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Huge turnout in Wisconsin's liberal strongholds raises Democratic hopes

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  June 5, 2012 09:37 PM

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MADISON, Wis. — It was only noon at St. James Catholic Church, a polling location in a leafy neighborhood near the University of Wisconsin. But already, Ward 66 supervisor Kris Rasmussen was seeing stunning numbers. In a ward of 2,849 registered voters, she was about to cross the 650th person to come through door.

Adding in 300 absentee ballots that had come in, the ward was closing in on the 1,000 mark. With eight hours to go, St. James had already surpassed the 892 voters who turned out for the primary election to pick a challenger to recall Governor Scott Walker.

“We had 200 vote in the first hour,” said Rasmussen, a non-practicing attorney. “Some of the workers say it feels like double the turnout so far compared to the 2010 election. It definitely feels more like the presidential election.”

By 4 p.m., nearly 500 more people streamed through. St. James was a microcosm of stunning statewide outpouring of passion for the nation’s only third-ever attempt to recall a standing governor. By mid-afternoon, Madison’s Dane County Clerk Karen Peters said over the telephone that she was expecting a turnout of between 75 and 80 percent, easily exceeding the 69 percent for the 2008 presidential race. Madison City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl was quoted by the Wisconsin State Journal as saying that because of same-day registration, turnout in some wards could mathematically surpass 100 percent of those already on the rolls.

This turnout was a fitting exclamation point in the city that riveted the world with sit-ins in the state rotunda to protest Walker’s stripping of most collective bargaining rights from public sector workers. Among those who went to the polls with anger still in her eyes was a 22-year-old middle school teacher. Because of the acrimony in the race, she would only give her first name, Alyssa. “A lot of us had enough,” said Alyssa, a recent graduate of the nearby University of Wisconsin. “Walker made it feel like my profession wasn’t safe. It’s hard enough knowing class sizes are going to rise. But to take away benefits was too much.”

The news of the turnout shot like electricity through the Madison Labor Temple. Dane County, with its liberal base, was about as critical to the recall effort as the biggest city of Milwaukee. Dozens of union workers and the We Are Wisconsin coalition that helped organize the recall effort worked cellphones and carted away dozens of lawn posters and stickers, many to cars spray painted with the names of Walker’s challenger Tom Barrett and Lieutenant Governor candidate Mahlon Mitchell.

We Are Wisconsin spokesman Erick Sanchez said that as of 3:30 p.m., volunteers had knocked on the doors of 200,000 homes Tuesday and made calls to half a million people. Despite polls consistently showing Walker with about a six or seven point lead, volunteers like Bill Fitzpatrick, 56, a state engineer, said the high numbers were a good sign pointing toward an upset. Fitzpatrick, like many volunteers, admitted that he did not give the first race between Walker and Barrett the attention and energy he gave it yesterday with a full day of calling and canvassing.

“What got me off the couch was when Walker started picking on nurses and teachers, these people who are dedicated to children, the sick and the elderly. I couldn’t take it that he was making them a punching bag. No way was I sitting this out,” he said.

Similar to Fitzpatrick was Ben Callan, a state natural resources analyst who assesses development proposals and their impact on wetlands. He said, “Honestly, I never gave it two thoughts when Walker was elected that he would turn around and take our rights away. He’s got the attention of a lot of us now. This is no longer just about union rights. It’s about whether we have a middle class and to me it’s been a pretty blatant attack on it.”

To be sure, there were plenty of reports from Walker’s strongholds in the Wisconsin’s suburbs and smaller bedroom communities that turnout was also running in the 65 percent to 75 percent ballpark. But as the clock passed the closing of the polls and Barrett and Mitchell spokesmen told reporters that there were still long lines of voters on Milwaukee’s heavily black North Side, the supporters of the recall held out hope that their historic political act would result in a historic result.

“I’ll be honest, I’m like a lot of people who wasn’t focused on Walker in 2010 and I didn’t put my heart in that race,” said Amy Noble, who was painting cars at the Madison Labor Temple. She sported metal earrings with the solidarity fist in the shape of Wisconsin that has come to symbolize the recall effort.

“But my husband and I were so angry that one of us, ever since February 15, 2011, has spent at least a few minutes taking laps around the state capitol with a recall sign. I’m a social worker who works with the homeless. What Walker did, it was as if I touched something radioactive and it turned me into the Hulk or Spider Man. That’s how strongly I feel.”

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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