In a high-profile news conference on April 24, the state's largest police union announced its endorsement of Tom Barrett for governor. At the same news conference, state Rep. Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) also threw his support behind Barrett.
They were important endorsements for different reasons. The state's largest unions up until that point had supported Barrett's primary opponent, former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk. The endorsement of Barrett by the Wisconsin Professional Police Association helped even the playing field.
And Barca, who emerged during the Capitol protests as a fiery opponent of Gov. Scott Walker's policies, lent the Barrett campaign credibility among the activists who had become engaged after Gov. Scott Walker pushed to eliminate collective bargaining rights for most public workers.
Walker, only the third governor in U.S. history to be recalled, will face Barrett, the Democratic mayor of Milwaukee, June 5. It will be a rematch of their 2010 race.
Endorsements can be more important to candidates in the primaries than during the general election, says Barry Burden, professor of political science at UW-Madison.
"In the primary, when Barrett was rolling out basically an endorsement a day the last week or two of that campaign, I really thought that worked to his advantage," says Burden. "It began to look like the Democratic Party was coalescing around him."
In the primaries, endorsements help voters choose among candidates because the groups or individuals reflect a candidate's qualifications and affiliations, not just their party. But only a few endorsements will carry weight in a general election as polarized as the upcoming recall. Public safety unions' endorsements have an impact, because they are not inherently tied to either party.
"Law enforcement officers are independent thinkers," says Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association.
The West Allis Professional Police Association, for instance, backed Walker in 2010, but endorsed Barrett this time around.
Police and firefighters also command respect from the public, because they perform life-saving duties and protect their communities. Since Walker excluded them from his bill curtailing the collective bargaining rights of public workers, their political activity this election cycle is not seen as necessarily motivated by self-interest, Burden adds.
But given Walker's actions regarding public unions, Palmer says he can't understand why the Milwaukee police union would endorse Walker in the recall. "I think that the Milwaukee Police Association's endorsement of Scott Walker, and [Lt. Gov.] Rebecca Kleefisch as well, are an embarrassment," says Palmer. The statewide police union's 27-member board voted unanimously (with one absentia) to back Barrett, and Palmer feels confident that the vote represents its 10,000 members.
The Milwaukee Police Association, which represents 1,700 members, also made its endorsement after a unanimous vote of its seven trustees. Association president Mike Crivello says that neither Mahlon Mitchell, Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, nor Barrett ever requested a meeting to discuss an endorsement -- their usual protocol.
Crivello says his union is backing Walker and Kleefisch because they understand and support public safety. "Without public safety we can't move the state forward," he says.
Milwaukee and statewidefirefighter associations divided along the same lines as their police counterparts. The Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin endorsed Barrett and Mitchell -- not surprising considering that Mitchell serves as the group's president. The Milwaukee Professional Firefighters Association endorsed Walker and Kleefisch; this union did not return a phone call for comment.
But Kevin Benish, Mitchell's communications director, downplayed the Milwaukee union endorsement. "That's not a surprising move at all," says Benish. "They stood with Governor Walker in 2010, and it's not surprising that they're standing with him now."
Burden says that such endorsements can sway union members who are undecided about which candidate to support. "[An endorsement] would be a signal to you that your group's interests align with that candidate. It would probably nudge you toward voting for them."
In this polarized election climate, one other group may yet play a role June 5: state newspapers. Newspapers enjoy the credibility of being neutral information sources, says Burden. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel endorsed Walker -- again -- on May 19. More newspaper endorsements will follow, though their impact remains tough to calculate.
"Those do carry some weight," says Burden, noting that some will be published the Sunday before the election. "They're timed to have maximum effect."
This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that Mahlon Mitchell has only worked as a firefighter for the Madison Fire Department.