MADISON, Wis. – A Democrat widely viewed as a union favorite emerged Wednesday to challenge Gov. Scott Walker, a day after petition circulators spurred by anger over the Republican's moves against organized labor said they submitted more than enough signatures to force a recall election.
Kathleen Falk's announcement was the first in a likely series of decisions by potential Democratic challengers to Walker now that recall petitions are in the hands of election officials. An influx of candidates would mean Democrats would have to hold a primary, pushing any election against Walker back another month.
Unions have been active in the recall campaign, which was driven by opposition to Walker's proposal passed last year that effectively ended collective bargaining rights for nearly all public sector workers. Having union support doesn't always translate directly into a win, however, and some rifts between union leaders and one potential Democratic candidate have already emerged.
Falk, who had led a procession of activists to the state elections board office to file the paperwork starting the recall petition drive, is well-known in Madison, where she served as Dane County executive for more than a decade. She lost in the Democratic primary for governor in 2002 and in a run for attorney general in 2006.
She catered her announcement Wednesday to union members, saying Walker launched an "all-out attack on the longstanding rights of teachers, nurses, snowplow drivers and workers who have bargained fairly."
Walker's spokeswoman said Falk was "hand-picked by big-government, public employee union bosses."
Spokeswoman Ciara Matthews branded Falk as a two-time loser and said she would "take Wisconsin back to the days of record job loss, massive deficits, and double digit tax increases."
While Falk is the biggest Democratic name to enter the race so far, moderate state Sen. Tim Cullen has been quietly raising money and seeking support, and said Wednesday he is still planning to run. Cullen, 67, served in the state Senate from 1974 to 1986 before he left to become secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services under Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. He later worked for nearly 20 years as an insurance company executive, before being elected to the Senate again in 2010.
He argues that his bipartisan background, and his experience in the private sector, makes him a desirable candidate in one of the most politically polarizing times in Wisconsin history.
Walker was elected in 2010 as part of a national Republican tide, and quickly angered unions. Democrats have framed his budget-balancing tactics as an attack on one of their key constituencies. Thousands of demonstrators staged protests at the Capitol for three weeks and 14 Democratic senators even fled the state in an attempt to block the collective bargaining plan.
Democrats want a recall vote to happen quickly and argue that Walker's strategy is to delay it as long as possible. But Walker, in an interview with The Associated Press, denied that he was trying to stall.
"There's nothing we're doing that's about pushing the timing back," Walker said. "I think the sooner we're done with this the better for the people of Wisconsin."
Both sides were waiting for the state elections board to go to court, perhaps by the end of the week, to seek more time to review the 1.9 million signatures that circulators said they submitted against Walker, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and four Republican state senators. Any recall election is unlikely before May.
Maintaining unity against Walker is vital, even if Democrats need to have a primary, said party spokesman Graeme Zielinski. He said having multiple Democratic candidates "amplifies the opposition" and makes it more difficult for Walker to focus his attacks against a single opponent.
"I don't think anybody will jeopardize that with a rough-and-tumble campaign that will make the person who emerges unelectable," Zielinski said.
But Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat who lost to Walker in 2010 by 6 points, is thinking about joining the race even though union leaders have privately discouraged him. Barrett has clashed with unions over decisions he's made as mayor. Marty Beil, the head of the largest state workers union, has spoken out against Barrett and said the candidate needs to be someone who is a labor champion.
Barrett's campaign spokesman Patrick Guarasci said Barrett has deep, statewide support and was considering running. He is also seeking re-election as mayor, which will be decided on April 3.
Unions have had a mixed record of late. Republicans saw huge victories in 2010, winning majorities in both the state Senate and Assembly, despite union opposition. Last summer, organized labor was heavily involved and spent millions on behalf of Democrats who were running in six recall elections targeting Republicans. Only two Democrats won.
But Walker's opponents say the recall drive shows that voters are energized. The 1 million signatures organizers say they collected against him equates to about 47 percent of the number of people who voted in the 2010 governor's race.
Walker, who was in New York City on Tuesday and Wednesday to raise money, said he will prevail because voters will choose his vision for the future over what he called the failed policies of Democrats.
A number of other Democrats are still considering a run, and others hope retiring U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl will change his mind and get into the race. At least for now, the 76-year-old Kohl is unmoved.
Walker said it didn't matter to him who his challenger was because he views his opponent as "big money from out of state from public employee unions."
"In the end, I'm less worried about who the opponent is than I am about defending my record," Walker said.