jackson told reporters before a GOTV rally last night, “Milwaukee is twice the population size of Madison. Madison’s come alive, as we’ve seen in the last several months. But if Milwaukee and Madison share a common interest…we can win this election.”
These canvasses targeted union households, recall petition signers, and likely Democratic voters. All of them asked voters not just whether and how they would vote but when in the day they planned to hit the polls. Otherwise, said Working America Wisconsin Director Peter Drummond, “when you have that quick conversation, it just leaves people’s minds.”
The voters they found were mostly enthusiastic, mostly committed to Barrett, and all aware of the election. Few had voted early. Across the four canvasses, I witnessed only one voter who said she was undecided (“I just wish there wasn’t a recall,” she said. But “if I’m going to vote, it’s for Barrett.”) Only some Barrett voters could name Lieutenant Governor nominee Mahlon Mitchell, but all said they would vote for him. At least one voter was (according to his son) out canvassing himself when volunteers reached his door.
Wednesday evening, I followed Jesse Corroo and Chad Pichler through Wauwatosa, the Milwaukee suburb that’s home to Scott Walker. Pichler is a former factory worker and 18-year veteran canvasser; Corroo had planned to become a teacher until Walker cut education funding. Both are paid canvassers for Working America, the AFL-CIO affiliate for non-union workers. Working America runs a year-round membership recruitment canvass; its 28 full-time canvassers are now focused on GOTV visits to their members and other likely Barrett voters. They opened each conversation by trying to pin voters down on what single issue was their top priority in the election. The voters didn’t make that easy. Instead, most answered with something about the Governor, his opponent, or the race: “Number 1 issue? Against Walker.” “Scott Walker. Scott Walker. Scott Walker.” “Why aren’t the Democrats pouring money into Barrett’s campaign?” One man said, “The cost of the fucking recalls that the Democrats are doing.” Then as if a peace offering, he added, “My wife is voting for Barrett.”
On Saturday, John Dupies went out on his first canvass shift with We Are Wisconsin, the coalition formed by major unions and progressive groups, like Democracy For America, in the lead-up to last year’s senate recalls. Dupies, a 26-year public school teacher, is a member of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association. Like many of the canvassers I spoke to, he said that last year’s actions at the capitol had been transformative: “To be part of this movement has motivated me and engaged me and inspired me. I just hope we come out on the right side of all of it.” Canvassing recall petitioners and Democratic voters, Dupies met a self-described “union man” backing Barrett and a woman who said Walker reminded her of “Tricky Dicky” Nixon.
But Dupies’ longest conversation came when a man who wasn’t on his list asked what he was out doing. When the man said he wasn’t sure if he’d have time to vote, Dupies asked him, “In years, have you seen our state divided like it is now?” The voter said he supported Walker: “I’ve got to pay for my own healthcare…everyone else should do it too.” Dupies told him that as a special education teacher, he was fine with “contributing more,” but he needed to be able to negotiate over his teaching conditions and his students’ learning conditions. After a friendly exchange about common acquaintances in the local schools, the voter said, “As a small business owner, I bust my ass, I pay my own bills, plus I’m paying for all of the illegals.” Dupies asked whether he thought it was fair for big corporations to get away with not paying taxes. He answered, “No, I don’t think it’s fair. But there’s nothing I can do about it.” Then he said he was off to buy plants.
That day, We Are Wisconsin says it knocked on 257,322 doors across the state. The Democratic/ OFA operation (which is legally restricted from cooperation with We Are Wisconsin) has pledged to make 1.5 million voter contacts in the election’s final four days. Other efforts include Wisconsin Jobs Now, whose vans brought central Milwaukee voters to the polls to vote early, and the tabling and sign-waving of individual activists. “This has always been a base versus base election,” says We Are Wisconsin spokesperson Kelly Steele.
Sunday, Sandy Jacobs and Leigh Ullman canvassed a Southern Milwaukee neighborhood (with four journalists in tow) as part of the AFL-CIO’s member-to-member mobilization. (Affiliated unions are also reaching out to their own members with direct mail and workplace leaflets.) Ullman is the president of a local of the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses & Health Professionals (an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers); Jacobs retired from the union in December. When I asked Jacobs why she was canvassing nearly every day, she said, “It’s for my granddaughter. It’s for my children. It’s for everyone.” She started choking up, then apologized, then laughed. “He makes me very angry.”
“I noticed that your yard looks kind of naked,” Ullman told one voter. “Would you like a yard sign?” “You know,” a voter told them, “Wisconsin is a better state than Walker is a Governor…Walker has violated the tradition of fair play we have in Wisconsin, and respect for working people. He’s dishonored both.”
Hours later, I met up with Kathy and Bruce McIntire, a married couple volunteering with Organizing For America, the Obama re-election effort. The McIntires are retired teachers who were inspired to become active during Obama’s 2008 campaign and helped revive the OFA chapter in deep-red Waukesha County (“She’s the planner, I’m the driver,” said Bruce). “Unions, I think, when things got really good, went a little too far,” said Kathy, a former union member. But she called Walker’s union-busting bill “very wrong…People don’t realize that a lot of the benefits they have in their workplace came about because of union people.”
Drawing on social science research, OFA’s canvass script includes this line: “It looks like a lot of your neighbors will be voting.” The McIntires didn’t use that phrase. But it’s likely to prove true.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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