Bird on a Wire
Inside LuAnn Bird’s remarkable and unconventional State Assembly campaign that might just save democracy in Wisconsin. A special feature story from The Recombobulation Area.
The Recombobulation Area is a six-time Milwaukee Press Club award-winning weekly opinion column and online publication written and published by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
It’s an unseasonably warm October day in southeastern Wisconsin. People in this neighborhood near Wedgewood Park on the city of Milwaukee’s far southwest side are outside – cleaning leaves from gutters, working on cars, trimming trees, tending to gardens. They’re both savoring what might be the last time this year where temperatures will reach 70 degrees and using the day to prepare for the inevitability of a frigid Wisconsin winter.
Walking down the street is LuAnn Bird. She’s wearing a bright blue T-shirt with white lettering saying, “Choose Civility.” That’s her campaign slogan. She’s running for State Assembly in the new 84th District. Election Day is just 17 days away, so she’s out doing what she’s been doing just about every day for months: knocking doors.
Bird is checking her canvassing app on her phone to see where she’s been and where she still needs to go, but really she’s just looking for people outside to talk to. She seems to seek out homes that already have a yard sign for her opponent out front. She welcomes that kind of conversation. She knows she's not going to flip every voter, but she’s going to try.
She spots one man coming down from a ladder. He’s not one of the names and addresses listed on her app, but she walks over to introduce herself, tell him what she’s running for and why she’s running. “The system is broken,” she says, “and I want to fix it.” They talk for a few more minutes. He’s a middle-aged Hispanic man and English is not his first language and she finds out that he runs maintenance at a nearby MPS school. She talks about how she’s served on school boards, working to make schools accessible for people with disabilities, people like her husband, who was paralyzed in a construction accident 32 years ago. They agree that schools need more support.
“You’ve got my vote,” the man says, unprompted. “I like your ideas.”
Bird shakes his hand and gives him one of her campaign fliers, each of which has a short handwritten note on the front, and thanks him for his vote.
“This is where we’re going to win this race,” she tells me as we’re walking to the next house. “On doors.”
This is an important race.
District 84 in the Wisconsin State Assembly was redrawn this year to include several communities on the southwest side, including Bird’s home in Hales Corners. Previously, this was a deep red Republican district, one that stretched west from Milwaukee well into the longtime GOP stronghold of Waukesha County. But that has changed.
The political leanings of suburban communities around Milwaukee have been moving to the left for several years. Democrats flipped three suburban Assembly seats in the last two election cycles, and cities like the inner ring suburb of Wauwatosa (pop. ~48,000) shifted further in favor of Democrats in 2020 than any other municipality in the state.
Republicans in the legislature, who introduced the maps that have now been adopted after a frustrating and confounding legal process, clearly recognized what was happening, and moved the goalposts in many suburban Milwaukee areas. Legislative maps in Wisconsin were considered by many to be the nation’s most gerrymandered for the last decade, and the new maps are even worse. A 50-50 seat that flipped for Democrats in 2020 was redrawn to have a 16-point Republican advantage in 2022. Democrats’ chances of winning a simple legislative majority – in a state where decimal points often determine which party wins statewide elections – is less than zero. And while the GOP was able to use the redistricting process to shore up many close seats, they couldn’t pack and crack themselves into double-digit advantages in every last suburban Milwaukee district.
The new 84th, with its western border now the Milwaukee-Waukesha county line, emerged as perhaps the only truly competitive Assembly seat in the region for 2022. Most of Greenfield (pop. ~37,000) is in the district, and that’s a city Trump won in 2016 (51.4% - 48.5%), but Biden won in 2020 (52.2% - 47.7%).
“They redrew the lines and put me in with you!” Bird will enthusiastically tell people on doors, letting people know this is a 50-50 seat.
“Your vote always matters,” she says. “But in this case, you really can make a difference, depending on whether you vote or not.” She loves telling people this is a competitive seat.
