Last night at Serb Hall down here in tha Em Kay Eee, all five announced challengers to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker attended a “town hall” of sorts sponsored by 41 different organizations acting in a coalition calling itself “reFUND Wisconsin.”
Jesse Garza of the Journal Sentinel has his report of the event here–that’s my MacBook in the lower-left corner of the accompanying photo. I know the town hall streamed last night at cbs58.com, but I haven’t found an archive of the event video yet. If someone knows where it might be, let me know in comments and I will update this post with a link.
Before the event began, organizers had placed an empty chair at one end of the table to represent Walker, who had been invited to the event but had declined to attend. Instead of an empty chair, though, GOP challenger Michael Mangan sat in on the town hall. He joined the four Democrats, Tom Barrett, Kathleen Falk, Doug La Follette, and Kathleen Vinehout. (After the panel, Mangan said he had not been invited–though he is an announced candidate–and was at first told he couldn’t participate and threatened with arrest. I didn’t have a chance to verify that with organizers, but he was allowed to stay, at any rate, and though he got a few boos at first, by the end the crowd warmed to him.)
Before the town hall, which started about half an hour late due to high attendance (more than 500, by my estimation) and Mayor Barrett’s being delayed, the crowd erupted occasionally in chants: “Recall Walker” was popular, as was “we are the 99%” and the “what democracy looks like” call-and-response. I personally thought the kook:normal ratio ran a bit high, but you have to expect that at these kinds of events.
The town hall offered each candidate an opening statement, and then took several questions from pre-selected audience members around the topics of jobs, education, health care, and workers’ rights.
For the most part, the candidates kept their remarks focused on the positive, and on Walker, though in their closing remarks all of them took an opportunity to distinguish themselves from the others that occasionally veered into bashing territory–clearly, the four Democrats all have the same priorities but disagree on how to implement some of them. But almost exclusively they reserved their attacks for Walker and “the 1%.” And they were in unanimous agreement on almost everything, from restoring funding for K-12 education, the UW system, and tech colleges to infrastructure investment including rail.
I took pretty thorough notes, and if you want to ask some follow-up questions, please do. But what I’ll do here is note just a little about what each candidate offered to distinguish him or herself–some of the highlights if you will. In alphabetical order:
- Tom Barrett: Walker, Barrett’s 2010 opponent, was a target from the get-go for Barrett: “In 2010…I talked about how we had to be fair to the people in this state, and he just talked about creating 250,000 jobs. He got in office, and rather than working to create those 250k jobs in February 2011, and these are his words, he ‘dropped the bomb.'” He defended Milwaukee against Walker’s attacks on transit, schools, and MATC: “Make no mistake,” he said, these are attacks on institutions that “serve people of color.” The most telling moment of the night for me was when Barrett explained why he got in the race, and in particular why it seemed so late. The Republican Governor’s Association, Barrett said, started running ads weeks ago against him, when he was not even a candidate. Voice rising, he explained, “If you’re going to hit me, I’m going to get in the boxing ring.” Barrett was more fired up here than I have seen him in a long time, repeating his recent “civil war” line of attack and saying that Tom Barrett v.2012 is different: “That was 2010,” he said. “This is 2012. It’s a different year and we are going to win.” He would call a special session of the legislature to repeal Act 10 right away after the election.
- Kathleen Falk: Falk spent a lot of time on her record as Dane County Executive, where, she claimed, the region had the highest growth in the state during her tenure. But she also kept returning to some fundamentals related to this moment in history, too: “What I have learned in my 60 years,” she said, “is I see we share the same values across the state,” including good schools, quality health care, and family-supporting jobs. “Governor Walker has assaulted every one of these values, that’s why we will recall him.” She went further, responding to a question about women’s health care: “Governor Walker’s budget was an assault on women from the very beginning”–attacks on BadgerCare, public school funding, and teachers. “The single biggest issue driving this recall was his wrong choice cutting education.”
- Doug La Follette: La Follette offered the first opening statement, and he set the tone right off the bat: “Wisconsin has been under attack for the past year,” he said. Walker, the Fitzgerald brothers, and the Koch brothers “have torn Wisconsin apart.” He described his radicalization last spring from independent Democrat to hard-core: “I tried to stop them as long as I could. They wanted me to publish the law [Act 10] right away. I knew better. I knew what was going on.” He concluded, “I’ve stood with you. If you stand with me, we can send Walker back to the private sector where, maybe, he can earn enough money to make his wife happy.” La Follette also emphasized–and the others failed to do so, to my consternation–the importance of taking back the Assembly for Democrats in November.
- Michael Mangan: Mangan was clearly the odd duck. Dressed in an orange sweatshirt and jeans, he made me wonder whether he actually expected to participate, though this is, by my count, at least his fourth run for governor (he often runs as an independent, not a Republican). Mangan described himself as a “Lincoln Republican” and explained that he wanted to take the Republican party back from the “less-government conservatives”–hypocrites, he said, because they want less government put upon themselves but more for them to put on you. He explained that he had relatives from Wisconsin who fought for Lincoln in the actual Civil War, and fought to see Lincoln’s values spread. “I’m not a fake Republican,” he said. “I stand for the party of Lincoln, people before profits.” He spoke almost like a Democrat on issues of transit, education, and health care: “If you claim to be pro-life and you’re not in favor of sick leave, you’re a hypocrite.” His most surprising line of the night: “The only reason Scott Walker picked on the teachers is he’s a misogynist.” The “war on women” was a recurring theme among all the candidates, but that was by far the most pointed and personal attack on Walker on that issue.
- Kathleen Vinehout: Vinehout’s refrain last night was “We’re not broke.” She stressed that in the winter of 2011, she put forward an alternative budget that was exactly the same size as Walker’s–no need for tax increases, she stressed, the only one not to make a big deal out of making the 1% pay their fair share–but had different priorities including full funding for education. “I knew he didn’t need to do what he did,” she said. “The problem is not that we don’t have enough money, it’s that we’re spending it in the wrong places.” She supports fully funding revenue sharing to state government and making the kinds of infrastructure investments that let the private sector invest in jobs. “I’ve seen things from the workers’ perspective and I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty, my boots muddy, whatever it takes,” she said. Vinehout also scored points with me for publicly supporting state superintendent Tony Evers’ “Fair Funding for our Future” school finance reform plan.
Here’s my take-away: Democrats have four good challengers. Clearly, one is getting the institutional backing at the moment and another has a large base of support from his last bite at the apple. But Vinehout is equally impressive and La Follette’s record as a Democrat who can get elected even in Republican wave years is impressive. And Mangan, though so obviously not a professional politician and having no chance against a Goliath, still has something to say to Republicans who, like, for example, Dale Schultz and thousands of others around the state, simply don’t subscribe to the radical agenda of Walker and his ilk.
This coming election will not be easily won. I look forward to more robust debate among the Democrats–and, frankly, I’d pay good money to see Walker and Mangan square off–and working hard to take my state back in 60 days.