Sunday, March 20, 2011

Tales from the recall effort - WIAA Boys B-Ball Tournament

Inspired by the Daily Kos post on the recall efforts in Alberta Darling's district, I thought I'd share my own experiences from circulating recall petitions for three days at the WIAA tournament this week. There were a number of people out helping, so some of the stories are from others, or exchanges that I witnessed.

All three days were lovely spring days, and the Kohl Center isn't far from my house, so standing around outside in downtown Madison was no hardship. I wanted to feel like I could do something concrete about the situation i Wisconsin. After all the days spent at the Capitol, or supporting others up there, I didn't just want to give up after the bill had been passed.

So Thursday I headed down to Dayton St after getting an email asking for help. My first shift there were only one or two other people circulating petitions, but we got into a rhythm of announcing why we were out there, holding up our signs, and encouraging people to approach us to sign. Not only did I get a lesson in the spectrum of feelings about our efforts, but I also learned how the WIAA tournament was structured and saw people from all over the state pass by on their way to cheer on their teams.

One of the first issues we encountered had nothing to do with politics. The two hours that I had been assigned, the two teams were not from districts that we were targeting for recall. And the game tickets are sold for a set of two games, and we had arrived in the middle of the two-game set, so not many people were coming in and out.

When people finally started streaming out, we got what would come to be a typical mix of reactions. About 80% of the people walked by with absolutely no reaction whatsoever. They looked through us like we were the cement bollards nearby. This sort of confused me. Did their team lose, and they were in the mood for interaction? Were they so disinterested in the recall efforts? Or completely unaware of why we were there? Or maybe, being from smaller communities, they just weren't used to the sort of political actions that we in Madison see every day. On the other hand, maybe they just don't like talking to strangers.

Of the 20% that acknowledged that there were human beings standing on the sidewalk with some sort of purpose, there was a mix of reactions. Some people shook their heads, obviously not in sympathy with our efforts. Other people at least nodded or smiled, not stopping, but perhaps amused or in too much of a hurry to stop. Other people stared or paused to read our signs, then went on their way. We also got some thumbs up.

Of the small number of people that interacted with any of us, a few mumbled, "Get a job!" to the one young man sitting on one of the bollards. He actually has a job - he works for a Dem. Senator. Why do people think we don't have jobs? We also got plenty of "Hell, no!" or "Walker for President!" shoots.

Some people wanted to know where the petitions were for "Those Dems that ran away and didn't do their jobs." By the third day I wondered the same thing. There are actually recall efforts for a couple of Democratic  senators - although I'm certainly not going to give those efforts any support. With all the people in from all over the state, the recall efforts against the Dems was nowhere to be found, even when teams in those districts were playing.

On Saturday, we had enough volunteers that another woman and I walked up and down State St, trying to catch the throngs there. A number of people asked, "What does this have to do with high school sports?" I found this strange in two ways. First, I wasn't necessarily claiming it had to do with the WIAA. We were just trying to catch people as they visited. For the same reason, the people that suggested that I should be at the Capitol seemed to miss the point that the people we were looking for were at the Kohl Center. The question about the connection with high school sports also struck me as fairly naive. When state funding to schools is drastically cut, and local communities are legally prohibited from raising property taxes to make up the difference, sports will be endangered as well as art, music, and advanced placement programs.

And finally we had a fair number of people stop and talk, and most of those wanted to sign our petitions. But then the political details got in the way. Even though these people were supportive, many were unsure of the process. We had maps of the senate districts, because most people didn't know who their senator was. We had a lot of people want to sign, but they lived in districts held by Dems. "So I have to live there to sign to get rid of them?" Yes, that's the way it works, but we thanked them for their support.

A surprising number of people came by and said they had already signed a recall petition. These were mostly teachers, spouses of teachers, or family members of other union workers, but not all. We had lots of people thank us for being out there, and others saying, "I wish I could sign, but we have one of the good ones!" By their team colors, I could tell they lived in Dem districts.

