MADISON, Wis. (AP) - The candidate Wisconsin unions want to take on Republican Gov. Scott Walker in a recall election offers a stark contrast to the union-busting son of a minister who has emerged as a national conservative hero over the past year.
Kathleen Falk has the backing of traditional Democratic supporters and Wisconsin's largest public unions, which are trying to knock out Walker after he effectively ended collective bargaining for nearly all public workers last year.
But despite the strong backing, Falk doesn't have a clear path to taking on the first-term Walker.
Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who lost to Walker in 2010 by 5 points, got into the race on March 30, more than two months after Falk. The unions don't like Barrett and urged him not to wade into the recall fight, but he did anyway.
A poll released days before Barrett got into the race showed him ahead of Falk even though she had campaigned for months while Barrett was on the sidelines. He also has a statewide base of support ready to tap, having just run a little over a year ago. And while both Falk and Barrett have lost two statewide elections in the past decade, Barrett has a high profile as mayor of the state's largest city and cruised to a third term Tuesday with 70 percent of the vote.
The biggest division between Barrett and Falk are the very unions that are at the center of the recall fight.
The state's largest public sector unions - including the statewide teachers union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees - were quick to get behind Falk, who promised them she would veto any budget that doesn't restore collective bargaining rights. Barrett refused to make such a pledge.
"If you are serious about it, then you ought to say how you're going to get it done," Falk said. "It's not enough to say you're for collective bargaining. We've had a year now of Gov. Walker not being open, honest or transparent with the public. I have been open, honest and transparent."
Along with refusing to make the budget-veto promise, Barrett angered some unions by cutting Milwaukee's budget and supporting plans a couple of years ago that would have given him control of the troubled Milwaukee Public Schools.
"We knew that we needed a champion," said Dian Palmer, president of the 15,000-member Wisconsin chapter of the Service Employees International Union that has endorsed Falk. She noted that Falk filed a lawsuit last year challenging Walker's collective bargaining law.
"She decided early on that she was with us," Palmer said.
Even with Barrett in the race and the unions lined up for Falk, Palmer said she didn't expect a nasty primary.
"We're not going to have a bloodbath," she said. "Our goal is the same. We don't believe that Scott Walker is good for Wisconsin."
It doesn't appear all unions agree.
Just days after Barrett got into the race, AFSCME sent an email to its members blasting Barrett and his dedication to unions, wrongly inferring that he was opposed to collective bargaining rights when he has consistently supported them.
The possibility of a bare-knuckles, costly fight between unions and Falk against Barrett in a Democratic primary has Republicans salivating. Barrett, two days after he got in the race, urged his Democratic opponents to sign a clean campaign pledge.
"The biggest mistake we as Democrats could make is if we form a firing squad and line up in a circle," Barrett said.
Falk claims that Barrett's entry into the race doesn't change her strategy for winning the nomination.
"I have been out there working very hard every day for the last year almost," Falk said. "I have been working side by side with citizens all across the state and that is why I have earned the support of citizens across the state."
Who the unions want to win may not matter when it comes time for voters to pull the trigger.
Mariette Amundson, 62, of Sun Prairie, said after voting in the state's local spring elections Tuesday that it doesn't matter to her that Falk has union backing.
"I don't know if she can do the job," Amundson said. She supports Barrett.
"It seems like he's more about the people of Wisconsin," Amundson said. "He's about bringing us together when Walker polarized the whole state."
Falk is walking a tightrope on the union support issue, saying that her 14-year record negotiating 24 contracts as Dane County executive proves otherwise. Falk said she earned the respect of eight unions by being a "tough bargainer, but a fair bargainer."
"I earned the respect of the people on the other side of the table," she said. "I got the job done in a way that protected taxpayers and also respected workers' rights."
Falk, the granddaughter of a Milwaukee bus driver, has long been backed by liberal voters in Madison, the city where anger over Walker's policies burns hottest. But both times she ran statewide - in a Democratic primary for governor in 2002 and more recently in the general election for attorney general in 2006 - she came up short.
But the Walker
recall is no ordinary election. The Democratic primary is less than five weeks away on May 8. The general election is a month later on June 5.
Recall backers are trying to orchestrate just the third successful gubernatorial recall in the nation's history and the first since Gray Davis was ousted in California in 2003. For conservatives, Walker is the embodiment of their rise to power in 2010 and the furtherance of a national agenda that included taking on the public sector unions that have long been a powerful force for Democrats in electoral politics.
Walker said in an interview that unions, both nationally and in Wisconsin, are going all-in against him in the recall because the race is larger than just defeating him. The unions are trying to send a message to other politicians not to try to make changes like those passed in Wisconsin, Walker said.
"This is about sending a message about don't mess with us or we'll take you out no matter who you are," Walker said.
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