Is Walworth County turning blue?
It was a good night to be inside. The National Weather Service reports it was a dreary, damp evening in southern Wisconsin. But for about 200 Walworth County Democrats, independents and progressives, college football took a back seat to politics, and they ventured out to celebrate their recent growth in membership.
“We were shocked that so many people showed up on a nasty night to attend our meeting when the Badgers were playing a big game,” said Doug Harrod, chairman of the Democratic Party of Walworth County. “Yes, I recall the jokes about how we used to be able to hold our meetings in a phone booth, but that’s not the case, now, and we’re having the last laugh.”
Harrod was referring to a membership growth spurt for the Walworth County Democratic Party in the past year. In a county so overwhelmingly Republican that even Herb Kohl could not carry it the first time he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1988, Democrats are enjoying newfound energy.
The county party’s membership totaled 66 at the end of 2010. The Walworth County Democrats now claim more than 200 members, and more are joining daily, Harrod said.
The Dec. 3 meeting was held at Badger High School in Lake Geneva and featured keynote speaker John Nichols, the associate editor of The Capital Times in Madison.
“It should be noted that many of those attending that meeting are not dues-paying members of the county party,” Harrod said. “But we are seeing support from independents and progressives. John has a special appeal to all of us.”
The county party’s vice chairwoman, Ellen Holly, was featured in Wednesday’s edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. A front-page photo showed Holly carrying a box of Gov. Scott Walker recall petitions into the Government Accountability Office headquarters in Madison.
“That photo tells our story,” Harrod said. “For decades, we’ve been a small but very energetic and hard-working group. Now, we’re a much larger energetic and hard-working group.”
While the growth has been rapid lately, things started to turn around for Walworth County Democrats as far back as 1970, state Sen. Tim Cullen said.
“It was in 1970 that we saw tremendous interest in the congressional Democratic primary between Doug La Follette and Les Aspin,” Cullen said. “Les won that following a recount and then went on to win the general election. It was the first time in a long time that Walworth County Democrats had something to cheer about.”
Aspin served as the 1st Congressional District representative from 1971 until 1993, when he resigned to become President Clinton’s defense secretary. Aspin died in 1995.
Cullen recalled working with the late Joe Golden, a veteran Walworth County Democrat.
“Joe was an example of how just a few people could make a big difference,” Cullen said. “He was always there volunteering to do whatever needed to be done—lit drops, signs, phone calls, working the fair and even running for office.”
Golden always had the best looking political booth at the Walworth County Fair, Cullen said.
“Joe put up a building every year,” Cullen said. “While others made due with a tent, Joe constructed this building of wood with a floor.
“He took it down every year, took the pieces home and brought it back to the fair the next year. While at the fair, Joe was there every day often listening to National Public Radio.”
Golden enlisted his wife, Rosemary, and son Joe Jr. to help.
“I was living in Minneapolis, but I would come down every year and help with the fair booth,” Joe Golden said. “Dad served as chairman and other functions for the party. It was always an important part of his life.”
Rosemary was the “silent” member of the family.
“I helped out wherever I was needed, but Joe was the one out front making the public aware of the party’s activities,” she said.
Jo Williams, the party secretary, said she’s glad to see membership increases but credits the veterans for keeping things going during down years. She agreed with Cullen that Aspin was a key factor in keeping Walworth County Democrats inspired during the 1970s and ’80s.
“There has always been a group in Whitewater,” Williams said. “They were not all members but always helped out. The 1970 election involving Les Aspin brought many of us together.”
Despite the effort of the loyal few, the Democratic Party in Walworth County languished until a year ago.
“There’s no question that Act 10, the law that destroys collective bargaining in Wisconsin, had a lot to do with our membership increases,” Harrod said. “Democrats, independents and progressives in Walworth County were also encouraged to get active over other issues including Voter ID and the mining bill.”
Cullen agreed that Act 10 inspired Democrats to unite, and it is a major factor in membership increases.
“Act 10 is at least 90 percent responsible for the membership increase in Walworth County,” Cullen said. “That county is now in play for Democratic candidates.”
Walworth County Republicans say their county party also is growing.
“I don’t have a comment on Democratic claims of growth,” said Kim Travis, chair of the Republican Party of Walworth County.
“We are seeing 100 members at regular meetings, and I’m getting five or six calls a day from people wanting to join and volunteer.”
Current membership for the Republican Party in Walworth County was not available.
Walworth County Democrats are revved up, Harrod said.
“We’re not slowing down, and we expect to keep growing,” he said.
“We’re having more meetings and greeting more new members.”
The Walworth County Democrats scheduled a Saturday night party for recall volunteers.
It’s a sure bet it wasn’t held in a phone booth.