Democrats want the Wisconsin recall election to be all about getting rid of Scott Walker, the polarizing governor who instituted controversial collective bargaining laws.
But right now, a number of prominent labor unions are training their fire not on Walker but on Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, one of the Democrats who hopes to replace him.
Barrett, who lost to Walker in 2010, faces former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk in the May 9 primary. The recall is only a month later, on June 5.
And the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and other public-sector unions are not just supporting Falk, but launching harsh attacks on Barrett.
The AP deemed the video misleading and the Wisconsin Police union warned AFSCME not to “sabotage” the recall effort. But AFSCME stands by it. “In the small amount of public discussion around a scenario to split the bill, it was Democrats sounding the alarm bells to stop it, while Barrett was on right-wing talk radio advocating for it,” a spokesman said.
Barrett earned the ire of Milwaukee unions last year, when he used Walker’s budget reforms (known as Act 10) to propose a budget that cut city employees’ health and pension benefits rather than making a deal with unions before the law took effect. He also clashed with unions in an attempt to take over the public school system.
Unlike Falk, Barrett has not promised to veto any state budget that didn’t restore collective bargaining rights.
While he opposed Walker’s push to ban collective bargaining, he sided with Republicans in arguing that public workers’ benefits were too generous. Republicans have already argued that Barrett’s reforms are a tribute to Walker’s policies, not a rebuke (kind of like President Obama’s supporters praising Mitt Romney for blazing a trail on health care reform).
“Tom Barrett is not Scott Walker,” said Rich Abelson, executive director of AFSCME District Council 48. “Tom Barrett would not have taken away our rights to collective bargaining. ... But we have had some significant differences of opinion.”
Democrats argue that the desire to remove Walker is so strong, no amount of primary infighting could dim it.
“After the smoke has cleared, everyone is going to be marching in one direction,” said Wisconsin Democratic Party spokesman Graeme Zielinski. “There will be some bruised feelings, but this is a historic opportunity and we’re not going to squander it.”
A recent Marist College poll found a generic Democrat led Walker by two points, within the margin of error. A Marquette University poll a few days earlier found Walker leading Barrett by two points and Falk by four, also within the margin of error. In the primary, Barrett led Falk by seven.
But with such a short election against a sitting governor who has far outraised his opponent, some fear a bitter fight will cause damage to the broader goal of beating Walker.
Former Democratic Rep. David Obey has urged Democrats to focus on Walker, telling Salon that they “need to understand that this is not going to be a cakewalk. This is a very uphill fight.”
One labor source in Washington worried that “whoever survives this death match between Falk and Barrett will get pummeled by the well-funded Walker machine for three or four weeks.”
Barrett himself urged his rivals to keep it nice. “I think it’s imperative that we, in this Democratic primary — that we not form a circle – a firing squad, and shoot at each other,” he said over the weekend.
Skeptics in the labor movement say they’ll only move on when he reaches out.
“The only way he can win the primary is to answer these questions from his past about what’s a pretty bad record on some of these issues,” said one labor operative. “If he can do it, it will make him a much stronger candidate in the general, and if he can't, means he's probably not the right guy for the nomination.”
Wisconsin debuts at No. 2 on our governor’s line of 2012 races (ranked, as always, from most likely to switch parties to least).
To the line!
5. New Hampshire (Democratic-controlled): Former state senator Maggie Hassan (D) just beefed up her staff with some big names. Campaign manager Matt Burgess comes to her campaign from the Democratic women’s group EMILY’s List, along with fundraising coordinator Emily Brown. On the GOP side, attorney Ovide Lamontagne may be the favorite, but activist Kevin Smith recently got the backing of conservative leader Jennifer Horn. (Previous ranking: 4)
4. Washington (D): For the first time in a long time, Democrats actually led in a poll, with Democratic pollster Grove Insight showing Rep. Jay Inslee (D) leading state Attorney General Rob McKenna (R) within the margin of error, 38 percent to 34 percent. Every other poll, though, has shown McKenna ahead, so we’ll have to wait for more data. Inslee recently resigned his House seat to focus more on his campaign, which is probably a good thing for Democrats. He’s got some work to do against a pretty popular attorney general. (Previous ranking: 3)
3. Montana (D): Here’s why it’s great to be attorney general: Steve Bullock, the Democratic attorney general and governor candidate, announced this week that author Greg Mortenson will have to pay $1 million as part of a settlement with the state after a yearlong investigation into a children’s charity that was initially probed by “60 Minutes.” That’s nothing but good press for Bullock, while the GOP primary field battles it out. (Previous ranking: 2)
2. Wisconsin (Republican-controlled): This is Democrats’ one good chance at picking off a seat and setting the tone for the rest of the year. The fact that this race will be held in June makes it a big deal, and we expect the eyes of the entire political world to be upon it (assuming the GOP presidential race isn’t still in doubt, which it shouldn’t be). (Previous ranking: N/A)
1. North Carolina (D): Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton appears to have established himself as the candidate to beat on the Democratic side, but at least for now, former congressman Bobby Etheridge leads Dalton 26 percent to 15 percent in a poll from Democratic-leaning automated pollster Public Policy Polling. But it may not matter who emerges; PPP shows them both trailing former Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory (R) by double-digits. (Previous ranking: 1)