Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has had 18 months to ponder his 2010 loss to Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker. In 27 days he’ll get a shot at redemption -- a rematch in the third recall vote of a state chief executive in U.S. history.
After more than a year of anti-Walker protests and the collection of 900,000 signatures to force the June 5 election, Democratic primary voters yesterday chose Barrett, 58, from a field of four. The combatants will participate in a four-week sprint that has already drawn tens of millions of dollars in out-of-state donations and turned Wisconsin, with 5.7 million people, into a national battlefield of ideological titans.
“We do not need a leader who will divide us, we need a leader who will bring us together,” Barrett said in a fist-shaking victory speech at a downtown Milwaukee hotel. “Scott Walker, instead of staying home in Wisconsin and focusing on creating jobs here, has decided he’s going to be a rock star, a rock star to the far right in this nation.”
Barrett captured the nomination with about 58 percent of the vote, followed by former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, with 34 percent, according to unofficial results from the Associated Press. State Senator Kathleen Vinehout and Secretary of State Doug La Follette each got less than 10 percent.
For Barrett, who won a third term as Milwaukee’s mayor April 3, this means a second chance after losing to Walker by about 125,000 votes in 2010.
Walker spoke to supporters in Waukesha, vowing, “We’re not going backwards, we’re going forward.”
“The powerful special interests don’t like the fact that I stood up and got in the way of their firm grip on the taxpayers’ money,” he told a cheering crowd. “I stand with the taxpayers of this state and I’m going to continue to stand with them.”
The head-to-head campaign began in earnest today in Barrett’s front yard in Milwaukee, the state’s biggest city by population, where the mayor and his three primary opponents pledged unity. Barrett said he expects “30-second drive-by shootings” in the form of Walker television advertisements.
“He knows he cannot defend his record,” Barrett said of Walker. Ciara Matthews, a spokeswoman for the governor, said he looks forward to two scheduled debates “contrasting his record of success that has laid the foundation for a successful future against the failed policies” of the mayor. The debates are set for May 25 and 31.
Focusing on Record
The mayor, at 6 feet 4 inches (1.9 meters) tall, doesn’t embody the angry protesters who agitated for more than a year against Walker’s March 2011 enactment of collective-bargaining restrictions on most public-employee unions.
Barrett, a lawyer whose father, “Big Tom,” sold ditch-digging equipment, lives in the same west-side Milwaukee neighborhood of his youth, with his wife, Kris, and four children. A methodical toiler in the vineyards of Wisconsin politics, he has served in both houses of the Legislature, won election five times to Congress and led his hometown as mayor for the past eight years. His notable losses: two runs for governor, in the 2002 primary and in 2010.
While Barrett’s campaign themes are job losses and repairing damage from partisan animosity since Walker used his Republican legislative majorities to push the union limits, labor leaders not only supported Falk, they tried to persuade the mayor not to run.
“In the 1950s there was a saying, ‘He’s a nice Catholic boy,” said Mordecai Lee, who teaches government affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “That’s Tom Barrett.”
“He believes the world is good,” said Lee who, like Barrett, represented Milwaukee’s west side in the Legislature as a Democrat. “He believes in doing good. He believes that in a moral universe, right always wins out.”
Walker, 44, started an “ideological civil war,” Barrett says in campaign appearances, often adding that the governor “dropped a bomb” with the collective-bargaining restrictions.
After promising to create 250,000 private-sector jobs in his first term, Walker’s ideological goals took precedence and contributed to Wisconsin’s losing more jobs than any other state in the past year, Barrett says, citing federal Labor Statistics Bureau data.
Barrett spent part of May 7 about 40 miles south of Milwaukee in the industrial city of Kenosha, campaigning in cafes, including an 86-year-old diner no wider than two bowling lanes.
Asking for Support
Coatless and tieless, he squeezed by rusty bar stools and stopped at crowded booths as people ate piles of eggs, sausage and bacon. Barrett, politely asking for support “in this crazy election,” left as quietly as he arrived.
“He’s not by nature strident, abrasive or even partisan,” said Dick Pas, the Democratic Party chairman in Waukesha County, which encompasses Milwaukee. “But he is quietly determined.”
Barrett made headlines in August 2009 when he came to the aid of a woman being assaulted at the Wisconsin State Fair in Milwaukee. His gallantry in her defense earned him a beating from a man with a tire iron, leaving him with broken teeth and shattered bones in his right hand. While campaigning he jokes about his “short-lived boxing career.”
Although Barrett won only 13 of 72 counties when he faced Walker in 2010, he said in an April 3 interview that there are now “a lot of people with buyer’s remorse.” That fuels his belief that Wisconsin is ready for a do-over as well.
“In his view, the November 2010 election was simply an error and he welcomes the opportunity to right the wrong,” said Lee, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor.