MILWAUKEE — Sonja O'Brien heard from the hecklers outside the Potawatomi casino as she collected signatures in a final push to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
One man yelled at her for forcing the state to spend millions on a recall election. A woman told her she was annoying. And Jack Bublitz, a 75-year-old retired banker, said Democrats would never collect enough names.
"You're not going to do it! You're not going to do it!" Bublitz yelled at her.
But O'Brien figured these naysayers were relatively civil compared to most days over the past two months in what has become a bitter brawl to oust Walker from office. Now the fight is about to move from the streets to the courtroom.
Democrats want to wind up the signature drive this weekend and get the names to state election officials by Tuesday's deadline. GOP legal challenges are almost certain to follow.
The signature campaign has been a microcosm of a political landscape that remains toxic and highly divided a year after the Republican governor introduced his plan to strip almost all public workers of their collective bargaining rights.
"These people are being ridiculous," Bublitz said as he hurried inside the casino. "We elected Walker. Let him serve out his term."
O'Brien, a 57-year-old data technician, shrugged it off.
"We're making history," she said, clad in boots and a parka and armed with two homemade "Recall Walker" signs and a pair of clipboards. "It feels good to empower the people."
Walker argued he had to crack down on unions to balance the state's $3.6 billion budget deficit. But Democrats saw it as a doomsday attack on unions, one of their crucial constituencies.
Thousands of demonstrators protested at the Capitol around the clock for three weeks. The Senate's 14 minority Democrats fled the state in a futile attempt to block a vote on the plan, which Walker eventually signed into law last March.
Democrats have been itching for payback ever since. They ousted two Republican state senators in recall elections last summer, narrowing the GOP's edge in that chamber to just one vote. Now they've set their sights on Walker, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, and four more Republican state senators. They need 540,208 signatures against Walker and the same against Kleefisch to trigger separate recall elections.
That figure was on the minds of the dozen or so volunteers in the Madison recall field office Friday. Petition circulators trickled in, handing over yellow and white lists of names. The volunteers scoured the paperwork, searching for mistakes ranging from sloppy handwriting to January signatures dated 2011 instead of 2012.
"It's been full-tilt boogie here for the last two weeks. It's like Santa's political workshop," said volunteer Alan Ginsberg, a retired Madison teacher. "There are few things I've done in my life that are as satisfying as this operation."
The recall effort has intensified the already rigid battle lines. Republicans have decried the recalls as a frivolous power grab that the state can't afford. Democrats maintain Wisconsin can't take Walker for another three years.
A Wisconsin Public Radio/St. Norbert College poll released the same day as the recall signature drive began two months ago found 58 percent of respondents think Walker needs to go, which was up from 47 percent in April. "Recall Walker" signs line yards in Madison, the state's capital. Wisconsin roads are full of vehicles with bumper stickers supporting Walker or calling for his ouster.
In the early days of the signature drive, Walker's supporters vented their anger. In Madison, someone pulled up to a drive-up signature station, grabbed a paper with three signatures on it and ripped it up. Someone anonymously started a Facebook page imploring people to collect petitions and burn them.
The rancor forced state election officials to make an unprecedented call for calm. Then their estimate last week that a statewide recall election would cost $9 million sparked a new round of outrage from Republicans.
State GOP spokesman Ben Sparks said Walker did what he promised he would — make tough decisions to fix the state's finances.
"The Democrats are forcing this completely baseless and expensive recall on Wisconsin families," Sparks said. "Basically, this entire recall effort has been a completely politically driven effort."
Things didn't get brutal outside the Potawatomi casino Wednesday, but passions ran high.
As O'Brien and Karen Hartwell, an unemployed volunteer from Muskego, shivered on public property across the street, a parade of people said they'd already signed a petition. But Michele Corrao, 65, of Grafton, lit up when she saw O'Brien.
"Give me that baby," she said, reaching for O'Brien's clipboard. "I'm dying to sign."
One man berated O'Brien for helping force an election that could cost millions. O'Brien countered the expense would be less than the costs of a new law forcing Wisconsin voters to show voter IDs at the polls.
"We need voter ID because you people are crooked," the man shot back as he stomped off.
The volunteers weren't fazed. In fact, they said, the detractors this day were unusually mild.
"When they're in their cars, that's when they call you blankity-blank-blank," Hartwell said.
Democrats said in December they had collected 507,000 names but have refused to provide any more updates. They want to collect 720,000 signatures, nearly 180,000 more than they need, to ensure the recall withstands GOP court challenges. Sparks said the party has built a statewide network of volunteers to verify signatures, the first step toward a challenge.Comment on this story
Nevertheless, Democrats have scheduled parties around the state this weekend to celebrate.
"Whether or not we reach our internal goal of 720,000 signatures ... this has represented a great victory for democracy and the working people of Wisconsin in the face of a well-financed and totally dishonest corporate agenda run from afar," state Democratic Party chairman Mike Tate said.
Hartwell seemed relieved the drive was almost over. She was clearly suffering from her own personal recall fatigue.
"I've done my part," she said. "I've been out in the rain, in the bitter cold, and I'm done."