On Saturday I had an opportunity to chat with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, one of four Democrats running to unseat Republican Gov. Scott Walker in the recall election triggered in large part by Gov. Walker’s assault on the collective bargaining rights of public employees.
Mayor Barrett himself has come under fire from some on the left for what they perceive to be his less than stellar record in dealing with public employee unions as Mayor of Milwaukee, attacks I’ve chronicled here. In fact, at the start of our conversation Barrett himself acknowledged the attacks while adding that he hoped the negative attacks wouldn’t set the tone of the Democratic gubernatorial primary. “Shame on us if we attack each other,” Barrett said, adding that Democrat on Democrat attacks would only play right into the hands of Republicans.
When I asked Mayor Barrett why he decided to run again in the recall election of Gov. Scott Walker after his loss to Walker in 2010, Barrett said that in 2010 he – along with former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold – “walked into a Tea Party buzzsaw” that turned 2010 into the worst election for Democrats since the 1950s, and he said that since Scott Walker was sworn in as Governor people have gained a greater appreciation for just how extreme Walker’s agenda is. While he didn’t actually say it, Barrett articulated a point many have been making since Gov. Walker first “dropped the bomb” with Act 10, which removed virtually all collective bargaining rights for public employees, which is that Wisconsin voters wanted a “do-over” in the wake of Gov. Walker’s extreme agenda. Barrett added that he couldn’t sit on the sidelines and allow Gov. Walker to continue unchallenged, adding, “I want our Wisconsin back.”
When I asked Barrett why he thinks he’s the best Democrat to defeat Republican Gov. Scott Walker in a recall election, he was quick to cite his statewide network of support, noting that since he announced his candidacy he’s traveled across Wisconsin and has been met with a “great response” to his candidacy, no matter which part of the state he’s visited. Barrett also added that recent polling shows he fares best among the Democratic gubernatorial candidates against Gov. Walker in a head-to-head recall election matchup (A March 27, 2012 Marquette University poll shows Walker with a slight 49% to 47% lead over Barrett, while Walker has a 49% to 45% lead over Kathleen Falk in the same poll).
As we continued to talk about why he felt he’s the best Democrat to beat Gov. Walker in the recall election, Mayor Barrett also brought up the fact that the Republican Governors Association started running attack ads against him before he got into the race, presumably to keep him from running, and those ads have continued now that he’s a candidate, because theRepublicans know he’s the strongest candidate to beat Scott Walker in the recall election (On a related sidenote, while Gov. Walker’s campaign has aired a TV ad attacking Mayor Barrett, the Walker campaign has not aired a single attack ad on TV against any of the other Democratic gubernatorial candidates).
When I asked Mayor Barrett why he waited so long to make a decision whether or not to jump into the recall election, he said that his position has always been that he’d wait to make a decision to get into the race until the Government Accountability Board (GAB) had certified the recall election, adding that he announced his decision to run in the gubernatorial recall election within 12 hours of the GAB’s certification of the recall election.
While stressing that his position had always been that he’d wait until the GAB had certified a recall election against Gov. Walker, Barrett did say that his decision was also made in part out of a desire to “dictate the terms of engagement,” rather than allowing Republicans to have the recall election battle on their terms and their turf. “Republicans want to have the battle on their terms,” Barrett said, pointing out Republicans wanted him to announce his candidacy much earlier so they could start their attacks earlier.
As we continued to discuss his decision to wait to announce his candidacy in the recall election, Mayor Barrett made a point to say that he believes his decision to wait until the GAB had certified the recall election against Gov. Walker didn’t put him at any competitive disadvantage. Barrett pointed to the fact that his campaign had gathered more nomination signatures than any of the other Democratic campaigns, and he also noted that in the two weeks since he announced his candidacy, over 50 current or former elected officials had endorsed his candidacy. The fact that so many elected officials waited to make their endorsements “underscores that they felt the field wasn’t complete,” Barrett said, adding that those elected officials were “waiting for a candidate who can win this race.”
Before wrapping up our interview, I turned our conversation to Mayor Barrett’s record when it comes to dealing with labor unions representing City of Milwaukee employees. Barrett has come under fire from union leaders who feel his support for collective bargaining rights for public employees isn’t rock-solid and who feel that he’s been too enthusiastic in his use of the provisions of Act 10 as Milwaukee’s Mayor.
Asked about those attacks, Barrett said it’s important to put the attacks into context. Barrett noted he’s the only Democratic gubernatorial candidate to put together a budget after Act 10 went into effect, making him the only candidate who’s had to deal with the implications of Act 10 for local governments. “I can’t print money,” Barrett said in defense of the decisions he was forced to make as a result of Act 10, decisions that were complicated by the $15 million cut in state aid to Milwaukee as part of Gov. Walker’s biennial budget. Coupled with levy limits, the $15 million cut in state aid to Milwaukee limited Mayor Barrett’s options, but he was quick to note that one of his priorities as Mayor was to find a way to close that $15 million shortfall in the City of Milwaukee’s budget without having to lay off any city employees. Pointing out that Wisconsin lost more jobs than any other state in 2011, Barrett said he wasn’t interested in adding any city employees to the ranks of the unemployed.
Barrett added he was proud of the fact that not a single city employee was laid off despite the budget difficulties the city faced, and he also pointed out that while employees were asked to pay more towards their health insurance costs, employees were not asked to take pay cuts, unlike public employees elsewhere. Barrett also highlighted the fact that he did put civil service protections into place for city employees who lost their rights under Act 10, and he also cited the “meet and confer” policy put into place requiring labor/management cooperation and discussion. As we continued to discuss the tough decisions he was forced to make as Milwaukee Mayor in the aftermath of Act 10 and Gov. Walker’s biennial budget, Mayor Barrett did make it abundantly clear he supports collective bargaining for public employees, despite assertions to the contrary from detractors. “In a tough situation, we responded in a responsible manner,” said Barrett.
While I understand many folks have already made up their minds about which Democratic candidate they’ll support in the gubernatorial recall primary while others will have concerns about what they believe to be flaws in Barrett’s record in dealing with Milwaukee’s public employee unions, I think Tom Barrett’s candidacy certainly merits consideration for those folks who still may be on the fence about who gives Democrats the best chance of beating Gov. Scott Wawlker in the recall election.