Governor Scott Walker is facing the fight of his political life. On June 5, in the third gubernatorial recall election in U.S. history, Wisconsin voters will either choose to keep Walker in office or elect a Democrat. Polls show a tight race with Walker hovering at or slightly below 50 percent and holding a small lead over potential opponents. Walker won’t know which Democratic opponent he’ll face until May 8, when the recall primary is held. Meanwhile, he’s letting the state of Illinois serve as a stand-in.
Speaking on April 19 to machinists in blue-collared shirts, jeans, and boots at the Trace-A-Matic Corporation, Walker contrasts Wisconsin’s record with that of its neighbor to the south. “A year ago their unemployment rate was above 9 percent,” he says. “And today, a year later, it’s still above 9 percent because they made some poor choices. They raised taxes on businesses and individuals. On individuals, believe it or not, they raised it by 66 percent.”
And Wisconsin? Unemployment has dropped from 7.7 percent to 6.9 percent since Walker took office. Property taxes are down for the first time in 12 years. A $3.6 billion deficit was eliminated without lots of layoffs. The message resonates with the machinists. Almost all applaud enthusiastically for Walker.
“Unions had a place in history,” says Mike Payne, one of Trace-A-Matic’s machinists. “But I think it went to the other extreme. And I think to diminish them a little bit is to really benefit us because that brings things back to a fairer level.”
Sitting in one of his campaign offices later in the day, Walker considers whether he might have avoided a recall. “If I hadn’t gone so far, would I face a recall? I don’t know,” Walker tells me. “But if I hadn’t gone as far as I did, I wouldn’t have fixed it.” And fixing Wisconsin’s fiscal problems is what matters, he says. “I’m running a campaign to win. And I aim to win. But I’m not afraid to lose.”
Democrats say they’re attempting to recall Walker not only because he limited the collective bargaining power of public sector unions but because he “lied” about it. “The most effective anti-Walker message,” reads a Democratic party of Wisconsin strategy memo published by Mother Jones, “focuses on the fundamental fact that he lied to the people of Wisconsin about what he would do as governor.”
“He never once said he was going to attack 50 years of collective labor law in the state,” said Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, Walker’s 2010 gubernatorial opponent and frontrunner in the recall primary, at a Democratic forum in Madison on April 11.
In fact, Walker did in office what he promised on the campaign trail. To balance the budget without raising taxes, Walker said government workers at the state and local level would have to pay more for their pensions and health care benefits (but still contribute far less than the typical private sector worker). Requiring government employees to pay more for their benefits necessarily meant paring back the rights of unions to veto changes to their members’ pay, benefits, and work requirements. As a top policy adviser to Walker told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in August 2010: “The way the proposal would work is we would take the choice out of the collective bargaining process.”
Union leaders saw that requiring government workers to pay more for their benefits polled very well, but limiting “collective bargaining rights” polled poorly. So union leaders tried to delink the two interlocking issues. They pledged to accept cuts in order to keep their “rights.” But after Walker’s budget passed, union leaders made a mockery of that pledge and proved Walker’s point. The Milwaukee Public Schools union had locked in a collective bargaining agreement until 2014 that is not affected by Walker’s law. Faced with a choice of cuts to benefits or layoffs, the teachers’ union chose layoffs. According to the MacIver Institute, a conservative think tank, the school districts of Milwaukee, Kenosha, and Racine—all of which are still operating under collective bargaining agreements—make up 13.3 percent of the state’s educational staff but accounted for 42.5 percent of staff reductions. Outside of these districts, there are no public education horror stories.
Mayor Tom Barrett knows very well how limiting collective bargaining can be necessary to balance a budget. In Feburary 2011, as the battle raged in the Wisconsin state capitol over Walker’s budget, Barrett proposed limiting collective bargaining rights for unions in Milwaukee, according to a memo reported by BuzzFeed. The city’s union wouldn’t budge on many issues, and when its contract finally expired, Barrett took full advantage of Walker’s reforms, saving the city millions of dollars by making changes to everything from workers’ health care benefits to overtime, disability payments, sick leave, paid lunches, and more. Walker says Barrett “absolutely” is a hypocrite, “and it’s not me saying it, it’s his own employees . . . over and over again calling him a hypocrite.”
Wisconsin Democrats recognize that labor issues are not going to win the election for them—they already failed to win a state supreme court race last spring and failed to win control of the state senate in multiple recall elections last August. “Collective bargaining is not moving people,” Democratic spokesman Graeme Zielinksi told Mother Jones. Democrats are hoping to focus the campaign on an investigation of former Walker aides by the Milwaukee County district attorney. (Walker says he’s not concerned about the D.A.’s integrity, calling him “an honorable guy. He’s going to follow the truth.”)
