By Kate Elizabeth Queram Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Public employee unions and their supporters in Wisconsin are taking a new tack in their battle against Gov. Scott Walker and the State Senate, but Republicans say they are ripe for the war.
Instead of massive and loud protests around Capitol Square in downtown Madison, activists are spreading out into the state’s towns and villages to put boots on the ground in the recall fight against six Republican state senators. Three Democrats in the Senate also face recalls.
Republican Senators targeted by the activists say they have seen the ground troops — and are ready.
The strategy is to focus on canvassing and phone-banking efforts on their core contingency of voters.
“We’re really trying to target and hone in on our base to get them to vote,” said Jeff Weigand, campaign manager for state Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon. “It’s going to be a lower turnout, so you have to do a good job of targeting who your voters are, and that’s what we’re concentrating our efforts to.”
Other campaign managers agreed, but said the increased union presence in their districts isn’t necessarily unanimously pro-Democrat. Craig Summerfield, campaign manager for state Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, counts a Green Bay school employee who is a member of the Wisconsin Education Association union among volunteers working to keep Cowles in office.
The woman, whom Summerfield declined to identify because she is a volunteer, works for the campaign because she objects to paying union dues, he said.
“Union leaders have clearly reached out and tried to mobilize their members, but it just so happens that their members don’t always agree with them,” Summerfield said.
Bob Allen, a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, Wisconsin labor union, said his membership won’t stop simply because the focus has shifted from protesting Walker’s union reform measure to recall election.
“The governor seems to think people will just settle and roll over and take it, and that’s not going to happen,” Allen said.
That’s because unseating the Republicans is the new brass ring for the unions, experts say.
“At the last big rally around the Capitol … there were folks there with signs that said, ‘Let’s take our energy from protests to recalls,’ ” said Barry Burden, a political science professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison. “They were really trying to get people out of Madison and into the field to work on recalls. Maybe some of that was just a realization that it’s hard to keep up that level of (protest) for months … you have to move from one thing to another to keep people interested. But also I feel like it was a realistic strategy … in the end, you want to change who’s in office.”
Nine senators face recall elections this summer because of the fallout over the collective bargaining measure. Republican senators are being recalled for their support of Walker’s reform package. Democrats are being targeted for fleeing the state for four weeks this winter to stop a vote on the budget repair bill.
“I actually think people have shifted their focus,” said Sandy Thistle, an instructor at Madison Area Technical College and member of Carpenters Local 314, who attended the winter and summer rallies. She is not a public employee. “I think (protesters are) not there because you can only do so much, and you want to do the thing that’s going to have the largest impact … The recall, for lots of people I know, that’s (got) their attention.”
Thistle, who is not a public employee, does not have a recall candidate in her district but said she plans to volunteer elsewhere if needed.
Public employees agreed. Jeff Voss, of Mayville, retired three years earlier than planned from his Department of Corrections job because of his concern that the reform law would rob him of his pension. Voss attended the winter protests and this month’s rallies, but said many of his friends and co-workers are focusing on recall efforts after realizing the bill would become the law of America’s Dairyland.
“The initial push in regard to the budget was to try to get legislators and senators to come to some reason and listen,” said Voss, who worked as a correctional officer at Waupun Correctional Institution and is a member of AFSCME, Local 18. Voss earned $45,863, including $687 in overtime in 2010, according to public salary data.
“I think everybody just waited to see what the outcome was, and now that the outcome is there, most of the influence moved (to recalls) … That’s where the effort should be now and that’s where it is now,” Voss said.