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Friday, August 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 78.0° F  Fair
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COVER STORY

How Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett gets elected governor of Wisconsin
Though the odds are against the Democrat, a confluence of factors could work in his favor


Credit:Tom Cocotos
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The email from the Republican partisan might as well have had a sound file attached of him laughing and chortling.

He was among a number of activists - Democrats and Republicans alike - whom I asked how Democratic gubernatorial nominee Tom Barrett might pull off a win in what looks to be a deliciously good GOP year.

"It is truly stunning," the Republican partisan wrote back. "It took the GOP eight years [of President George W. Bush], split partisan control, scandals and a war to ruin their brand. The Democrats have ruined their brand in a mere 18 months."

Cue the chortling. "In that time, Democrats have alienated and energized the middle and the right by overreaching...while alienating their own base on the left by underdelivering on any actual policy.

"It is the worst of all worlds," he announced with the subtlety of an executioner swinging an ax. Democrats are demoralized, while "the right and the tea party middle...will crawl across broken glass on top of fiery coals to get to the polls."

This would be a truly vertiginous turn of events. It seems like only yesterday that Wisconsin Democrats were on top of the world. They had delivered a crushing 410,000-vote margin for Barack Obama in 2008, seemingly burying the notion that Wisconsin was a presidential swing state. (Democrats John Kerry won Wisconsin by a whisper-thin 11,000 votes in 2004 and Al Gore by an even thinner 6,000 votes in 2000.)

In the morning-after glow of the Obama victory, Wisconsin Dems found themselves in control of the governor's office, both legislative houses, the state's two U.S. Senate seats and five of its eight congressional seats. Gov. Jim Doyle was busily raising money for reelection in 2010 and was a clear favorite for a third term.

"2008 may have represented the high point of Democratic advantage in the state," says Charles Franklin, the UW-Madison political scientist and a polling expert. "We're back to a more competitive state than we were two years ago."

You get no argument from state GOP executive director Mark Jefferson, who is positively buoyant about his party's prospects this fall. Jefferson knocks on wood and says he believes in "underpromising and overperforming," but he can't contain himself. He feels the public's second thoughts about Obama, coupled with a brutal recession that has taken 180,000 Wisconsin jobs, has strengthened the hand of conservative-minded, business-friendly Republicans.

Jefferson envisions a resurgent GOP capturing one or two legislative houses and winning as many as three new congressional seats. And like other observers, he points to Sen. Russ Feingold's uncharacteristic combativeness as evidence that the Middleton Democrat is worried about reelection.

As for the governor's race, Jefferson thinks Wisconsin voters, tired of Doyle and the state's endless budget crises, will embrace Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker as a reformer who will take a stiff broom to the Capitol cobwebs.

Republican soothsayer Brandon Scholz, who earned his wings working for former Rep. Scott Klug, guardedly shares Jefferson's optimism.

"I wouldn't chill the champagne yet, but I would buy it," he says. "There's an awful lot of work to do, and it's a long time until November. But this has the potential of being a big year for Republicans."

So that brings us to the question at hand: With the wind blowing so hard in his face, how can Tom Barrett, the affable mayor of Milwaukee, sail to victory?

Surely, there is something improbable about Tom Barrett's candidacy. A year ago, no one would have imagined it. But last Aug. 17, Gov. Jim Doyle, his approval ratings mired in the 40s (where they remain today), threw in the towel on a third term, even though he had $1.9 million socked away in his campaign war chest.

On Oct. 27 came the second shocker: Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton pulled out of the race citing "very personal reasons" that were never explained. Lawton was favored by the party's progressive wing and considered a surefire candidate in the post-Doyle era. Barrett didn't appear on the scene until Nov. 15 and by some accounts only reluctantly, despite the entreaties of Democratic powerbrokers.

So who is this guy? Barrett, 56, comes out of a traditional Irish Catholic neighborhood on Milwaukee's west side that has produced generations of dependable Democratic voters. As a fine profile in Milwaukee Magazine pointed out, Barrett lives within a block of his childhood home.

He and his wife, Kris, a schoolteacher, have four children. He credits Kris for shouldering most of the parenting load, though it's telling of his priorities that Barrett showed up late at the opening night of the recent state Democratic Convention in Middleton because he first attended his daughter's fifth-grade graduation in Milwaukee.

Barrett comes across as a guy who's entirely comfortable in his skin. Not much seems to rattle him, nor does he seem to rise to anger or defensiveness. He has, by that measure, the makings of an unusually good politician.

"What you always hear about Barrett is accurate," says Jim Rowen, a former Milwaukee and Madison mayoral aide and now an environmental blogger. "He's a thoughtful, pleasant, humane guy. He has great people skills. It comes naturally.... Barrett is an authentic nice guy."

"The private Tom Barrett is the public Tom Barrett," adds Mordecai Lee, a UW-Milwaukee political scientist and former Democratic lawmaker.

Temperament distinguishes Barrett. It informs both his moderately liberal politics and his stand-up character. If he wins the governorship, it will almost certainly be because the voters like the cut of his jib.

