Milwaukee mayor shakes up Wis. recall election

April 1, 2012 - 5:25 PM

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Unions backing the successful effort that forced Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker into a recall election are suddenly facing an uncomfortable scenario: Their favored candidate may not survive the Democratic primary now that Milwaukee's mayor is looking for a gubernatorial rematch.

Mayor Tom Barrett, who narrowly lost to Walker in the 2010 race for governor, recently jumped into the race to oust the Republican, who was targeted after championing a law that curtailed public workers' collective bargaining rights. But major unions are supporting Kathleen Falk, the former longtime leader of Dane County, home to the state's capital city.

Barrett has at times clashed with unions while leading the state's largest city over education and budget issues. He also refused to promise, unlike Falk, that he would veto a state budget if it didn't restore collective bargaining rights — prompting unions to ask him to stay out of the recall race.

But on Friday, just hours after the state elections board officially ordered the election, Barrett ended weeks of speculation by announcing his bid. The primary is scheduled for May 8, and the general election on June 5.

"Tom Barrett is a game changer," said Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association union, which represents about 10,000 members and has yet to endorse a candidate. "Tom Barrett will definitely work to bring people together, to restore collective bargaining to the extent he can, and he won't be beholden to anyone."

Falk joined the race in January. In the ensuing weeks, the former Dane County executive obtained every major endorsement and the backing of large unions representing teachers and public workers. Still, a Marquette Law School poll released just days before Barrett got into the race showed him leading Falk 36 percent to 29 percent among surveyed voters, but with 17 percent undecided and about even with Walker.

Barrett has a well of statewide support ready to tap, and he's already positioned himself as someone who cares about union rights — but who won't make it a sole focus. He also became a hero to many in 2009, when he was brutally attacked by a man with a tire iron after trying to intervene in an argument the man was having with a woman.

His getting into the race also makes it more difficult for two lesser-known Democratic candidates — longtime Secretary of State Doug La Follette and state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout of Alma — to gain traction.

Recall efforts got under way after Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature approved the law last year. It limits public workers, except for firefighters and most law enforcement officers, to collectively bargain only for wage increases that are no greater than inflation.

Falk has promised that if she gets elected, she would veto any state budget that didn't restore collective bargaining rights. And just last week she urged Barrett to support her candidacy, noting that he already ran against Walker and lost.

Along with refusing to make the budget-veto promise, Barrett angered some unions by cutting Milwaukee's budget and supporting plans a couple years ago that would have given him control of the troubled Milwaukee Public Schools.

He also implemented some of the cost-savings moves allowed under the law that spurred the recall efforts, making it more difficult for Barrett to attack Walker on that issue.

And because Barrett ran in two gubernatorial elections, also losing in the 2002 Democratic primary, his record is clear for Republicans.

"We look forward to contrasting Governor Walker's bold record of moving Wisconsin forward with Barrett's liberal tax-and-spend agenda that has only led to a total downward spiral of Milwaukee's economy," Wisconsin Republican Party spokesman Ben Sparks said.

Palmer said union support of Falk feeds into the perception — which Walker has claimed — that she is a one-issue candidate who was hand-picked by union bosses. Falk has argued that her campaign's central focus is that Walker betrayed the trust of Wisconsin voters with his agenda last year, including slashing education funding, reducing Medicaid services and changing environmental laws.

Still, Palmer said Democrats overall are focused on one thing.

"Everyone has the common goal of unseating Scott Walker and restoring the sense of civility to the state," he said.

But they have some catching up to do. Barrett reported last week that he has $453,000 in his mayoral re-election fund, which he can transfer to the run for governor. Falk has yet to report how much money she's raised.

Walker, as of mid-January, had raised more than $12 million since last year and reported having $2.6 million cash on hand. The governor could raise an unlimited amount of money under a state law that allows targets of a recall to exceed the normal limits of $10,000 per donor per election. Now that the recall is certified, Walker must abide by the limits for any future fundraising.