Tom Barrett and Kathleen Falk, Wisconsin (STOWI1:US) governors-in-waiting who have never won statewide office, sat side by side in a crowded Madison ballroom trying to convince Democrats that their baggage won’t stop them from knocking off Republican Scott Walker in a June 5 recall.
“I can take it to them,” Barrett, the Milwaukee mayor whom Walker beat 17 months ago, said at the April 11 forum.
“I am building that big tent,” said Falk, a union-backed former Dane County executive from Madison.
On May 8, voters will choose among four Democrats and a Republican-backed candidate to challenge Walker in the third recall election of a U.S. governor, a contest that has drawn national attention. Barrett and Falk, the poll-ordained frontrunners, are performing the awkward dance of promoting themselves without disparaging the other and damaging the party’s chances in June.
The recall vote will be the climax of more than 14 months of turmoil triggered when Walker, 44, pushed restrictions on collective bargaining through the Legislature. Two senators who supported the change were recalled in August and more than 900,000 signatures were gathered to force Walker’s recall vote.
Supporters around the nation have rallied to Walker’s defense, turning this state of 5.7 million into a microcosmic version of the nation’s polarized politics. Republicans want to win badly enough to enter an 80-year-old party member as a stalking horse in the other party’s primary. She’ll join the four real Democrats, who include state Senator Kathleen Vinehout and Secretary of State Doug La Follette.
Falk and Barrett represent the party’s ideological poles. Falk, 60, is a Milwaukee-born political product of Madison, which is a bastion of environmental activism and unwavering Democratic support.
A former environmental attorney, Falk served 14 years as Dane County’s chief executive, leaving office in 2011. She earned a reputation for advocating rights for the poor, and implementing property-tax limits.
At an April 12 reception in Madison before a group of health-care workers, Falk said she has “one really hard job left in me.”
Falk promotes her “long history of standing up for the little people.” She appeals to Democratic outrage at what she calls Walker’s “major assaults on Wisconsin values.” She talks about budget cuts in education, health care, environmental protection and Walker’s “hostility to women.”
Falk ran for governor in 2002, finishing third in the Democratic primary, and lost to Republican J.B. Van Hollen in the 2006 race for attorney general. The margin was 8,859 votes out of 2.1 million cast.
Falk was among tens of thousands who gathered at the Capitol in Madison last year to protest Walker’s labor law. Unions reciprocated by backing her, as have the Sierra Club and the Wisconsin Education Association. Republicans have attacked Falk in television ads as a “Madison liberal.”
Falk, who has one son, resigned her county office in April 2011 and then embarked on a three-week bike ride from Florida to New York City with her husband, Peter. She announced her candidacy in January.
Barrett said he would run March 30, the day that election officials authorized the recall.
The last Milwaukee mayor elected governor was George Peck in 1890. Barrett, a 58-year-old lawyer, former state legislator and U.S. congressman, was the most recent mayor to try and fail.
Coming Out Fighting
After his 52 percent to 46 percent loss to Walker in 2010, Barrett drew criticism that he lacked the fire for statewide office. He responded in an April 3 interview by promising a frontal attack: “I will be very blunt.”
“He’s the only sitting governor with a criminal-defense fund, and I think that is a relevant issue,” Barrett said.
The Milwaukee County district attorney has charged Walker aides with doing political work on government time when he was that county’s executive, and the investigation is continuing.
Barrett campaigns as the man who will heal the wounds of a divided state.
“Scott Walker started a civil war in Wisconsin,” Barrett said in the Madison campaign forum. “I’m here tonight to tell you I will stop the civil war.”
He accuses the governor, who is the son of a Baptist minister, of preaching “the gospel according to Scott Walker.” That includes, Barrett said, a “Good Friday massacre” on women’s rights, when Walker signed a repeal of the state’s equal-pay enforcement law and restrictions on reproductive rights.
“They don’t want me to be the candidate,” Barrett said, referring to the Republicans. “That’s the reason why you should want me to be the candidate.”
Barrett, a married father of four, has pushed to get illegal guns off the streets during his two mayoral terms. In August 2009, after seeing a woman attacked at the Wisconsin State Fair, he called 911 and was himself struck and beaten by the attacker.
Falk and Barrett generally make positive references to each other and criticisms come from someone else.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which endorsed Falk, distributed a video it claimed showed Barrett endorsing Walker’s collective-bargaining restrictions on a radio show. Barrett denied the claim, and an analysis by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel said it was false.
While campaigning with Barrett in Wausau on April 12, former U.S. Representative David Obey said Falk is “is more vulnerable to the kinds of ads that Walker would run.”
“It’s just the reality of the situation.”
A Marquette Law School Poll showed Barrett and Falk as the strongest candidates to run against Walker. The survey released March 27 showed that in a hypothetical matchup, Walker led Barrett 47 percent to 45 percent. He led Falk by 49 percent to 45 percent.
Intrade, an online exchange where investors buy shares in a market of political outcomes, gives Barrett and Falk each a 50 percent chance of winning the nomination. It also gives Walker a 61 percent chance of keeping his seat.
Democrats, some of whom would have preferred that former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, defeated in 2010, be the nominee, say they are worried about divisions in the next 50 days. At the exchange of Democrats on April 11, La Follette made internal division a central part of his pitch.
“I’m not seen as a Madison liberal or a big-city mayor,” he said.
It didn’t work. In a straw poll that night, La Follette got two votes and Vinehout 46. Falk had 118 and Barrett 93.
To contact the reporter on this story: Timothy Jones in Madison at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at email@example.com