Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett met Friday night for the first of two televised debates, in the high-stakes Wisconsin recall election — and both candidates came out swinging.
The second debate will be held next week on Thursday, May 31, and the general election itself the following Tuesday, June 5.
Walker entered the debate ahead in the TPM Poll Average, with 50.4 percent support for Walker against Barrett’s 45.4 percent. His job in the debate, and going forward, was to avoid any serious gaffes and solidify his own lead.
Barrett’s sought to use the debate as an opportunity to appear directly on stage with Walker in a setting where they each had equal time — as opposed to the huge discrepancy in Walker’s fundraising and TV advertising — to make a strong case against Walker, and in favor of change in the state.
Overall, both candidates did a solid job at their respective tasks.
This race is a rematch from 2010, when Walker defeated Barrett by a margin of 52 percent to 47 percent, in a year in which Republicans also took control of both houses of the legislature.
It was that same Republican takeover — and Walker’s ambitious proposal unveiled in February 2011 to roll back most collective bargaining for public employees, as well as other legislation on such issues as voter ID, tax incentives for businesses, etc. — that sparked widespread protests and an eventual recall effort by a re-energized Democratic base.
And it was the chaotic state of things in Wisconsin that formed the backbone of each candidate’s pitch, right from their opening statements.
“Two years ago I ran for governor because Wisconsin faced both an economic and a fiscal crisis,” Walker said. “At the time we had lost more than 100,000 jobs, and the state faced more than a $3 billion budget deficit, and we knew we had to take action. We balanced the budget without raising taxes, without massive layoffs and without cuts to programs like Medicare.
He added: “Instead, we chose to balance our budget through long-term structural reforms that helped balance not just the state budget, but our local budgets as well. What we were doing was, we were thinking more about the next generation that the next election. And isn’t that what you elected us to?”
Walker insisted throughout the debate that he has helped set the state on a better path, despite the conditions he stepped into: “The good news, is our reforms are working — it’s why our opponents don’t talk about them anymore,” he said.
Barrett countered: “This election is not a rematch or a do-over — because can’t do over the decision of Scott Walker to start a political civil war, which resulted in this state losing more jobs than any other state in this entire country in 2011. A decision that tore apart the state, and made it impossible in some instances for neighbors to talk to neighbors, for relatives to talk to relatives because it was too bitter a fight.
“And we can’t do over his decision to put his national ambitions ahead of the state of Wisconsin, as he traveled around the country and became the rock star to tea party activists and billionaires, who have funded his campaign with millions of dollars of contributions — money that he has used to distort my record.”
Instead, a frequent refrain of Barrett throughout the night was that Walker had deliberately instigated a “civil war” in Wisconsin — notably, through his seemingly private boasting to wealthy donors that he would “divide and conquer” the state in order to take down organized labor.
Barrett also warned: “There’s a reason he hasn’t said he would veto a right-to-work bill — and the reason is, he wouldn’t.”
As for the jobs numbers in the state, the two candidates continued an ongoing dispute over whether state has lost or gained jobs — thanks to a maneuver by the Walker administration last week, when the state’s Department of Workforce Development released a jobs report based on a different measurement method using quarterly census data and tax reports, which the Walker administration maintains is superior to the usual monthly surveys that have shown a loss. The quarterly figures were released more than a month ahead of the normal schedule, before the federal government finishes its own review of them for a national report in late June.
“The mayor and his allies are talking about numbers based on a sample of 3.5 percent of employers in this state,” Walker said, compared with the 96 percent of employers in the census data.
Barrett shot back that the release of the census figures was an attempt to twist the facts in the election: “He brought his key political appointees together and said we need to have a different measurement. They brought a measurement out 20 days before this election. They had TV commercials running four hours later, saying, ‘Let’s use this set of numbers instead.’ These numbers have never been verified. He knows they cannot be verified.”
The two candidates also fought over jobs numbers in Milwaukee specifically — the city where Barrett is mayor, and the wider county where Walker was county executive before he was elected governor.
Walker said that unemployment in the city went up 27 percent during Barrett’s tenure as mayor (since 2004). “We don’t want the rest of Wisconsin to become like Milwaukee,” Walker said. Instead, Walker said, they should seek to raise cities like Milwaukee up to the rest of the state.
Barrett argued that during the time that Walker was Milwaukee County executive — from 2002 to 2010, overlapping almost completely with Barrett’s time as mayor — unemployment for the whole county went up by 34 percent, and debt went up 85 percent. “He does not even want the people of this state to remember he was ever the county executive of this county.”
Barrett accused Walker of having deliberately sought retribution against his political opponents, and he worked to differentiate himself from Walker’s national profile and combative politics: “I have no desire to be the rock star for the far right in this nation. And I have no desire to be the rock star for the far left in this nation. What I have is a desire to be rock-solid in creating jobs for Wisconsin.”
He also touted that he was not the first choice of labor unions in the recall (many of whom backed his opponent in the Democratic primary). “Why is that? Because I’ve said no to my friends and to people who oppose me politically. That’s the test of leadership.”
Walker closed out by saying he had recently stopped at a factory in Oshkosh, and met a man who told him he was a lifelong Democrat who had voted against Walker in 2010, but was now supporting him. “He said he was impressed someone finally had the courage to take on the tough issues in this state, to move our state forward.”
Editor’s note: Eric Kleefeld was a volunteer in 2002 for Barrett’s gubernatorial campaign, in the Democratic primary. He has had no additional political involvement with Barrett since that time.