Wisconsin Prepares for High-Stakes Recall Elections

Every day for two weeks in March, Jim Niemeier, a retired educator from Waupun, Wisconsin, stood outside his local post office, talking to people as they walked in and out. He did this for eight hours each day in sometimes bitterly cold weather. Usually he would have better uses of his time, but Niemeier was collecting signatures to force the recall election of the Republican state senators who supported Gov. Scott Walker and his union-busting budget bill.

“Nothing was more important,” Niemeier recalls. “It was cold, many people were unfriendly, many were all behind me, and others didn’t know much about recalls. I was determined to do what I could to make sure Randy Hopper had to stand before the voters again.”

Randy Hopper is a Republican state senator who represents Waupun, and, thanks to the efforts of activists like Jim Niemeier, will be facing a recall election in August. Activists only had to secure 16,000 signatures to force the recall but ended up collecting more than 24,000. If Hopper and two other GOP senators are defeated, Democrats will win control of the state senate and bring critical balance back to the Wisconsin state government. (Opponents are also mobilizing to recall Walker, but Wisconsin law protects elected officials from recalls until they have held office for a year.)

Niemeier has been tirelessly organizing against the “budget repair bill” that strips most public employees collective bargaining rights since the day it was introduced by Walker back in early February. When he wasn’t marching, canvassing, writing letters or phone banking, Niemeier made sure he always got the message out. An avid biker, he would ride around town with a sign denouncing Walker and the Republican-controlled legislature attached to his helmet.

Jim Niemeier at a pro-worker rally in Madison, WI with his daughter and grandchildren.

Although he obviously wishes the bill had been defeated by the legislature, he wasn’t surprised to soon find himself petitioning for recall signatures.

“Even when we were protesting in Madison back in February,” recalls Niemeier. “We knew that, if the bill passed, it wasn’t over. We were moving forward no matter what. So, in my mind at least, a recall effort was always in the cards”

Setbacks have been mounting, beginning with the dead-of-night passage of the bill in March to the recent ruling by the Supreme Court that the law could go into effect. (The Wisconsin Education Association Council and other labor groups responded by filing a suit in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the bill.) But educator activists across the state haven’t waivered in their determination to educate citizens about the destructive effects of Walker’s policies.

The upcoming elections, said WEAC President Mary Bell, will energize Wisconsinites throughout the state.

“They will work to restore balance in government, and will illustrate just how serious they are about standing up for the values our state was built upon.”

Jim Niemeier is cautiously optimistic. Hopper’s opponent in the recall is Oshkosh Deputy Mayor Jessica King, who lost to Hopper by only 300 votes in the 2010 election. Niemeier has seen a shift in the neighborhoods he’s been canvassing.

“A lot of people who voted for Walker and Hopper didn’t vote for this anti-public education, anti-worker agenda,” Niemeier says, “so I think we’ve a got a pretty good shot of changing minds and winning these elections.”

Some minds can’t be changed, Niemeier concedes, but that’s ok – as long as they recognize that this is democracy at work. He remembers being confronted by an angry individual outside the post office as he collected signatures for the recall petition.

“He yelled at me ‘Don’t you know it’s all over! The bill passed! You guys lost!’ He then marched into the post office to try to get me thrown off the sidewalk!

“He clearly didn’t know that I had every right to be where I was. He also thought we had been beaten. Well, guess what? It’s not over yet.”

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