Unfortunately, with the new gerrymandered maps, there aren’t many of those competitive seats left. Just 10 of the 99 seats in the Assembly are truly up for grabs this year.
“(The 84th) is one of only a handful of true 50-50 seats under Wisconsin's current gerrymander,” said State Rep. Evan Goyke of Milwaukee, a leader in the Democratic caucus who got involved with Bird’s campaign at the very beginning, seeing this race as an opportunity for Democrats to flip another suburban seat. “It's on the radar of Democrats and Republicans alike. It's kind of the bellwether of where we're going.”
It’s more than a bellwether, too.
In the State Assembly, the GOP is just five seats away from reaching a two-thirds supermajority, an outcome that would upend politics in Wisconsin in ways no one here is ready for. If Tony Evers is re-elected but Republicans gain a supermajority, the Democratic governor would essentially be blocked from governing. Republicans would be able to override any of his vetoes. If Tim Michels were to win, too, the legislature would still be in the drivers’ seat for statewide politics.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has been referred to as a “shadow governor” during Evers’ term, and in such a scenario with a Republican supermajority, you could drop that “shadow” moniker entirely. Vos with a supermajority would have far more sway over statewide politics than Evers as a second-term governor or Michels in his first term. After Evers won the 2018 race, Vos now-famously said “If you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have a clear majority.” Taking the majority of voters from these Democratic cities out of the state political process entirely is dangerously close to becoming a reality.
A Republican supermajority in a 50-50 state like Wisconsin could potentially have far-reaching national implications. This group of Republicans have been systematically dismantling democracy in Wisconsin for more than a decade, and with the state often being a laboratory for conservative policy experiments, Wisconsin could again prove to be the guinea pig for how Republicans might take the extreme anti-democracy measures to a national level — creating all sorts of questions about what’s looming in 2024.
True representative government in Wisconsin is hanging by a thread, and the 84th — perhaps more than any seat in the Assembly — is at the very center of the fight to protect and restore democracy in the state. The 84th is where Democrats have their best opportunity on the map to flip a seat, claw back from the brink, and chart a new course forward.
And LuAnn Bird is running a campaign unlike any other candidate in the state to help make that happen.
“We need more civility,” she said, and this is the very cornerstone of her campaign. “It’s not a word. It’s an action. It means you have to be kind and compassionate to the person you’re talking to. It’s really that simple. And if you’re kind and compassionate and you feel that in your heart, we’re going to change things. We just are. And that’s what people want.”
Evan Goyke and Greta Neubauer, the state representative from Racine who became the new Democratic Assembly Minority Leader earlier this year, were meeting with potential candidates in the 84th District and the filing deadline for candidates was rapidly approaching. They met with LuAnn and her husband, Phil, at their house in Hales Corners – aka “The Bird House.”
“I remember talking to Greta at the end of her driveway after meeting with LuAnn,” said Goyke. “And we're like, “Oh, man! If LuAnn says yes, this is going to be great!””
Bird, 68, is the former executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, and has served on school boards for many years, in Oshkosh from 1995 to 2001 and on the Whitnall School Board from 2013 to 2018, serving two years as president in each stint. She ran for State Assembly once before, in 2004 in District 53 in the Oshkosh area, losing a close race to a 12-year incumbent.
Bird’s husband, a Vietnam War veteran, was injured in a construction accident in 1990, suffering a fall that severed his spinal cord, paralyzing him from the waist down. There can be before-and-after moments in people’s lives, and this accident was that moment for Phil and LuAnn. She mentioned her husband and his accident and how it changed their lives at nearly every door she knocked on.
Soon after the accident, they ran into problems accessing places with a wheelchair – like going to certain events at their childrens’ school. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law that same summer, so she worked to make places like the school accessible. She ran into obstacles in her efforts, but instead of giving in to a broken bureaucracy, she joined the League of Women Voters and asked the board to create an Americans with Disabilities Act Committee, then ran for school board, won, and made the changes she was advocating for. This is something of a pattern for her. She’ll run into a roadblock, keep pushing, and find her way through. She has story after story of the same type of process unfolding. She is nothing if not persistent.
