Barrett: 'I'm the only candidate in this race that has been a public official who had to put together a budget in the post-Act 10 world.'
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett announced he was running against Gov. Scott Walker on March 30, the same day the Government Accountability Board certified the recall election.
A flurry of endorsements by political heavies around the state followed. Former Congressman David Obey, retiring Sen. Herb Kohl, and more than 40 other state officials have called Barrett the most electable candidate in the May 8 primary.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, President Obama's former chief of staff, attended a fundraiser for Barrett even before he announced -- back when he was still running for reelection as mayor (he won that race on April 3).
But Barrett's late entry also irritated people who had committed to the first candidate to challenge Walker back in January -- former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk.
It's a case of "why don't you step aside and let the guys handle this," Falk said while waiting backstage with the other Democrats, Kathleen Vinehout and Doug La Follette, at a recent candidate forum. Falk noted that Barrett's backers don't seem to care that their candidate already lost to Walker a year and a half ago.
The biggest difference between the two top Dems has been union support. AFSCME, the statewide public employees' union, backed Falk, along with the AFL-CIO, the Wisconsin Education Association Council and Service Employees International Union. WEAC has had an uneasy relationship with Barrett since it fought his unsuccessful effort to take control of the Milwaukee Public Schools in 2009. AFSCME officials have charged that Barrett used the legislation that kicked off the protests against Walker -- Act 10, curtailing public employees' collecting bargaining rights -- to drive a hard bargain with public employees in Milwaukee.
AFSCME has backed away from a YouTube video in which selective quotes give the impression that Barrett actually supported Act 10, acknowledging that the ad is misleading and "over the top."
But Barrett came in for some rough treatment recently on the Sly in the Morning radio show on WTDY. Over a recording of Barrett's voice talking about restoring Wisconsin values and ending the divisiveness in the state, John "Sly" Sylvester played the Barney theme song ("I love you, you love me"). Then he brought in Rich Abelson, executive director of AFSCME in Milwaukee, who bargained with Barrett.
"Tom Barrett tried to balance his budget on the backs of the workers and went further than Act 10," Abelson told Sly.
Abelson cites Barrett's decision to weaken decades-old contract provisions regarding Milwaukee public employees' hours of work and overtime, and to make deep cuts in benefits.
"He waited until Act 10 went into effect, and then he got what he wanted," Abelson told Sly, adding that he was "disappointed" Barrett got into the governor's race.
"Keep in mind," responds Barrett, "that I'm the only candidate in this race that has been a public official who had to put together a budget in the post-Act 10 world."
Thanks to Walker, Milwaukee lost nearly $15 million in state aid last year -- the largest cut in history, Barrett adds.
"So those are the cards that are dealt to me, all right?" he says. "I am the city with the fourth-highest number of children living in poverty in the entire country. I have foreclosures. I have people who are out of work. And my choice, quite bluntly, was: Am I going to lay people off, or am I going to have them pay toward their health insurance?"
Barrett is adamant that he supports public employees' right to bargain and will make repealing Act 10 a top priority. He says he'll call a special legislative session and believes restoring workers' rights could attract Republican support.
But he sees Falk's pledge to veto any state budget that doesn't fully restore collective bargaining as political suicide. Making the issue of collective bargaining a deal-breaker, warns Barrett, gives the GOP an excuse to extend the current budget, with its education and health care cuts.
"Under the current Scott Walker budget, the Republicans have gotten every single thing they want," he says.
Then there's the unspoken political calculation. Since only 350,000 out of 5.7 million Wisconsinites are union members, making collective bargaining rights the main issue in the recall race might be a political loser.
While Falk has locked up the most labor support by far, Barrett has recently picked up a handful of union endorsements, including from the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, the state's largest police union. . "This election is critically important for labor, and we believe Tom is the most electable candidate in the field," said a statement by Mark Maierle, business manager of the Operating Engineers Local 317.
Last weekend, WEAC delegates at the union's annual business meeting voted to back whoever wins the Democratic primary. "We've heard from a number of labor leaders and organizations that they'll be with us in the general," says Barrett campaign spokesman Phil Walzak.
So why did Barrett get in the race so late?
"There was some strategy involved," he concedes. "Had I been a candidate for governor in January, you could have added three months of additional commercials against me."
Barrett says his endorsements, and a recent Public Policy Polling survey showing him up by 14 points in the primary, underscore his "viability."
That same PPP poll showed Walker at 50%, and Barrett at 45% in a general election. So why won't this race be a repeat of 2010, when Walker beat Barrett by about 6%?
"Keep in mind that Scott Walker has already spent over $10 million," says Barrett, comparing it to the "chump change" his campaign has spent.
He says it was a mistake for the Democratic Party and outside groups not to start running ads attacking Walker sooner. The first such ad -- going after Walker's job record -- hit the airwaves this week.
"Why aren't we looking at his record? Whether it's his attack on collective bargaining, whether it's the fact that the state of Wisconsin under his leadership lost more jobs than any other state in this entire country in 2011, or the war against women, the way he handled foreclosure dollars, the voting legislation, you name it."
Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign projects the imbalance between the two sides will even out in the general election, with $60 to $80 million in overall spending on the recall.
Most of all, this election won't just be a do-over, Barrett says, because conditions are so different. In 2010, turnout was low. "Russ Feingold and I, along with state legislators throughout the country, ran into the tea party buzz saw," he says. "The base was dispirited."
This year, in contrast, "both sides are fired up."
But is Barrett himself fired up enough to lead his side to victory?
Part of the reason he waited to get into the race, he says, is that he loves being the mayor of Milwaukee. Until the recall election date was certain, "I wasn't going to just say, 'Well, I'm going to completely forgo this current job that I love because of this other thing.'"
Some people who are consumed by "this other thing" are underwhelmed by Barrett's enthusiasm. Is it unfair to say he lacks fire in the belly -- and that it's part of the reason he lost to Walker the first time?
"I think it's totally unfair," Barrett says. "I've had people say, 'Boy, Barrett's got a lot more fire in his belly this time.' And my response is that, no, there was just nobody in the seats last time. The rooms were empty. That's the difference."
For more on Barrett's campaign, see his complete interview with Conniff.