Wisconsin Recall Showdown Decided: Scott Walker to Face Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett

Wisconsin’s June 5 recall election will be a rematch of the 2010 gubernatorial race that installed Governor Scott Walker in office, with voters Tuesday selecting Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett as the Democratic challenger. 

Barrett prevailed over the union’s favored candidate, former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, but most coalitions are rallying behind the nominee – or at least remaining united against Walker. “Tom Barrett is a strong leader who will end the political turmoil Scott Walker has brought to this state and reunite Wisconsin to get us moving forward again,” said Kristen Crowell, executive director of the labor coalition We Are Wisconsin.

Barrett Late To The Game, But Considered Most Likely To Win 

Barrett’s primary victory will be the first time that Wisconsinites have coalesced around an alternative to their embattled current governor.

Between February and April of last year, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators marched on the state capitol to protest Walker’s austerity budget and attacks on public sector collective bargaining. As temperatures dropped later that year, braved the Wisconsin winter to collect almost twice the number of signatures needed to trigger a recall election over a 60-day period. 

During the signature-gathering campaign, activists say they intentionally avoided naming a candidate to keep the focus on Walker. Their strategy was to make it clear that signing a petition was a choice to recall the governor, rather than a vote in favor of any particular challenger. But that move left Walker opponents without a candidate when signatures were handed in on January 16. 

Barrett only announced his candidacy on March 30, barely one month before the primary election, but after winning his mayoral re-election with 70 percent of the vote. Falk entered the race much earlier and quickly attracted union support for her pledge to veto any budget that did not repeal Walker’s collective bargaining restrictions. 

In December, some union leaders tried persuading Barrett not to enter the race so as to limit competition with their favored candidate Falk. The union-backed independent expenditure group Wisconsin for Falk even briefly aired an ad implying Barrett backed Walker’s attack on collective bargaining. Despite Falk’s early start, polls in the weeks leading up to the primary increasingly showed Barrett with a significant lead over Falk.

Recent polls also showed Barrett in a dead heat with Walker (whereas Falk trailed by several points). This, despite Walker having already spent an astonishing $20 million on the race so far – more than 20 times Barrett has even raised.

Barrett’s perceived strength against Walker appeared to motivate some Wisconsinites to cast ballots for him. “He is most likely to beat Walker,” said voter Dave Baskerville as he left a Madison polling station.

But few seem particularly excited about the Milwaukee mayor. “He’s a nice guy and it seems like his heart is in the right place,” said Madison resident Chris Rapport, who voted for Barrett. “But it would have been nice to have someone who was young, sharp, and fresh out of the box.” 

“Or [former Senator] Russ Feingold,” he said.

Collective Bargaining One Issue Among Many

The governor’s attack on collective bargaining was only one issue among many that could motivate Wisconsinites to cast ballots against him. 

Voters leaving a Madison polling place also commented on how Walker rejected funds for high-speed rail, cut nearly $1 billion for K-12 education, and restricted eligibility for the state’s Medicare program. The governor also touted a vote-suppressing “voter ID” law and ended in-state tuition for undocumented students. 

“He’s taking everything from everybody, not just the unions,” said Madison resident Ernestine Foster-George. 

An issue that will likely become more salient during the general election is the ongoing John Doe investigation into political work being carried out on the public dime during Walker’s time as Milwaukee County Executive. Fifteen felony indictments have been lodged against Walker’s former staff, campaign staff, and associates, including charges for embezzlement and corruption. While Walker has not been charged with any crimes, he has established a legal defense fund and hired a pair of high-powered criminal defense attorneys. In April, he transferred $60,000 from his $25 million campaign war chest to the legal defense fund, and paid around $52,000 in unspecified expenses to lawyers representing the campaign in the John Doe probe. 

But the issue that may be most central to the campaign is jobs. Walker promised during the 2010 campaign to create 250,000 jobs by the end of his term. Instead, Wisconsin lost more jobs last year than any other state.

Preferred Candidate is Anyone But Walker 

While the union-backed Falk did not win the primary, it may not necessarily be a sign of labor’s weakness. It could just reflect that voters identified more with the teachers, park rangers, and snowplow drivers whose collective bargaining rights were under attack than they did with union leadership. Many state residents also perceived the limits on collective bargaining as an affront because Walker never campaigned on union-busting. One week before Election Day Walker even said he would negotiate with unions. The public outcry over Walker’s plans to limit collective bargaining was motivated as much by a sense of betrayal as it was targeting unions itself.

“It was not just the attack on collective bargaining, but the audacity to attack it in a state with such a strong history of labor, and to try doing it without holding a single public hearing,” said Charity Schmidt, Co-President elect of the Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA), the graduate assistants’ union that was crucial to last year’s protests. The public employee union AFSCME formed in Madison in 1932, and in 1959 Wisconsin was the first state to codify public sector collective bargaining rights.

“This effort has really been more about Walker’s policies and what he did to Wisconsin, rather than what Barrett will do,” said TAA’s Schmidt.

Schmidt said she voted for Arthur Kohl-Riggs, who ran as a “Progressive Republican” against Walker in the primary. 

Riggs, who was a fixture at last year’s protests and ran as a Republican “represent[ing] the progressive ambitions for which the Grand Old Party of Abraham Lincoln and “Fighting” Bob La Follette was originally founded,” garnered around 20,000 votes to Walker’s 614,000. But he notes that he “won the election in votes per dollar,” pointing out that Walker has spent $20 million so far, costing him around $33 for each primary vote; Riggs spent only $3,000, garnering 7 votes for each dollar spent. 

Unlimited fundraising by Walker and heavy spending by independent groups have pushed the total spent and raised to a total of $42 million. That already tops the $37.4 million spent by campaigns and independent groups in the 2010 gubernatorial race.

Riggs, like Schmitt, said that in the lead up to June 8 he will continue working against Wisconsin’s current governor, without particular regard for who Walker’s opponent might be. “My main energy for the next month will be spent opposing Walker and highlighting his hypocrisy,” Riggs said.

Also on the ballot Tuesday was the primary for Lieutenant Governor. Easily winning the Democratic nomination was Mahlon Mitchell, the youngest and first African-American president of the state firefighters' union. Mitchell emerged as a public face of the 2011 protests, where he told crowds “Firefighters are taught that when there’s an emergency you don’t run away from it, you run to it. This is the emergency. They’re trying to burn down the house of labor, and we won’t let them do it.”

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