LuAnn Bird eventually went back to school, gaining an Associate's degree in Quality Improvement from Fox Valley Technical College in 2000, a Bachelor’s degree in Community Leadership and Development at Alverno College in 2001, and at age 53, got her Master’s degree in Public Administration at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh in 2010.
For the last 10 years, she and her husband have also provided child care for their now-three grandchildren.
In November 2017, Phil Bird suffered a stroke. LuAnn Bird stepped down from the school board to care for him. She had been working on addressing the school’s many ADA violations – including ensuring a proper changing place for a child with a disability – so on her way out, she suggested the board put all of the projects she had on her agenda on the referendum. They did, and it passed. She gets results.
The campaign LuAnn Bird is running is different. This has been a relentlessly negative campaign cycle and this is very much not not a negative campaign. It does not have carefully cultivated, laser-targeted messaging. She’s not waiting for the polling to come back on a certain issue before she talks about it. She’s passionate, she has values that largely align with the Democratic Party, but more than anything, she wants to fix something that’s broken. And the Wisconsin State Legislature is broken.
“Let’s gavel in and let’s gavel out,” she said in frustration, referencing the now all-too-common practice from legislative Republicans in response to the many special sessions called by Democratic governor Tony Evers over the last four years. “Let’s make it tougher for people to vote. I don’t get that at all. I can’t understand why one party would not want to talk. Why would some people want to hold us hostage like that? For the sake of power? It’s not right.”
She wants to have the conversation. She sees people she might disagree with and she wants to engage, especially on top-of-mind issues like reproductive health care, where the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade triggered an 1849 law banning abortion with only unclear exceptions for the life of the mother.
“Let’s just talk,” she said. “Because most people at the doors agree we got to change this. An 1849 law right now is getting in the way of women having health care.”
“And it’s not just women’s rights,” she adds, of the issues stagnating at the state level. “It’s voting rights, workers rights, disability rights, all of these. People are feeling undervalued. And that’s just not right.”
“What I like about LuAnn, what I've noticed from the very minute I met her, is this incredibly authentic, positive energy,” said Goyke. “She is who she says she is. She talks about civility, not as a brand, but as a being. It is who she is.”
She’s become an instant legend among Assembly Democrats for her work on doors. She will flip Trump voters from the front porch.
She tells me a story about early in the campaign, out canvassing, when a man in a Trump hat comes to answer the door.
“And, you know, I hold up my flier and say, “I don’t suppose you’d vote for a Democrat, would you? And he starts laughing. And I started laughing.”
She went on to ask what he likes about Trump. He talks about “draining the swamp” and Washington being a mess. Bird agrees with that part. They find common ground about similar situations working with local governments, having to fix neighborhood water and sewer issues (Bird was on the sanitary district commission in Sunset Point from 1993 to 1995, helping get sewer installed to replace failing septic tanks after theirs had failed.).
“After about 10 minutes, he says, “Well, I can vote for you,”” she said. “I started to walk away, (but) I turn around and I go, “Bill, nobody’s gonna believe this! Would you let me take a picture of you for my Facebook page?” And he goes, “You flipped me!””
Another time out knocking doors, she sees a house with all kinds of “NO TRESPASSING” and “BEWARE” signs out front of a long and winding driveway. She goes to the door anyway, where she meets Leon.
Bird tells the story: “He comes out and goes, ‘What are you selling?’ And I said, ‘Nothing. I'm running for public office. And I'm here to talk to you.’ He goes, ‘Are you a Republican or a Democrat? I said, ‘Well, I'm a Democrat.’ He goes, ‘Are you kidding? I hate Democrats. I never vote Democrat. I only vote Republican.’ And I said, ‘Well, you know, give me a chance here. Let's talk.’”
