Considering the state of politics in Wisconsin — emotionally charged recall efforts across the state, an open U.S. Senate seat and a looming presidential election — it's no wonder the all-volunteer, local progressive group Grassroots Northshore has seen its membership swell to more than 1,000.
“Let’s face it, Scott Walker has been very good for business,” Grassroots Northshore founder Keith Schmitz joked.
"People are sort of looking for a vehicle to push back."
A primary driver of a failed earlier this year, the group is once again hitting the sidewalks and canvassing the North Shore for recall petition signatures. Grassroots Northshore is one of hundreds of groups around the state organizing efforts to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.
A connection for non-union progressives
And for many residents of the liberal village of Shorewood and progressive North Shore citizens, Grassroots Northshore has become their instrument for action. At the beginning of the year, Schmitz said he counted 650 group members but it has since swelled to 1,050, with a younger demographic accounting for much of the growth.
"Let's face it, the Democratic Party is largely based around unions," Schmitz said. "But, up here in Shorewood and in the North Shore, there are very few people that belong to unions.
"We thought, there has to be some sort of an organization that people can relate to. That's what we are providing here."
With organizers setting their sights at 600,000 to 700,000 petition signatures, much more than the approximately 540,000 signatures they need to spark a recall election, Schmitz said the group is more active than it has ever been.
As shoppers hit the streets of Shorewood on Saturday, so did volunteers, gathering about 2,000 signatures. Schmitz said his group hasn't tallied the total number of signatures they have collected since the recall effort began on Nov. 15.
Many members work out of the North Shore recall headquarters at 6807 N. Green Bay Rd., manning telephones and educating petitioners.
During the Darling recall campaign , but with organizers shifting their gathering approach for this recall, petitioners set up outside heavy foot traffic areas like and in Shorewood.
"With this recall, so many people were personally affected, and even if they weren't, they kind of woke up to what was going on," he said.
Growing focus on politics
Looking back at its inception in 2004, the group's motivation wasn’t purely political, Schmitz said — though it was fashioned when a small group of Shorewood residents decided to volunteer during then-presidential hopeful John Kerry's campaign. But it has quickly shifted to the genre, especially with recalls trending in the state and volunteers needed on the ground floor.
“The recall is very important to people in the organization; this is the means by which people can be involved,” he said.
In the group's early days, Schmitz said he organized a small kick-off meeting at , and saw 150 people show up.
"People showed up and we took names, got their email addresses and right off the bat, we organized a canvass (for Kerry) up in the North Shore," Schmitz said. "The idea being that when you have elections going on in the area, you'd have to go up to union hall up in Holly and that was a lot of time wasted going to and from."
Though Kerry didn't win presidential office, Schmitz said thanks in part to their efforts, Whitefish Bay voted Democrat for the first time in years.
'How politics should happen'
Grassroots Northshore is a purely volunteer-driven group and Schmitz said that’s the way it should be.
"Rather than having a professional staff running the show, the people should be in control of it, direct it," he said.
Shorewood resident Karen Dean has served as the treasurer for the group since it started. She said she’s a little apprehensive about the whole recall trend, more so nervous about it becoming the “modus operandi” in the state, but even with that said, she has been very active in the effort.
“On the other hand, I think what he (Gov. Scott Walker) has done is so egregious, that in this case, it’s warranted,” Dean explained.
Another member, Shirley Horowitz of Whitefish Bay, said she volunteers in any way possible in the grassroots group.
"When the political situation is elections, I work on elections. When the political situation is legislation that is unclear or action that may be taken toward legislation, I work to organize events," Horowitz said.
Over the years, Schmitz said, his group has become fairly influential in the community; it has come to the point where backing from the group goes a long way in local elections.
“We have a sort of political infrastructure up here for progressives and so if someone is thinking about running for public office, a lot of times, the word is, ‘You need to talk to Grassroots Northshore, if you’re thinking about running,’” Schmitz said.
Grassroots prides itself in keeping residents informed, holding monthly meetings like forums on the new Voter Identification law and healthcare and getting people out to important events like Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner's town hall meetings.
Schmitz said he has made it a point to stay away from the money aspect of politics over the years, so his group doesn't fundraise and/or make donations to candidates or politicians. They collect dues from members to pay for to cost of their website, newsletter and a big yearly picnic.
"People are forming local organizations like ours all over the state. In the future, we hope to help other groups organize in Wisconsin," he said.
"This is the way politics should happen, it's not just because they belong to an organization, but rather because they know things need to change."