Wisconsin Democrats, in selecting who will challenge Republican Gov. Scott Walker in the state's upcoming recall election, are engaging in a tough fight of their own -- pitting two top Democrats against each other, with unions' influence looming large.
The state’s largest public employee union, AFSCME, directed members to a video blog about recall candidate Tom Barrett, the Milwaukee mayor. The video deceptively paints the picture that Barrett is in synch with Walker, the arch enemy of Wisconsin’s left for his legislation limiting public unions' power.
Barrett is shown shaking hands with Walker. The photo was taken when the two opponents debated, and the video creates the impression that Barrett gave Walker the strategy to force union-crippling legislation through without the return of 14 senators who had fled to Illinois.
The video contains a quote from an interview Barrett did with radio host Charlie Sykes, in which the mayor says, “and the bill will pass, and the bill should pass.”
But the quote was in reference to increased fees for pensions and health care, to which unions had agreed. The editing instead gives the impression that Barrett is supporting limits to collective bargaining.
“It is totally inaccurate. It is false,” Barrett told Fox News.
Underscored by the effort is the fact that AFSCME and the teacher’s union, WEAC,. oppose Barrett, who lost to Walker in the last gubernatorial election.
“Some of the leadership of a select number of unions probably would prefer another candidate,” said Barrett. That's because he forced unpopular concessions on Milwaukee employees in order to get the city budget in line. “I made some decisions that allowed us to retain the services that we have and retain the jobs that we have, and some people were unhappy with that."
State employee unions are lining up behind former Dane County Commissioner Kathleen Falk. The centerpiece of her campaign is a promise to undo what has been done by Walker.She promises a budget that will restore the essence of union clout: collective bargaining rights.
“And if a budget comes out without those protections back in, then she’ll veto it,” Falk spokesman Scot Ross said.
State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout and Secretary of State Doug Lafollette both have thrown their hats into the ring for the Democratic nomination without causing much of a shockwave.
“At this point, they are not seen as serious contenders. Both have relatively small bases of support,” says Brian Sikma of the conservative watchdog group Media Trackers.
More than 900,000 valid signatures carried in boxes to the Government Accountability Board in Madison in the middle of January created the impression that the recall was conceived and executed by grass roots. Sikma says that is not the case.
“Big labor, both in state and out of state, are the ones driving this recall bus forward. They use grass roots volunteers ... But this not something that even the Democratic Party has control over,” Sikma said. “This is kind of a vendetta that they want to square away with Governor Walker and with the legislative Republicans that backed him.”
A group called Wisconsin for Falk already has laid down $1.6 million for ads, and money is expected in Wisconsin by the bucket load.
“We are seeing this sort of arms race. ... We are going to be seeing spending between now and the June election that is going to be just unprecedented,” University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor Mordecai Lee said.
That's because Wisconsin is now the primary battlefield in an ideological civil war. However people in the Badger State vote in the June recall, the momentum will carry into the November election.
“This has become an amazing battle of proxies. We in Wisconsin used to think we were just out of the way and no one paid attention to us. In the last year, we have become the center of the political universe,” Lee said.