So they talked. She says she’s fiscally conservative and believes in Second Amendment rights. They find out that they both have kids and grandkids who like to play hockey. She tells him about her husband, in a wheelchair, playing hockey with their grandkids in their basement. He invites her in to meet his wife.
Bird peppers the conversation with reminders about why she’s there. “By the time we're done talking, you're gonna at least think about voting for me,” she says to him.
“He had a few choice words to say,” she recalls, noting many of those words had four letters. “‘Are you kidding? I never vote Democrat.’ And then I would slip it in there, I’d say, ‘You know, you can cross over in the general.’”
Soon enough, they all have their phones out, showing each other pictures of their grandchildren.
Bird recalls, “We’re talking mostly about family and he leans over (to his wife) and says, ‘You know, we can cross over in the general’.”
She visits again a few weeks later, this time with a yard sign to give him. She talks for a while, catching up with this new friend of hers, and then asks, “Now Leon, are you voting for me yet or not?”,” and he replies, “Are you kidding? We already voted for you!” She helps put up her Bird sign, in the same front yard with Tim Michels and Ron Johnson signs.
“LuAnn has run one of the best nontraditional campaigns,” said Goyke. “There is no elite political consultant from one of the two coasts telling LuAnn what to say and where to go. It is organic. It is evolving. It is 100% LuAnn and her vision and voice…And credit and power to her for pushing her positive message through in a negative time.”
“Other groups are going to do negative stuff,” said Bird. “And I hate that. I just don’t want to run on that at all.”
This midterm election cycle in Wisconsin has been an especially negative one, and it has been relentless. Between the two top-of-the-ticket races for governor and senator, we’re seeing just an avalanche of ads, very few of them even remotely positive. More money has been spent on the governor’s race here than on any other governor’s race across the country. The race for Senate, where Mandela Barnes has faced a crushing onslaught of negative and often racist attack ads, is in the top five most expensive. Early estimates said $700 million could be spent on campaigns in Wisconsin in 2022, and no one here would be surprised if we blew past that number. To an overwhelming degree, the messaging from both sides has been incredibly negative toward their opposition.
That’s not the type of campaign LuAnn Bird is running. Though her opponent – longtime city of Milwaukee councilman and twice-failed mayoral candidate Bob Donovan – is especially well-known in the region as a bombastic lightning rod and longtime favorite of conservative talk radio, she rarely mentions him.
“I go to doors every day,” she said. “And I do not talk about Bob Donovan. Sometimes, it's like, ‘OK, here's your choice; me or Bob Donovan.’ It really isn't about Bob. It really is about a bigger picture of the broken political process. And giving people hope that we can change it.”
“I've never once thought that I'm running to beat something. I'm running to change something.”
Christopher Porterfield, the 41-year-old lead singer and songwriter for the acclaimed Milwaukee folk band Field Report, almost ran as the Democratic candidate in this State Assembly race.
He had been off the road for a couple years by design before Covid, and then Covid happened, and he became a stay-at-home dad for his daughter and moved to this district in 2020.
He had begun getting involved with local politics in his new home, and had bemoaned the fact that Republican Mike Kuglitsch ran unopposed for re-election in the 84th in 2020. Kuglitsch chose not to seek re-election in 2022, and redistricting put this seat in play.
Porterfield had been in touch with Goyke about this district, and since Goyke knew Porterfield had been volunteering on local school board campaigns, he reached out to see if there was a potential candidate he might know through connections he’d made there.
Porterfield checked around, but no one was saying yes. He started thinking about running himself, and even met with Goyke and Neubauer about taking the plunge.
“I didn't want to do it; my wife didn’t want to do it,” said Porterfield. “But with the stakes of everything, it was like, are we going to have to meet this moment? There's so much on the line. So much. You couldn't write this.”
The Sunday before the filing deadline, he was “sweating blood and agonizing” over the decision, “texting everybody” he knew. Finally, Neubauer called, saying they found someone to run. That someone was LuAnn Bird.
