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COLUMBUS, Wisc. (Reuters) - Tea Party activist Larry Gamble has spent the last few months leading an effort to disqualify the signatures of some of the 1 million residents who petitioned to recall Wisconsin's governor, Republican Scott Walker. The petition protests Walker's Act 10, which eliminates collective bargaining rights for most public workers, among other anti-union measures.
Gamble helped launch a "Verify the Recall" website that drew in 17,000 volunteer sleuths to scour public records for fraud. He says they uncovered about 100,000 suspicious signatures using scanned, publicly available copies of the petitions. Although the findings were not sufficient to halt a recall election for Walker, it electrified Wisconsin's grassroots conservatives by uncovering the names of judges, journalists and others who appeared to have signed the recall petition in breach of their own professional codes of ethics.
Gamble finds this level of civic activism where he lives unremarkable.
"Wisconsin has always been different from the other states," said Gamble, a retiree who heads the Wisconsin Grandsons of Liberty, a Tea Party group based in Milwaukee. "We'll work through all of this in our own, unique way."
The so-called badger state sees itself as fiercely independent, with a history of both progressivism and free-market conservatism that has always been driven by a politically engaged population. The June 5 vote to determine whether Walker stays in office reflects progressive populist traditions dating back to at least the turn of the last century, Wisconsin activists say.
Throughout much of that time, Wisconsin has been "above party or personal agenda," where Democrats have acted like Republicans and Republicans like Democrats, explained Lynn Freeman, executive director of United Wisconsin, a group spearheading the recall effort. A prime example of what she called the state's "blue conservatism" was former Republican governor Tommy Thompson, who pushed for the creation of healthcare for low-income families in Wisconsin. "We called this the 'Wisconsin idea.'"
The term, long used by progressive Wisconsinites and appropriated by the recall group, dates to the time of Wisconsin's progressive Republican governor, Robert La Follette, who believed voters, not special interests, should control government institutions. Specialists in law, economics, and the social sciences at the University of Wisconsin were recruited to help enhance the effectiveness of government. That was the "idea."
The contention over Walker has acquired national dimensions. With strong Tea Party backing, the governor has become a hero to conservatives who see the curbing of unions as necessary for holding down labor costs, or who have a stake in seeing the power of the public sector reduced generally.
To labor unions, Walker is trampling on years of progressive policy in a state that was the first to recognize the collective bargaining rights of public workers, way back in 1959.
"I don't think any place in the country is crystallizing the debate over the future of the middle class like Wisconsin," said Brandon Davis, national political director of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents workers in health care and public and property services.
For some Wisconsin voters, Walker's rhetoric summons the thought of La Follette, a very different kind of Republican. "Fighting Bob" laid the groundwork for the Progressive movement by railing against "vast corporate combinations" and advocating power for the people.
Last year, La Follette's bust in the state capitol rotunda in Madison became a rallying point for Walker's opponents as they pressed the legislature to reject the governor's collective-bargaining restrictions.
Protesters with signs lined the hallways. One read simply: "Long Live La Follette."
Wisconsin is often considered a Democratic Party stronghold because since 2000 it has backed Democrats in presidential elections.
But for a full century after the Civil War, the Republican Party dominated Wisconsin politics. Led by La Follette, progressive elements took control of the party during the peak of industrialization and initiated numerous populist reforms.
Wisconsin pioneered open primaries, open records and progressive income taxes, laws governing factory safety and child labor. It became known as a "laboratory of democracy" - the first U.S. state to introduce a workers' compensation law (1911) and unemployment benefits (1932).
In 1911 it became the first U.S. state to introduce a workers' compensation law. The following year former U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt praised its "experimental laboratory," where the regulation of industry was advanced. Later experiments included unemployment benefits (1932). Much New Deal legislation, including the Social Security act, was the product of Badger brains.
The Democrats gained a foothold in the late 1950s after Republican U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy was censured for his overreaching investigation of Communists in Hollywood and the federal government.
Still, the bipartisan Wisconsin legislature forged agreements on major issues. In 1959, when Democratic Governor Gaylord Nelson proposed giving municipal workers collective bargaining rights, he had agreement from a legislature partly controlled by Republicans.
"There was a broad progressive center in Wisconsin (in 1959) and a lot of common interest in bread-and-butter issues," said Barry Burden, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "Issues were not filtered through a partisan lens. There was room for conversation because there was broad recognition of what was the right thing to do."
While McCarthy defined political extremism, more typical was middle-of-the-roader Tommy Thompson. The former Republican governor, who served from 1987 to 2001, spearheaded the creation of BadgerCare, a healthcare program for low-income families, and instituted America's first school choice program.
Thompson has since moved to the right, a recognition of the Tea Party's growing clout. As a candidate for U.S. Senate, he professes a "conservative political philosophy," but Tea Party activists call him a RINO, or "Republican in name only" - for supporting tax increases while he was governor, for instance.
Republican Representative Paul Ryan, a rising star best known for his debt-reducing budget proposals, is more palatable to the Tea Party. "Moderate politicians are a dying breed here," says Burden.
One exception is a four-term Democrat, U.S. Senator Herb Kohl, who combines a moderate fiscal philosophy with liberal social views.
But Kohl is retiring, and Democrats have banded together behind Representative Tammy Baldwin, an openly gay liberal.
"We were looking for a champion, and Tammy fit the bill," said SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin vice president of politics and growth, Bruce Colburn.
Baldwin has won endorsement from the local SEIU, which is pushing for Walker's ouster in what the union calls the "largest recall effort in U.S. history," when considered as a proportion of the population.
The recall fight has shaken up Wisconsin's labor movement. The state, which gave birth in 1936 to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, was long known for its union-friendly environment.
Many were surprised when the Republican legislature last year voted with Walker to take on the unions.
"It takes guts to do that in Wisconsin," said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a foundation funded by conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch of oil and gas conglomerate Koch Industries. AFP has been active in Wisconsin since 2005 and has paid for an advertising campaign backing Walker.
"In Wisconsin, you have a governor and legislature ... who have the political courage to genuinely try to move the state forward with real policies," he said.
One reason Walker and his allies stepped into the fight, political experts say, is that even back in Fighting Bob's day, Wisconsin was home to a lesser-known but equally strong counterculture of conservative, free-market individualism.
"Since Walker's election in particular … I think that the individualist culture has returned with a vengeance," said James Conant, author of "Wisconsin Politics and Government: America's Laboratory of Democracy."
The recall battle is nothing less than a pitched fight between the culture of individualism and that of collective action.
Tea Party conservatives like Annette Olson, a farmer with little political experience before joining the movement in 2010, lobbied hard for passage of a concealed weapons law and for legislation allowing residents to arm themselves at home for self-defense.
Thwarting Walker's recall is now her top priority.
"Walker's stood up for what's right, which is why we'll work hard to keep him in office," she said.
On the other side is mother-of-two Lori Compas. She is running against former Wisconsin State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald after spearheading a successful effort last year to recall him. Fitzgerald had helped pass Act 10.
Compas thinks Walker's reliance on out-of-state money to fight the recall threatens the state's future. Of the $13 million raised this year, $8.8 million of it has come from outside Wisconsin.
"The big question is, can money buy elections?" Compas said. "Or are there still enough people who care about democracy to do the right thing here in Wisconsin?"
Reporting by Nick Carey; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Prudence Crowther