AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said he has no regrets about the Wisconsin recall effort, despite a resounding victory from Gov. Scott Walker (R) in Tuesday’s election.
“The best-funded politician in state history spent over $50 million to hold onto his office, but he could not hold onto a majority in the state Senate,” said Trumka, who denied labor’s ability to dissuade governors from going after public-sector employees had been weakened by the result. “An important message has been sent: politicians will be held to account by working people.”
That said, Trumka had no shortage of excuses for why things went so poorly on Tuesday, from college vacation to a backlash over the recall process itself. But even as Trumka sounded a relatively upbeat tune, he conceded one major concern: the deluge of outside money from groups funded by wealthy conservative backers, who outspent their opponents 7-to-1.
“This has serious repercussion for our democracy,” Trumka said. “Let’s be clear: Citizens United has ushered in a new era of elections and it’s not a pretty picture.”
He credited the advertising funded by outside parties with helping turn the discussion away from the collective bargaining fight that launched the recall effort last year and instead putting Democrats on defense.
“It became about everything but collective bargaining,” Trumka said. “There were ads about Tom Barrett not being able to protect children. There were thinly veiled racist tones in some of their ads. So you had a number of different things that were there and it didn’t come into the debate we wanted.”
Trumka insisted that the recall results did not portend trouble for labor-backed candidates in future races this cycle, most notably President Obama, whose campaign now lists Wisconsin as a toss-up.
“This isn’t the crystal ball that predicts the future, this is a very unique circumstance,” he said. “It’s a recall election. It’s only been done twice in history.”
He noted that significant numbers of voters said in exit polls they didn’t believe recalls were appropriate in almost any circumstances outside of blatant corruption, a drag that wasn’t present in Ohio, where voters recently rejected a plan by Gov. John Kasich (R) to limit collective bargaining rights. Polls have shown Obama leading Wisconsin, even while Walker cruised to victory on Tuesday.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.