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The Battle for Wisconsin

Scott Walker awaits his challenger.

Apr 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 31 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
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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.

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