But Barrett’s record on collective bargaining is at the center of the Democratic primary that pits him against former Dane County executive Kathleen Falk. (Dane County, which includes the state capital, Madison, and the University of Wisconsin, is the most liberal in the state.) Barrett has the backing of most of the Democratic establishment, but Falk has the backing of an alphabet soup of unions: AFSCME, SEIU, AFL-CIO, WEAC (the teachers’ union).
Barrett and Falk have avoided direct confrontation so far, but their surrogates have been engaging in a flame war. In a video, AFSCME Wisconsin claimed that Barrett “demanded concessions that went far beyond those mandated by Act 10 [Walker’s budget reform].” In an op-ed, former Madison mayor and Barrett supporter Dave Cieslewicz attacked Falk as an unelectable tool of the unions. “Wisconsin voters like politicians like Robert La Follette and Gaylord Nelson and Bill Proxmire, all of whom bucked their own party bosses, and yet the unions seem to want to offer them Jimmy Hoffa instead,” he wrote. “A candidate beholden to big unions is no more appealing to independent voters than one who answers to the Koch brothers.”
Polls show Falk performing only a couple points worse than Barrett against Walker, but concerns that she can’t win persist. It’s a “Republican talking point,” she tells supporters at an event on April 12 in a private Madison home. “They’re not worried a Dane County liberal can’t win. They’re worried one can.” Falk points to Russ Feingold as a prime example of Dane County liberals’ electability.
But unlike Feingold, Falk has failed to cultivate the image of a maverick and comes much closer to being a caricature of a Dane County liberal. At the April 11 forum, she touts her record as an environmentalist lawyer “taking on the utilities, fighting against nuclear power, fighting against coal power.” The next day she points to former governor Jennifer Granholm and Michigan (unemployment rate: 8.8 percent) as a model for economic recovery. Falk tells supporters Michigan recovered in large part because it “went out and sold green batteries to the rest of the world.” She says a major plank of her economic agenda involves taking “wood pulp cellulose and convert[ing] it to energy. The Air Force wants to buy this to fuel their jets.”
Falk has pledged to veto any budget that doesn’t repeal Walker’s collective bargaining reform. She’s also vowed to repeal the property tax cap enacted by Walker. There are reasons why she narrowly lost a statewide race for attorney general in 2006 even as Democrat Jim Doyle won the governor’s race by 8 points.
That’s why the Democratic establishment sees Barrett as a more electable candidate. Barrett’s campaign so far amounts to a vague promise to restore civility and “end the civil war” in Wisconsin. But, as he tries to fend off a challenge from his left, Barrett’s ability to cast himself as a uniter and a centrist is being undermined. Though Barrett acknowledges the state assembly can block him, he has promised to call a special session of the legislature in order to repeal Walker’s union and budget reforms. That essentially guarantees more protests in the capitol building. So much for ending the civil war.
Barrett’s campaign has also attacked Walker’s property tax cap. Barrett has reiterated his support of taxpayer-funding of abortion. And he’s said he would “consult on a regular basis” with his Democratic primary opponents on environmental policy, even though some of his opponents are even more radical on the environment than Falk.
For all their complaints about Walker’s lack of transparency, Falk and Barrett are now evading questions about how they would have balanced Wisconsin’s budget. “No, I’m not answering. None of us will answer that question,” Falk told The Weekly Standard on April 11 when asked if she would have cut more or less than $500 million from the education budget. Barrett too refused to say, when asked three separate times, how he would have balanced the budget. Both candidates say they wouldn’t have enacted tax cuts Walker put into place, which amounted to a little over $100 million or 3 percent of the state’s deficit.
Barrett and Falk leave voters guessing what they would have done about the other 97 percent of the deficit. Walker fills in the details: “The answer is they’d have to do what they did in Illinois, which is massive tax increases, massive service cuts, and layoffs.”
The Democratic primary is giving Walker greater hope about the recall, but, he says, “I actually think it’s much closer than some of these latest polls suggest.” Walker says a court’s decision striking down the voter ID law creates “huge” concern about voter fraud. And he says the unions’ intensity may be underestimated. “This is just driven by raw, unadulterated, passionate hate and anger, driven largely by these union bosses,” he says. “The other side is motivated by anger. We’ve got to be motivated by hope.”
John McCormack is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.