Tom Barrett had his Atticus Finch moment last August. He was walking home from the State Fair in West Allis with family members when he heard a woman's cry for help. He came upon an angry street punk threatening her over a child-custody matter. Barrett stepped in and got badly beaten with a tire iron, but not before landing punches of his own.

This was a gut-check moment. And Barrett passed. President Obama called to praise him for his courage. The mayor lost two teeth and got his head bashed, and he walks around today with his right hand bandaged from the complications of four bone fractures. He still can't grip a pen to sign his name. He had another surgery in mid-July.

Barrett's challenge of the thug "is a perfect insight into his character," says Lee. Indeed, there's a great Yiddish word that captures that character: Barrett is a mensch. That is, an honorable man who acts out of a sense of rightness and responsibility.

The incident, publicized far and wide, should provide some cover for the fact that Barrett has been a career politician with only fleeting exposure to the non-government world. He's a lifer who's had his ticket punched in the Assembly, the state Senate, the House of Representatives and now the mayor's office.

No great legislation is attached to Barrett's name in either Madison or Washington. But he took care of constituent concerns, pushed through bills that benefited the folks back home and was a dependable liberal vote. Lee calls him "a workhorse rather than a show horse" on legislative matters.

While Barrett never emerged as a lawmaker of the first rank, he caught the eye of national party leaders. When nervous Democrats looked to add another member to the House Judiciary Committee to investigate the possible impeachment of President Clinton, they picked a low-key Midwestern colleague who personified reasonableness. That was Tom Barrett.

Ambitious but tiring of the Washington grind after five terms (and facing a fight with another Democratic congressman in a reapportioned district), Barrett gave up his congressional perch to run for governor in 2002. As he tells it, his mom played a role, urging him to come home, "be a normal person and raise your family so I can see my grandchildren."

Doyle, as crafty a candidate as the state has seen in the past 40 years, beat Barrett and Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk in the Democratic primary by running to their right.

In one of life's twists, Barrett is a stronger candidate today for having lost in 2002. It set the stage for his election as Milwaukee mayor in 2004.

Barrett has never been a noisy partisan, and the nonpartisan mayor's office has been a good fit. His friend Peter Bock says Barrett has learned from all of his jobs, but especially the mayor's post.

"That's been his biggest education," says the former Milwaukee lawmaker. "I've seen him change. He's more a results-oriented implementer than somebody who talks about policy. As mayor, he's learned the important thing is getting the job done, even if it makes some people mad."

Milwaukee has deep, frightening problems of urban decline, but Barrett in his two terms seems to be doing some things right.

Ed Flynn, the police chief he hired with the advice of the conservative Bradley Foundation, is credited for reducing crime. On the economic front, the city has scored several major business expansions, and the Menominee Valley, long a depressing example of industrial collapse, has shown signs of new life.

In his speeches, Barrett likes to joke that he's even recognized Waukesha's right to exist, which always gets a big laugh. But beneath the humor is a serious policy change for Milwaukee. Unlike his famously combative predecessors, John Norquist and Henry Maier, Barrett has tried to make peace with the suburbs and has worked with them on regional economic development.

Barrett recognizes compatibility as his strong suit. "I believe public policy is done best when there is a level of respect where individuals can look each other in the eye and say I agree or I disagree," he says. "I believe the values that unite us are much stronger than the policies that divide us."

His Boy Scout-like credo seems charmingly naive in an era of smash-face politics and razor-wire partisanship. But if Barrett manages to eke out a win in November, this high-minded approach will be one of the reasons. He will have hit a chord in a public looking for, as he puts it, "adult supervision" in Madison.

Of course, nobody knows what will happen on Nov. 2. Three months is an eternity in campaign time. There are bound to be gaffes, WTF surprises, bombshells and sleazy attack ads. Who knows who will be standing after the last YouTube video is cued up?

The Republican equation is particularly volatile. Mark Neumann, the Nashotah businessman and former congressman, has strayed from the GOP script. Rather than dutifully falling in line behind Walker, who was overwhelmingly endorsed by the state GOP convention, Neumann has grabbed the coveted outsider's mantle and is battling Walker in the Sept. 14 primary.

Most observers give Neumann only a modest chance of upsetting the better-organized, better-funded Walker. Their continued contretemps, as we'll see, is great news for Barrett.

He needs it. Not much polling has been done on Wisconsin races, and what we've seen, Franklin points out, has flaws. But the results still give reason for Mark Jefferson to smile. Both Walker and Neumann are leading Barrett.

Here's how Barrett might yet win it all:

1. Voters buy his message. Barrett's call for "adult supervision" at the Capitol plays to the public's dissatisfaction with government. That line has been used by others before, but Barrett goes one step further and makes it the essence of his campaign message.

One of the payday moments of Barrett's stump speech is his decrying "the mess in Madison." He never quite says who's to blame, so it's easy for his listeners to lump in Democrats and Republicans in whatever proportion they prefer.