A few other random observations:

Without a doubt, the crowds that hailed from districts represented by Democratic senators were friendlier than those from districts represented by Republican senators, even when the voting for those areas was fairly evenly split. The people from Merrill were far and away the nicest and overall most supportive. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that this is the first time in 46 years that Merrill has made it to the tournament.

After three days, people seemed to have figured out why we were there. There were fewer blank stares, and more interaction, other positive and negative. These people had probably walked by us a few times coming and going to games, and we had more people and bigger signs. Most people still just walked by, but there were more people likely to show some reaction, such as frowns, smiles, waves, thumbs up or down, a few words, etc.

Saturday's finals for Divisions 1 and 2 - the larger schools - were definitely the most productive times for us. We knew that there was at least one school playing in each of the finals that was in a district we were targeting, so we had plenty of people out. Although we knew these people had walked by before, now they were willing to stop and sign. Maybe the pressure of the semi-finals was over, or they knew this was their last chance to sign with us. The lead organizer also posited that many people from larger communities felt more at ease talking to us.

There were a couple of notable positive and negative interactions. On Saturday, a guy walked by a middle-aged male volunteer and pointed at him with these words, "You people should be shot!" Even though we had experienced people swearing at us - at times in front of their kid! - this really shocked me. Physical threats jut seem like such an overreaction, and really disturbing in light of the shootings in Tuscon.

Another man stood in front on me, towering over my 5'3" head and yelled at me, expecting me, I am sure to physically back away. All I could think was, "This guy really doesn't know me." I never felt physically threatened, and I stood my ground until he was done. I can't even remember what either of us said, but I know I didn't really try to argue with him, but also didn't let him believe he had intimidated me in any way.

Several volunteers were asked at some point for ID, not by police or anyone official, but by people who seemed to think that all this recall dust-up is cooked up and staffed by hired agitators from out of state. All the volunteers I spoke to were from Madison, although there might have been a Middleton or Verona person thrown in.

Sometimes you couldn't tell what a person was going to say when they approached. One older gentleman appeared to be ready to confront us, and then whispered, "Yeah, get rid of those bastards!" He told us he was a union worker for 40 years, and went on to impress on us all the things the unions had fought for that now benefits all workers. We had been bracing for a negative interaction, and the only problem we had was ending the conversation without being rude.

My favorite interaction of the three days occurred with a woman from Merrill. I was holding up a sign on my clipboard that read, "RECALL REPUBLICAN 8 SENATORS!" She apparently only saw the word REPUBLICAN, and frowned as she went by. "We're Democrats." she stated. When I pointed out that we were trying to get rid of the Republicans, that we felt were hurting our state, she turned around and apologized profusely. She hugged me and explained that she was very upset about the Governor's bill, that she was a teacher, and her husband a union man (forgot what field.) She thanked us profusely for being out there, and even agreed to be interviewed by a local TV station. When the interview was over, she came over and hugged me again.

I also want to thank the UW Police for their professionalism. One day we had a bullhorn, and an officer came over to very calmly tell us that we were welcome to be there, could collect signatures and do our thing, but we couldn't use the bullhorn. No amplification. We said, no problem and put it away. Another day, as we were getting volunteers organized, another officer approached us and just gave us an FYI that we were welcome to organize and such, he just asked us to not block people's movement as they came and went. Since we were mostly standing in front of or behind the flat-topped cement bollards - they are the perfect height to use as writing surfaces - we left the openings clear for the throngs.

So, overall, an interesting few days. It's good to be reminded that there are a variety of opinions out there, that some people fully support the Governor's tactics and budget, and others are completely apathetic or unaware of the issues. But it also feels good to be outdoors talking to people, fighting the fight for what we we feel is right. Each signature we collected is one more to add to the thousands we need in each district. We were told by many people that we'd never get enough, but as I responded, "You can at least try."

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