Porterfield was beyond relieved. But he still wanted to get involved and help the candidate however he could. He called Bird, and she asked him to be in her “kitchen cabinet.” He eventually volunteered to help set up social media, design a logo, etc., “just trying to build a car so the campaign manager could just get in and drive,” he said. But he was not yet done helping LuAnn Bird’s campaign.
“I had a lot of blood, sweat and tears involved in this race,” he said. “I was very interested in finding other ways to get involved and use whatever tiny little megaphone that I have to start amplifying the message, because she was running against somebody who has decades of media coverage and relationships and everything. And she was starting from nothing.”
What that has led to is “Bird Songs.”
Porterfield began organizing small concerts in backyards to benefit the Bird campaign.
“We are amplifying hope and civility through music and action,” Porterfield is quoted saying in the official campaign press release announcing the concert series. “The 84th is flippable. People want to help, sometimes they just need a clear, impactful, way to do it. Bird Songs is about providing that channel.”
Goyke applauded this “totally accessible, non threatening and nontraditional” political event.
“Goodbye wine-and-cheese tray and white wine spritzer and fancy penthouse, whatever people think political events are,” he said, “‘Bird Songs’ has been the opposite. It flipped it on its head. It’s been: Bring a lawn chair and a beer to somebody’s backyard and celebrate and jam out with a bunch of local musicians.”
The first concert was Aug. 12 at “The Bird House.” The show featured local artists Boom Forest and Ellie Jackson, as well as Porterfield, performing with Field Report for the group’s first full-band set in the Milwaukee area since 2018.
“At the first one, I found myself kind of angry on the microphone, saying some things that were very doom-ey and dire,” said Porterfield. “And it's true. None of it's untrue. But the tone of it got kind of dark, I realized.”
The more he got involved with the campaign, though – and the more “Bird Songs” concerts he put on – the more that anger dissipated and turned to hope.
“We've both grown together,” Bird said of Porterfield, “in our understanding of how to change things and why this is so important. I realized that by being associated with me, he wasn't so angry anymore. And then I realized: This is working. He's hopeful. And that's just so important to realize. Because if you don’t like something, get in there and change it or you’re part of the problem.”
There’s a back-to-basics simplicity to this campaign. You take away all the overwrought nonsense that’s plaguing so many campaigns in the state – the too-safe messaging, an over-managed press strategy, the endless consultant-speak – and you end up with authentic and passionate people who just want to make their state a better place.
“Bird Songs” is part of a true grassroots effort, with people using what they know and what they care about to try to make a difference.
The partnership between Bird and Porterfield created this special and unique concert series, eventually culminating on Oct. 20 at The Cooperage, where more than a dozen Milwaukee musicians lent their time and talents to take to the stage for “We May Be The Ones,” a benefit concert for the Bird campaign. David Ravel, the renowned former director of Alverno Presents, came out of semi-retirement to co-produce the show with Porterfield.
Porterfield began the concert solo, singing Paul Westerberg’s “We May Be The Ones.”
“We may well be the ones
To set this world on its ear
We may well be the ones
If not then why are we here
Why the hell then are we here?”
Many of the musicians played protest songs. Ellie Jackson, Caley Conway and Treccy MT joined their voices together for a gorgeous rendition of “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Cree Myles, a musician and the curator of “All Ways Black,” took the stage and said “I’m feeling revolutionary” before launching into a stop-you-in-your-tracks force-of-nature performance of Gil-Scott Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” with B-Free (Brittney Farr-Freeman) backing on flute.
And although Bob Donovan is an especially divisive figure in Milwaukee, I don’t recall anyone on stage mentioning his name a single time the entire night. It was not that kind of event. This is not that kind of campaign.
After Treccy MT of the group Ruth B8r Ginsburg performed “The Weight,” Bird took the stage with Porterfield to talk about her campaign. She talked about civility. She told her stories about flipping Trump voters. She talked about how by talking to people and listening, you could make inroads. She talked about “Bird Songs” as relationship-building events, not just a concert to raise money. She talked about driving through a recent storm where a tornado touched down to get to a children’s event, because “These kids need us to win.” It was energetic. It was passionate. It was kind of meandering. But it was authentic. And more than anything, it was hopeful.