"People are frustrated by the partisanship," Barrett says. He explains that being mayor has taught him that people don't care if a Republican or a Democrat picks up their garbage or if a conservative or a liberal plows their roads. They just want it done well. As governor, that would be his approach. "If you're looking for an ideologue in the race, it's not me," he told the Milwaukee Press Club in May.

Evan Zeppos, a veteran public-relations and government-affairs counselor, was in the audience. "I heard the [adult supervision] line and I thought, 'You son of a gun, did you hit a chord there!' That line will resonate very, very strongly."

2. He distances himself from Jim Doyle. Consider the race over if images emerge of Doyle and Barrett sharing a bro' hug. Even worse would be a picture of a beaming Doyle embracing Barrett as the candidate wrenches backwards in anguish. YouTube was created for such moments.

Be assured that Republicans will make "Doyle-Barrett" sound like one syllable, one administration and one failed governor. Or as the Republican Governors Association cleverly says of Barrett: "Like Doyle, only worse."

Barrett can probably finesse the issue. He needs to recognize Doyle's accomplishments - expanding health care, securing the huge rail grant and playing defense against conservatives - while publicly separating himself from Doyle on other issues.

Barrett has already demurred on the governor's plan for the early release of prisoners and an ambitious energy program that stalled in the Legislature. There will be more moments like this, but here's the tricky part: Barrett can't tick Doyle off. He can't afford to alienate the governor and his $1.9 million campaign war chest.

3. Barrett seizes the middle ground. Most campaigns are premised on turning out the base of true believers. Barrett prefers an old-school approach of appealing to moderates, independents and even Republican-leaning businesspeople.

This connects nicely with his leadership meme and his portrayal of himself as a nonpartisan trying to pull people together. Even at the state Democratic convention, surrounded by a hall full of hearty activists, Barrett stressed that he had no interest in ideological battles. In May, before the annual meeting of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, he gave the same message in almost the exact words.

"I think we've seen a swing back to more appreciation of the middle as important to winning," says Franklin. "Barrett is building to that strategy. The risk, of course, is that if you don't turn out your base you're in trouble."

4. Scott Walker and Mark Neumann beat each other up. As Ken Lamke has written, recent Wisconsin electoral history shows that November winners have often battle-tested their campaigns in contested primaries. But the GOP gubie primary has a different feel to it. The Neumann-Walker fight is highly ideological and nicely illustrates the purity politics that Barrett warns against.

"Barrett doesn't have to worry about an attack from the left in his primary, whereas Neumann and Walker are busy pulling each other further to the right," says Franklin. "This will make it much harder for them to moderate in advance of the fall election."

The big question is if Neumann, who's wealthy, writes a check for a million or more to continue thrashing Walker. "Think of the headline on Sept. 15: 'Walker Wins with 52% - Race Closer Than Expected,'" muses a Milwaukee observer. "That's a helluva boost for the general election, eh?"

5. Liberal toughs continue the pummeling. Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court overturning century-old campaign laws, special interests now have more freedom to raise and spend money than do candidates. Look out! Their ads will be short, brutish and designed to trigger the voters' lizard brain.

On the Dem side, the Greater Wisconsin Committee will wield the cudgel, while One Wisconsin Now does bulldog oppositional research. Their goal? Destroy Walker's reputation as a reformer who cleaned up Milwaukee County's pension scandal and paint him instead as a hapless administrator who's bungled program after program while mismanaging county finances.

It's a difficult sell. Walker has been ferociously attacked by liberals and organized labor for years now, with little effect. Milwaukee County voters may be heavily Democratic, but they like Scott Walker.

The hard truth is that the pension scandal - in which top bureaucrats quietly created a lucrative retirement plan for themselves - generated tremendous cynicism about government, which is never good for Democrats. And Walker's willingness to play tough guy with public employees is attractive to recession-singed voters who think government workers got it too sweet.

6. Voters find his economic message convincing. Nothing is more important for Wisconsin than economic recovery. State incomes have been slipping for years. The Great Recession has made things painfully worse.

"People are scared to death," says Scholz. "Everybody knows somebody who's out of a job they thought they would never lose."

Franklin notes that a decade's worth of job growth was vaporized in the recession. Wisconsin may not get back to its late-2007 pre-recession job level until 2013, according to the state labor-market analysts. Joel Rogers, who runs the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, offers a more pessimistic 2015 return date.

This is deeply distressing, and Barrett gets it. Time and again, he says the paramount issue is "jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs." He began his WMC speech by declaring: "My guarantee to you is that from day one as governor, I will do everything I can to create jobs in the state of Wisconsin."

He's backed up the rhetoric with a detailed 67-page plan for job creation, which underscores a key point. Barrett may be a mensch, and his "adult leadership" message may be pitch perfect, but all that means nothing if the voters don't trust him to lead a jobs recovery.

Of course, Republicans are the traditional champions of economic growth. It is their wheelhouse issue. Should the GOP lose on it this year, the party might want to mark Barrett's inauguration by looking for a new line of work.

And by pouring that chilled champagne down the drain.

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