Lori Compas is a wedding photographer from Fort Atkinson, Wisc., who participated in last year’s protests against Gov. Scott Walker’s effort to end collective bargaining rights for public-sector union employees. She then spearheaded a signature drive to recall her local state senator, Republican Senate leader Scott Fitzgerald—and ended up running against Fitzgerald herself, as a Democrat. Though her candidacy sparked sparked grassroots excitement and won her media attention beyond Wisconsin, Compas lost to Fitzgerald Tuesday night. The following day, she spoke to msnbc’s Lean Forward.
LF: I’m sorry things didn’t go better last night. Can you talk first about your own race and your experience?
LC: Being a politician isn’t who I am, so it’s nice to be back to normal life with my kids and dog… I’m not as crushed as you might think. I actually did get the number of votes that we thought I needed to win—we thought I needed 33,000 votes and I got that.
LF: So turnout was a lot higher than you expected?
LC: It was astronomical. I don’t know how [Republicans] turned out their people in the northern part of the district where they are so strong, but they did a great job.
LF: Do you think you’ll run for office again?
LC: I really don’t know. I doubt it. This is such a conservative area and I’m not really into wasting my time.
LF: How did you get into politics in the first place?
LC: I was really shocked when Gov. Walker, in his words, ‘dropped the bomb’ on the state. I went to the protest and discovered that the ring-leader in the legislature was my own state senator in a rural district between Madison and Milwaukee. I didn’t even know the guy’s name when the whole thing started, but I soon realized that our state senate member was the majority leader and he was really Gov. Walker’s right hand man. I just assumed that he would be recalled, but when the time came, the state Democratic party said he was untouchable and they were going to focus their resources on three easier targets.
I just thought that he deserves it more than Gov. Walker did and that something needed to be done and that he should be called to account. He abused his power and betrayed our trust and I just thought he needed to be recalled. So when no one else signed the papers, I just did it myself.
LF: What about in the governor’s race? It seemed like Walker’s move against the unions made him so unpopular last year, so how was he able to win last night?
LC: For one thing he outspent his opponent by an astronomical amount. And for another thing he’s been campaigning for the past year and his opponent had just one month campaigning. I think that if progressives want to make any kind of difference in Wisconsin or anywhere else, we have to work to get the money out of politics. We have to level the playing field. We don’t have government anymore, we have an auction. And that’s just not right.
I also think progressives need to get better at messaging. Even if it’s not true, Gov. Walker has been saying, ‘our government reforms are working, it’s working, it’s working,’ like a broken record. And of course his reforms are not working—anyone with two eyes can see that people are out of work, and Wisconsin has the worst jobs record in the country in the last year since the reforms went into effect.
LF: What about the labor movement? If Walker can go after unions and not pay a political price for it, will that convince a lot of other Republicans across the country that they can do the same thing?
LC: I think that’s true unless we can figure out how to tell the story better. Do you enjoy the weekend? It doesn’t come natural. The five-day work week? We weren’t born with that—it was a thing that was hard-fought and won. And so was sick leave, and so was the 40-hour work week. All of these things that if you’re born into a world where that’s the norm, you just take it for granted. It’s easy for people to sit around all day Saturday and just gripe about how terrible the unions are, but they don’t realize that they are lounging around on a Saturday because the unions worked really hard to give them to you. If you’re in a Right-to-Work state, you’re more likely to have more people in poverty, more likely to have lower literacy rates. Unions raise the quality of life for everyone. Yes, there are big problems with the unions, and yes in some cases they might have too much power, but in general, life is better where unions exist.
Zachary Roth contributed reporting.