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'Divide and conquer': Coincidence or talking point?

By   /   May 14, 2012  /   No Comments

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON — Divide and conquer.

It seems to be the phrase that pays for Democrats in the recall campaign rhetoric of their war on Gov. Scott Walker.

But Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Walker’s Democratic challenger in the June 5 gubernatorial recall election, perhaps best billed as 2010 Redux, was turning “divide and conquer” before the Dem campaign catch phrase was cool.

Last week, Milwaukee independent filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein created a political firestorm when he released a video clip from his upcoming documentary As Goes Janesville to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The film, detailing the economic hard times of the Rock County community, includes a videotaped discussion between Walker and Beloit businesswoman Diane Hendricks in January 2011, not long before Walker introduced  Act 10, the bill — now law — that curbed collective bargaining for most unionized public employees.

In the discussion, Hendricks asks the governor about the possibility of right-to-work legislation, a bill that would allow unionized workers to opt out of unions.

On the video, speaking of what would become known as his “budget repair bill,” Walker says: “Well we’re going to start in a couple of weeks with our budget adjustment bill. The first step is we’re going to deal with collective bargaining for all public employee unions, because you use divide and conquer.

“So for us, the base we get for that is the fact that we’ve got — budgetarily we can’t afford not to. If we have collective bargaining agreements in place, there’s no way not only the state but local governments can balance things out … That opens the door once we do that. That’s your bigger problem right there.”

Walker has downplayed the so-called private conversation that took place more than a year ago, telling the Milwaukee Journal that the “divide and conquer” comment was about “standing up and saying I’m drawing the line in the sand and saying, ‘I’m putting the government firmly on the side of the taxpayer.'”

As for the right-to-work issue, Walker has affirmed what he’s said many times, that he’s not entertaining any notions of such a bill. His spokesman told Wisconsin Reporter the same in early February, after Indiana Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels signed into law the state’s right-to-work law, the first in more than a decade and the first such law in the Rust Belt, a traditional union stronghold.

Barrett expressed his disdain over the video snippet, telling media late last week that he was “flabbergasted” by Walker’s language.

“If you want to know when Scott Walker is really telling the truth, it’s when he’s talking to billionaires and when he thinks he’s talking to billionaires,” Barrett said. “He says one thing to the public, but to people who give him $500,000 . . . his message is completely different.”

Hendricks, owner of building products giant ABC Supply, is the Walker campaign’s biggest contributor, donating a half-million dollars to the governor’s cause.

Barrett was quick to express just how flabbergasted he was on his campaign website, where he posted the video segment within short order of its release to the media.

“Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) said early in 2011 that he was going to institute a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy when it came to the state’s budgeting process, including stripping public employee unions of their collective bargaining rights, according to just-released documentary footage,” Barrett’s website notes.

It was the latest occasion in recent weeks that Barrett has claimed the governor had tried to “divide and conquer” public unions. According to a review, the Milwaukee mayor has used the phrase more than 10 times at events and in news stories since April 20 including:

  • The Politico article, posted at 11:49 a.m., April 20: “And Barrett said he’s been focused on Walker since the day the Republican entered the governor’s mansion. Since then, Barrett said, Walker has created a political landscape in Wisconsin based on a ‘divide and conquer strategy’ — and his failure in the state means the two rivals will most likely find themselves in a rematch on June 5.”
  • The Milwaukee Journal piece on April 23, quoting Barrett at a Democratic debate the previous night in which the mayor said: “Scott Walker and his allies want to make this a right-to-work state. They started with the public employees to cut off the head. And now they want to go after the rest of the body. If anybody doesn’t think this is a divide-and-conquer strategy, they’re dead wrong.”
  • The Associated Press article on April 24, where he insisted that he supports collective bargaining for all public workers, and said he made the request to expand the Act 10 to include Milwaukee police and firefighters, because he realized Walker was trying to “divide and conquer” public workers and he couldn’t afford to pit city workers against one other.

There have been several other examples.

Perhaps it’s just a coincidence of phrasing. Divide and conquer is, after all, a common phrase.

But it is arguably striking how much Barrett leaned on the expression in the days leading up to the release of the video clip.

His campaign did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Lichtenstein could not be reached for comment. His phone number is not listed, although Wisconsin Reporter did try to contact him through his company’s Facebook site, asking Lichtenstein whether he had released the video to Barrett or anyone with ties to his campaign before its release to the public.

Lichtenstein, president of 371 Productions in Milwaukee, acknowledged to the Journal Sentinel his past work on Democratic campaigns. He also gave $100 in 2010 to Barrett. Lichtenstein’s wife is a public employee, a professor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, according to the newspaper.

Officials from Friends of Scott Walker, the governor’s re-election campaign, also did not return several calls for comment.