On January 17, people power prevailed – or so Wisconsinites thought.
Since that day, Wisconsin’s state elections agency was tasked with reviewing each of the 1 million submitted recall petition signatures. And while it’s inevitable that Gov. Scott Walker will face voters in 2012, less than two years after he was first elected, it is far from clear which Democrat will prevail in the primary election to face him.
The field lacks a strong, consensus-building candidate – someone who will unite the 1 million recall petition signers around her or his candidacy. Democratic Party activists want to find “the one” who will run against Walker, whose virulent anti-union legislation inspired a mass occupation of Wisconsin’s capitol in February and March 2011 that put the governor in the national spotlight. After Walker signed legislation eliminating most public-sector workers’ collective bargaining rights, Wisconsinites channeled their anger into the recall effort. (Four Republican state senators are also facing a recall.)
“No candidate that is currently considering running or has announced is inspiring, or has what it takes to get out the vote and beat Walker,” says Jason Lawler, a Recall Walker volunteer who slept many nights on the floor of the capitol.
As of February 2, only former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk of Madison announced her candidacy. Current State Senator Kathleen Vinehout (Alma) has hinted at running.
So why isn’t Falk the clear front-runner? While serving as Dane County executive from 1997 until she resigned in 2011, Falk ran on a statewide ticket twice. In 2002 she ran in the Democratic primary for governor, coming in third behind Jim Doyle, who served as governor from 2003 to 2011, and behind Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett,who lost the gubernatorial bid to Scott Walker in 2010.
In 2006, Falk also ran for attorney general, narrowly losing to Republican J.B. Van Hollen. Falk’s third attempt for statewide office appears stronger, especially if the rumors of her receiving endorsements from state teachers union head Mary Bell and AFSCME Executive Director Marty Biel are true.
However, in the 2006 Democratic primary she ran against sitting Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager, which did not sit well with Lautenschlager’s many supporters. Falk criticized Lautenschlager for her 2004 drunk driving conviction, a crime that may play well in Madison, but is viewed as a minor infraction in much of the rest of the state. (Wisconsin, which leads the nation in bars per capita, has a strong drinking culture.)
Activists, like Lawler, doubt that Falk has what it takes to mobilize Wisconsites.
“A Madison candidate, in particular, will have difficulties getting support and overcoming the hippie Madison label that doesn’t play well statewide,” says Lawler.
Meanwhile, Vinehout, who has never run on a statewide ticket, mulls over a bid for governor. She could leverage her “Fab 14” brand (activists’ label for the 14 Democratic state senators who left Wisconsin in February 2011 to halt the vote on Walker’s “budget-repair” bill). Last year, many had assumed that state Sen. Jon Erpenbach (Middleton), would join the primary fray. Erpenbach, also one of the “Fab 14,”
was actively involved in the recall effort from the start, traveling throughout the state to speak to activists about the polarizing agenda of the Walker administration and Republican-dominated legislature. If anyone should emerge from the legislature to take on Walker, it should be one of the governor’s most outspoken critics, who can articulate the concerns of grassroots activists. But so far Erpenbach has expressed little interest.
To win the recall election, Democrats will need to nominate a candidate who can inspire the unlikely coalition of Wisconsinites – teachers, farmers and members of organized labor – that occupied Madison last year. Without a candidate able to maintain the now year-old enthusiasm for undoing what Walker has wrought, the recall attempt risks losing steam. Finding a consensus candidate who can harness the collective spirit of recall activists is crucial to success of the movement.
The outcome of the recall elections in Wisconsin will foreshadow much of what we can expect in the 2012 general elections. People power has the chance to prevail in Wisconsin, if the right leader steps forward.