The problem for Democrats is that before they get their shot against Walker, they have to get through a divisive primary between an establishment pick and a union favorite that is threatening to undercut their unified front against the governor.
“We’re nervous,” said Julie Wells, who works with the grass-roots group United Wisconsin. Wells, a forklift operator from Fort Akinson, filed the papers to recall Walker, and she was there when they were submitted. But now volunteers who promised to help aren’t showing up. “We know that we can win this, but we’re not seeing the level of participation we saw during the signature-gathering phase,” she said.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who lost to Walker by six percentage points in 2010, is the establishment pick for the May 8 Democratic primary. He leads three other primary candidates by double-digits, according to the latest polls. He has the support of most prominent elected officials in the state and, in a sign of his standing, Republicans have focused their attacks on him.
“The Republicans do not want me to emerge from this primary,” Barrett told a crowd of a hundred or so at a Waukesha coffee shop last week. “They’ve made commercials about several candidates, they’re only running them against me,” he said, because “they view me as the strongest candidate.”
But most of the unions that first revolted against Walker’s legislation have endorsed another candidate: former Dane County executive Kathleen Falk.
For many union leaders, Barrett is, if not as bad as Walker, not good enough either. As mayor, he used the rule changes championed by Walker to take away benefits from city employees. While Falk committed to vetoing any budget that does not include collective bargaining, Barrett favors a more conciliatory special session of the legislature.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, in particular, has aggressively attacked Barrett, at one point suggesting that he supported Walker’s reforms.
Falk argues that her candidacy better embodies Wisconsin’s progressive tradition. “I have the support of this movement,” Falk said from her campaign headquarters in Madison, not far from the State Capitol steps where the protests began. “I have been here every step of the way.”
Falk got into the race in November and was there when the petitions were delivered. Barrett didn’t declare his candidacy until late March. Falk’s most recent ad declares that “only one candidate” in the race “was there from the start.”