Politicians charged with resolving various and sundry challenges often claim to be “putting out fires.” But Mahlon Mitchell goes them one better. The Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor of Wisconsin regularly steers off the campaign trail to put out actual fires.
Mitchell, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin union, pulls twenty-four-hour shifts as a lieutenant in a Madison firehouse. “I’m still on the truck, still going to house fires, car crashes, EMT runs,” says the 35-year-old first-time candidate. “I was called to public service, and I always thought I would do that public service as a firefighter. But now the emergency is in the Capitol.”
One of the most remarkable manifestations of the mass movement sparked by Governor Scott Walker’s anti-labor austerity agenda has been the flourishing of a new, more engaged electoral politics in Wisconsin. The protests that drew hundreds of thousands to the streets in February 2011 have evolved into a powerful movement whose petitions for recall elections removed two GOP state senators and have forced Walker, Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and three other Republican legislators to face unprecedented electoral contests on June 5. If Walker, Kleefisch and at least one of the state senators are defeated, Wisconsin will be the first state in history to shift control of the executive branch and the most powerful chamber of the legislative branch from one party to the other in same-day recall elections.
But there’s more to what’s happening in Wisconsin, and many other states that saw mass protests last year, than partisan upheaval. The protesters—union members fighting assaults on collective bargaining and the farmers, small-business owners, retirees and students who supported them—are not just forcing new elections. They are forcing their way into the political process as candidates, elbowing aside traditional politicians and old approaches to campaigning. It’s not that the newcomers aren’t raising money, crafting smart messages or buying thirty-second spots. They’re serious contenders. But they are running on the terms of a movement they have built, mounting campaigns that are people-centered, high-spirited and unapologetic in their support of labor rights and economic justice.
And they are starting to win. In addition to Mitchell, the leading contender in the May 8 Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, numerous activists from last year’s protests have entered recall races and regularly scheduled elections. Several of them won county board, city council and school board races when Wisconsin held local elections on April 3. In Ohio, where union activists and their allies overturned anti-labor measures enacted by GOP legislators and Governor John Kasich with a fall veto referendum that won by a 61-39 margin, more than twenty union members have mounted 2012 election campaigns. And national unions like the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and the Service Employees have established programs to recruit, train and support members to run for local and state posts from Arizona to Maine. Labor unions have always encouraged members to get involved politically, but union leaders have seen a dramatic uptick in interest from public employees infuriated by the anti-labor and austerity initiatives of the Republican governors and legislators swept into office in 2010.
“We’ve got people all over the country who have been energized by the fights over collective bargaining, union rules and budget cuts at the state and local levels in 2011,” says IAFF general president Harold Schaitberger, whose union has taken a lead in recruiting and electing candidates with labor ties and values. “Most of them never thought of running for city council or the legislature. But now they are thinking about it. And doing it.”
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This is not the first time mass movements have spawned candidates who have reframed debates. When government fails to respond to citizens’ grievances, activists among them will realize, as antiwar protester turned California legislator Tom Hayden has explained, that “maybe the best way to make the change you want is to get elected and do it right.”
In the civil rights era, those who marched for the right to vote soon began collecting votes as candidates; one of their number, John Lewis, is now seeking his fourteenth term as a member of the House. The antiwar movement of the ’60s and ’70s sent a new generation of local, state and national candidates into the field. Some veterans of those campaigns, like California Congressman Pete Stark and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, remain leading figures in Congress.
But rarely has a moment in history been so quick to inspire so many serious candidacies. And the phenomenon is particularly pronounced in Wisconsin, where May 8 primaries will set the field for the June 5 recall battle between Walker and his Republican allies on one side and Democratic challengers on the other. Walker allies like the billionaire Koch Brothers have flooded the airwaves with slick commercials that have kept the embattled governor competitive. But Walker’s got legal troubles—an investigation into felony misconduct by his former aides and donors has led him to hire a pair of top criminal defense lawyers. And while his cash advantage is substantial, the movement character of the Democratic challenges sets up a scenario where former Senator Russ Feingold says “people power can beat money power.” Essential to the calculus is the presence on the ballot of first-time candidates like Mitchell, who is only the most high-profile contender to have moved from rallying outside the State Capitol last year to running for posts on the inside this year. “Scott Walker was my co-pilot,” Dane County Board chair Scott McDonell says of the ease with which he recruited energetic first-time candidates who won unexpected races in April. The same phenomenon is playing out with the recalls.
Veteran politicians are also mounting campaigns, of course. The leading Democratic candidates for governor are Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk. Another Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Secretary of State Doug La Follette, won his first elective post in 1972, five years before Mitchell was born. Yet Mitchell’s role in last year’s protests and the support he attracted from activists and union leaders persuaded several senior political players to skip the race for lieutenant governor, clearing the way for him to become the front-runner for the state’s number-two job.
