COMMENTARY: Dis-United Wisconsin?
By Kevin Binversie
Finally, the stage is set for the June 5 production of the one-show-only recall election of Gov. Scott Walker.
There is one problem — one the scriptwriters camping in the capitol rotunda a year ago and the producers in their union halls and party offices forgot: the all-important casting of the candidates who will take over the governor’s job if Walker is indeed recalled.
The auditions are proving a messy affair for all involved.
Wisconsin’s largest teacher’s union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, or WEAC, and the state chapters of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, had settled on former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk.
Then Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett stepped up, crowding Falk for the spotlight. To add insult to his last-second entrance, Barrett — who lost to Walker 52-46 for governor in 2010 — has been racking up major endorsements from such party establishment types as former U.S. Rep. Dave Obey, D-District 7, and former Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton.
Some are calling the Falk-Barrett showdown evidence of a Democratic Civil War, but that’s only if you include Internet videos as the modern-day equivalent of cannon fire. No, what’s going on right now is more like the beginning of a four-week knife fight. The winner will not just take on Walker in June. He or she and his or her backers will run the Democratic Party in the Badger State.
AFSCME never wanted Barrett as a candidate, reportedly telling him not to run in a meeting between the mayor and various union leaders. It’s also furious with Barrett for deploying the very reforms Walker made available through Act 10 — making changes in City of Milwaukee employee health-care and pension contributions without having to have them collectively bargained. In doing so, he helped cut $25 million from Milwaukee’s budget over the past year, all without raising taxes.
That’s an anathema to the unions. They’ve worked feverishly to assert that Act 10 can’t work — won’t work. Barrett’s success kills that argument. So, now, Barrett must be crushed. Marty Beil, executive director of the state employees union, told a Madison radio show in November that his union had a list of candidates it would consider endorsing, and Barrett was nowhere on that list. Saying in part he didn’t believe in giving second chances or repeating past failures, a not-so-subtle reminder of Barrett’s defeat in 2010.
For WEAC, the calculus is a little more complicated.
In the summer of 2009, the teachers union left the Barrett bandwagon when a joint proposal from former Gov. Jim Doyle and Barrett was introduced to change the governance of the Milwaukee Public School System, or MPS, and allow for a takeover of the system by the Milwaukee mayor’s office. The mayor’s office proposed a system similar to cities such as Philadelphia, in which it would have the power to appoint the system’s superintendent and replace the elected school board.
Barrett believed putting MPS accountability in the mayor’s office would put MPS’ success on “the most accountable office in the city.” Barrett also expressed a desire to see MPS change its insurance provider in a bid to save the system money, avoid layoffs and maybe even provide property tax relief.
For this, among other things, WEAC kept its powder dry in the 2010 governor’s race, something a number of other unions now in part blame for the Barrett loss.
What WEAC really did in 2010 was opting instead to play elsewhere with its money and decided to spend $1.6 million in independent expenditures in other races, many of which were state Senate seats.
How successful was this investment? Well, they lost four out of the five seats they spent money in, and three of those seats are now up for recall in June.
Secondly, it’s hard to deny there isn’t a regional component involved in this fight. The state believes it started this fight and seems hell-bent against letting Milwaukee be the city which politically stops Walker. The attitude of traditional liberal media outfits based in the state capital is one of near-universal backing of Falk with an animus of mistrust toward Barrett.
Finally at risk is the power of the union machine itself in this primary. What does it do if it loses it with its chosen candidate after throwing $1.6 million in ads and other independent expenditures on Falk’s behalf?
I’m not buying the talk saying Wisconsin Democrats are about to go for the throat against each other for the next month, there’s simply too much on the line for them. Also, having observed or been involved in a few campaigns, I can tell you that it’s too easy for wishful thinking to overtake one side — or the media covering the race — into believing a no-holds-barred primary leads to any political advantage whatsoever. The ferocious 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary between Walker and former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann, R-District 1, certainly didn’t lead to any advantage for Barrett. While in 2008, Arizona U.S. Sen. John McCain gained little, if any, traction after the extended Democratic primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
But it is obvious to see in the week-and-half-old primary there are palpable levels of mistrust between various factions in the Wisconsin Democratic coalition. That might help explain why the standard operating procedure for the past decade for the party has been to avoid a primary in a statewide race whenever possible.
Casting auditions become so much simpler when a united decision involves simply handing the part to someone completely unchallenged.
Kevin Binversie is a Wisconsin native who has been blogging on the state’s political culture for more than eight years. He has served in the George W. Bush administration from 2007-2009, worked at the Heritage Foundation and has worked on numerous Wisconsin Republican campaigns in various capacities, most recently as research director for Ron Johnson for Senate. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.