The Democratic candidates for Governor of Wisconsin met Friday night for their final debate, before Tuesday’s primary in the high-stakes recall election, with each making a final case on statewide TV as to why they would be the best hope to take on Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
The four candidates not only kept things positive in the sense of not attacking one another — but they barely even mentioned one another, instead opting mostly for subtle contrasts, done in the form of touting their own credentials.
Going into the debate, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has held the frontrunner rank in opinion polls of the primary, followed by former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, and then further back by Secretary of State Doug La Follette and state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout.
And from Friday’s debate alone, it does not appear that these circumstances are likely to change going into the primary on Tuesday.
Barrett, who was previously the Democratic nominee against Walker in the middle of the 2010 Republican wave year, has the support of most Democratic elected officials, while Falk has the support of most of organized labor. (Though to be clear, some officials are supporting Falk, and some unions are for Barrett.) For his part, Barrett pitched himself as a consensus-builder — and trained his fire directly on Walker for the general election in June, rather than attack any of his fellow Democrats.
“Under Governor Walker, this state has lost more jobs than any other state in the country,” Barrett said during in his response to the opening question. “In fact, between March of 2011 and March of 2012, we were the only state to lose jobs. I think that’s because we have a governor who is more interested in traveling around the country, giving speeches and raising money, than he is in creating jobs here in this state.”
Later on, he blasted Walker for saying that the state’s poor jobs numbers were due to the political unrest in the state: “But what he doesn’t say, is that he started the political unrest. He’s the one who said — and these were his words and not mine — that he was going to ‘drop the bomb,’” referring to Walker’s legislation to undo most collective bargaining rights for public employees.
Repeatedly, he said he would heal the divisions in the state. In his closing arguments he discussed the fact of the recall itself and the nearly one-million signatures that were collected: “It’s unprecedented in our state’s history, and the reason it’s happening is that this state has been at war for 16 months.”
He concluded: “I will end the civil war in Wisconsin. I will restore trust to the governors office. I will heal the wounds that have so deeply divided the state like we’ve never seen it divided before. And I’ll do what a governor should do - I’ll stay here in Wisconsin, and work to create and retain jobs.”
Falk, meanwhile, promised to restore collective bargaining rights for public employees, by threatening to veto the state budget if they are not restored there. And she subtly contrasted herself with Barrett’s proposal to call a special session of the legislature.
“We all support collective bargaining. That’s easy,” said Falk. “But what’s hard is how you’re going to restore it. And introducing a bill won’t get it done, or having a special session, won’t get it done, because know Assembly Republicans aren’t going to pass it. And the only way to get it done is the bill that has to pass, and that’s the budget…Unless you’re serious, and I’m serious, about restoring collective bargaining, you’ve got to use all the tools that a governor has, and that leverage is the veto power.”
She also touted her experience as Dane County Executive for 14 years, in which she balanced budgets, worked with business and labor, and with officials of both parties.
She spoke of her hope of bringing people together: “I will work so hard to heal this state. You can’t solve problems when people don’t talk to each other, aren’t respectful. You know when a family is at war, sometimes that happens, people can relate to that. it takes mom to get people together, she has a firm hand but can be fair.”
She added: “This state needs a mom, and I’m anxious to be that mom and get us back together solving problems.”
When the candidates made their closing arguments, Falk referred to Barrett and his establishment support by name, telling viewers: “On Tuesday, you have an important decision to make. Some elected officials who are good people are urging you to support Tom, because they think he’s the one to defeat Scott Walker. I disagree, I think the only people to defeat Scott Walker are you…you are the ones who when the political establishment said we’d never get the 540,000 signatures, you proved them wrong.”
And she added: “Now, nearly every single one of the organizations who have worked so hard, these grassroots groups, women, labor, young progressives, they have said that I am the strongest candidate to go up against Scott Walker.”
Doug La Follette touted his 30-year tenure in office, and how he has worked with officials of both parties to get things done, and been re-elected time and again even as many voters would choose Republicans for other offices: “You can’t attack Doug La Follette for anything, except maybe walking to work, and only being distantly related to Fighting Bob La Follette,” he said.
He also said that a governor who seeks to bring about a change will need others to help: “I think governors and candidates make too many promises, because we need a legislature we can work with. And I’m committed to traveling the state and working with candidates, Republicans and Democrats, who are willing to sit down with me and work on all of these issues…I’ve never been a polarizing person in terms of partisanship. The Democratic party has sometimes been angry with me because I’m so independent, but that’s what we need.”
Vinehout touted herself as a policy expert, who had created an alternative budget proposal that would have avoided tax increases while sparing deep cuts that Walker had made.
Vinehout did, however, take exception to Falk’s idea of using a budget veto threat in order restore collective bargaining — saying that under Wisconsin’s system, it would not actually work.
“There’s a common misconception that a budget has to pass. The gov has to introduce the budget, but the budget doesn’t have to pass,” Vinehout said — explaining that during a budget impasse in 2007, when the Democratic Senate sought to expand health care but the Republican Assembly balked, the state instead continued operating under the previous budget rather than shut down: “And I don’t know many people that want to have Scott Walker’s budget for another two years.”
Later on, when the candidates were asked what promises they would make, Vinehout said: “The promise I will make is that I will bring a new way to government in Wisconsin, with a governor that focuses on details. We need to change the way that government delivers services, and we need to lower the costs by looking at the details of state government. It has been a long time that Wisconsin had a governor who really wanted to govern, and dig into the details. And I will dig into the details, and fix them.”
Ed. note: Reporter Eric Kleefeld was a volunteer in 2002 for Tom Barrett’s gubernatorial campaign in the Democratic primary that year, in which Kathleen Falk was also a candidate. He has not had any additional political involvement with Barrett since that time.