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What’s especially striking about these new contenders, however, is how they are arriving on their own terms. The first large groups of protesters descended on Madison on Valentine’s Day last year. Many carried red balloons shaped like hearts, one of which floated to the top of the Capitol rotunda and remained for months, frustrating officials but becoming a symbol of the passion of the protesters and of the one-day-longer spirit of the movement. So, when Heidi Wegleitner, a tenants’ rights lawyer and union activist, decided to run for an open seat representing Madison on the Dane County Board, she adopted the red ballon as her campaign symbol, featuring it on yard signs across her district. She embraced the 99 Percent rhetoric of the Capitol protests and the Occupy movement.
“I’m running to be a voice for the single mom and her disabled child who are sleeping in their car tonight in the bitter cold and others struggling in this economy,” the 32-year-old National Lawyers Guild member announced as she launched her campaign. “We need a government that works for all people, not just the privileged few.”
Wegleitner knocked on thousands of doors, attracting endorsements from key unions and from Progressive Dane, a local movement. But what distinguished her from two formidable opponents was her ability to channel the energy and urgency of the movement she came from. On April 3, Wegleitner was elected with 82 percent of the vote. She’ll serve on the county board with 29-year-old Jenni Dye, who protested for thirty consecutive days at the Capitol last winter, and defeated a conservative incumbent and Walker supporter. Providing a Twitter diary of her transformation from activist to official—although she would tell you she’s still very much an activist—Dye is part of a social-media circle that includes other veterans of the protests, including Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, the Democratic candidate for US Senate, along with Melissa Sargent and Dianne Hesselbein, both leading contenders for open state legislative seats this fall. The morning after Dye’s election, her Twitter community was abuzz with messages like “this is what democracy looks like.” A local reporter tweeted a question: Are last year’s protests “ushering in a new generation of lawmakers?”
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A year ago, Lori Compas was just another angry Wisconsinite. Now, she’s the Democratic challenger to the most powerful Republican in the state legislature. A wedding photographer from Fort Atkinson, Compas freely admits that until recently her organizing experience was limited to volunteering with the high school ski team. But she was so upset by the GOP assaults on public education and services, she started attending town meetings to question her state senator, Republican Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald happened to be the Senate majority leader who facilitated the passage of Walker’s anti-labor legislation by declaring that the Senate did not have to abide by state open meeting rules.
“I didn’t come at this as someone who was political,” says Compas. “I came at it, like so many people in Wisconsin did, as a citizen who was troubled by what was happening in my state—and who was really passionate about doing something about it.” Her passion proved infectious. After Democratic strategists and union leaders dismissed the idea of recalling Fitzgerald, who represents a heavily Republican district, Compas mounted a “Recall Fitz” campaign from her kitchen. Under state law, any sitting official can be required to face the voters during his or her term provided activists from that official’s jurisdiction can gather signatures equaling 25 percent of the electorate that participated in the previous gubernatorial election. That’s a tall order in a district like Fitzgerald’s, as it requires collecting 16,000 signatures. But Compas, using new-media tools like Facebook and Twitter, and old-fashioned shoe leather, got volunteers to stand on street corners and in mall parking lots on the Friday after Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve and any other moment when a crowd might gather. The campaign succeeded beyond expectations. After collecting and submitting 21,000 signatures, the activists needed a candidate. They turned to Compas, who laughed off the idea at first but eventually decided she was ready to make “the transition from concerned citizen to State Senate candidate.”
Compas launched her campaign at a city park on a Saturday night. Hundreds showed up. It was an “if you build it, they will come” moment. And the candidate was as amazed as the crowd. Compas still sounds a lot more like that concerned citizen than a hard-charging contender. “Regardless of where you stand on the issues,” she says, “I think we can all agree that elected officials should listen to their constituents…. They should cooperate and try to unite people.”
“She’s not a career politician like her opponent,” says Wisconsin’s Democratic Party chair Mike Tate, who was once a skeptic but has come to see candidates like Compas as the new blood his party needs. “She’s someone who didn’t think about getting involved in politics until last year. And now she’s taking on one of the biggest names in Wisconsin politics. Everything about her is grassroots and genuine, which is very appealing these days.”
Despite entering politics through the same movement, Compas and Mitchell have very different styles. Mitchell’s speeches channel a fiery populism that recalls Bernie Sanders, Paul Wellstone and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. A native of the same small town as Walker, Mitchell has no qualms about ripping into his fellow alumnus of Delavan-Darien High School. “We took different classes,” he quips. But he’ll criticize Democrats, too, declaring that his politics are rooted in “a refusal to be beholden to corporate power,” and promising that “I’m not going to sit quietly by if I think someone is selling out.”
Like Compas, however, Mitchell places a lot of faith in the potential of a new generation of outsiders to win old fights. “I love rallies,” he says. “But this fight’s got to go from the streets, from the outside, into the halls of power. That’s how we make change. We recognize that. It’s what makes us different. We didn’t get into politics to be politicians. We’re running to make the change.”