“I’m going to be standing on your shoulders every time I go out,” said Bird. “I’ll remember this night. I’ll remember every one of you.”
The show then concluded with all of the musicians joining together on stage for a rendition of “Women of the World Take Over.”
“Women of the world take over
'Cause if you don't the world will come to an end
And it won't take long”
Bird and Porterfield might seem on the surface to be an unlikely duo, but perhaps that’s not the case. Porterfield has spent much of the past few years providing child care for his daughter. Bird takes care of her husband and their grandchildren. Their stories are connected not just through this campaign, but through being people who care for others amid tragic and tumultuous times. They are people who take care of people. It’s simple.
On stage with Bird, Porterfield talked about what this process has meant to him, about how he started the campaign angry and fearful, but the action he’s taken has turned to hope.
That’s what’s been missing this year in Wisconsin. Hope.
Whether or not you agree with the party delivering the message, this has been a very dark and fearful campaign season. You’ll go to commercial watching a Packers game and every break is a series of ads about murderers and rapists and sexual misconduct. Even the ads that are more positive are arguing with claims made by the opposition. It feels largely devoid of a vision for a brighter future.
The Republican messaging has been especially fearful. And perhaps it’s a cliche, but what better to counteract a message of fear than one of hope?
The “Bird Songs” concert at The Cooperage was the most hopeful I’ve felt about politics and about the future of the state of Wisconsin in years. It was a beautiful, remarkable, and genuinely moving event.
More than anything, it was hopeful. That hope is powerful. Seeing it on stage in full display made it so clear that hope is what’s been missing from our politics. The perpetual defense Democrats are forced to play and run on in Wisconsin is not enough. After all we’ve all been through over these last few years, we need more hope. It’s simple.
The day after the concert at The Cooperage, LuAnn Bird got a message from her campaign manager. She was getting hit with negative ads. One was about transgender youth using bathrooms, and that really bothered her.
“They’re exploiting children in that,” she said. “It doesn’t hurt me, but it hurts the children.”
The other was about defunding the police. That was more expected, and more along the lines of attack ads across the board coming from Republicans in Wisconsin (never mind that they’re the party that has repeatedly slashed shared revenue, the funding source for local law enforcement in Wisconsin municipalities).
Some candidates might want to refute those statements in the media, or spend months having that argument through the ads. Not LuAnn Bird. She took a different approach.
“I went right down to the Milwaukee Police Department,” she said. “I went right down to the union headquarters and I took that flier in and I said I just want you to know who I am. Bob Donovan’s signs were there, so obviously they’ve endorsed him. But (I said) I’m just here to tell you I don’t want to defund the police. If anything, I would give you more resources so you could do your job and get the kind of training police officers might need. And that’s how I handled it. I went right to the source…I wanted them to know that I would bend over backwards to support them.”
Putting together the “Bird Songs” concerts, Porterfield said he was able to get so many musicians to step up and be part of them simply by laying out the stakes of the race.
What are those stakes he described? I asked.
“The fate of Wisconsin,” he said. “Truly.’
Underlying all of what makes this race unique and different is a recognition of what this race means – for Wisconsin, and for so much more. They may well be the ones because they might just have to be.
LuAnn Bird’s campaign, from the soaring heights of “Bird Songs” to the relentless ground game of knocking doors across the district, is reminding us what politics should be. Choose civility. If you don’t like something, do something about it. Have the conversation. Make inroads. Run to change something, not beat something.
“I kind of feel like I’m out to save democracy,” said Bird. “But not alone.”
The Recombobulation Area is an independent publication covering news and politics in Milwaukee and Wisconsin. Our work is funded by readers. Subscribe to help fund in-depth local journalism like what you’re reading here.
Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Heartland Signal, Belt Magazine, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s won 13 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.