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Can This Labor-Backed Liberal Beat Scott Walker?

Why Kathleen Falk, a hard-nosed attorney and progressive populist, thinks she can oust the tea party's favorite governor.

| Thu Mar. 15, 2012 5:00 AM EDT
Kathleen Falk, right, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

When she had to confront Wisconsin's powerful unions, Kathleen Falk bargained hard and won millions in concessions. Faced with a similar situation, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker "dropped the bomb," as he later put it, and stripped workers of their bargaining rights. Now, Falk is trying to strip Walker of his job.

For three straight years, from 2009 to 2011, Falk and negotiators from eight public-sector unions met in county government conference rooms or labor halls, ready to lock horns. Falk was executive of Dane County, Wisconsin's second-largest county and home to the state capital, Madison. Each time they met, the unions agreed to cuts for the county's 2,200 employees—a 5 percent pay cut one year, a 3 percent cut the next year, and new co-pays and higher deductibles the year after that.

The unions stung from the nearly $10 million in concessions. But looking back, what mattered to union negotiators, leaders, and rank-and-file members was that Falk met them at the table, looked them in the eyes, and negotiated. "It was going to be a tough pill to swallow," recalls Dian Palmer, president of Services Employees International Union's Healthcare Wisconsin chapter. "But there were no recalls for Kathleen Falk, because we worked together and got it done."

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Today, the 60-year-old Falk is the leading Democrat hoping to oust Walker in his looming recall election. Other Democrats, including Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, are mulling recall runs, but in an election with national consequences, perhaps no candidate creates as stark a contrast with Walker as Falk.

Falk is a dyed-in-the-wool liberal who lists the civil rights and women's rights movements, Earth Day, the Watergate scandal, and the Vietnam War as formative events in her life. Walker, the son of a Baptist minister, is an evangelical conservative and Reagan acolyte whose hardline politics date back to his college years. Falk enjoys the backing of Wisconsin's biggest labor unions, and negotiated concessions with the public-sector unions in Dane County; Walker sees unions as public enemy No. 1, savages their members as profane "thugs" out to bankrupt the state, and refused to negotiate over his anti-union "budget repair" bill. Falk endorsed Howard Dean in 2004; tea partiers endorsed Scott Walker in 2010.

"If Gov. Walker is able to get away with what he did to the people of Wisconsin, what he will do next if we do not defeat him will be many times worse," Falk says.

Both the incumbent and challenger agree, though, that the stakes couldn't be higher in the recall election. A win for Walker would validate his conservative agenda; a loss would deal a stinging rebuke to the tea party and the Koch brothers, perhaps even upping the odds of an Obama win in November. "If Gov. Walker is able to get away with what he did to the people of Wisconsin, what he will do next if we do not defeat him will be many times worse," Falk says.

Falk, a Wisconsin native, cut her teeth in government as a so-called public intervenor, an environmental watchdog working out of the state Attorney General's Office. After 12 years on the job, Falk won her 1997 campaign for Dane County executive, becoming the first woman to hold the position. Voters re-elected her in 2001, 2005, and 2009. When she resigned in 2011, Falk's 14-year run as executive was the longest in Dane County history.

During that period, Falk struck a progressive stance on environmental issues. A hallmark of her time as Dane County executive, she says, was a successful seven-year campaign to install a new manure digester for the county's cows, a $12 million venture that generates enough electricity for 2,500 homes with the manure from as many cows, while at the same time reducing harmful runoff into nearby lakes and streams. But Falk says her record in Dane County is about more than the environment, describing herself as a careful steward of taxpayers' money who balanced the county budget 14 years in a row (as she was legally bound to do). Her critics correctly note that Falk also raised taxes each of those 14 years, though Dane County's cumulative tax levy increase was less than most counties in Wisconsin. "I believe it's my job to make government as efficient as possible so that you can deliver more services for people," she says.

Then, in February 2011, Falk watched in horror as Walker unveiled Act 10, a surprise attack on organized labor that curbed collective bargaining rights for most public employee unions, made it harder for unions to recertify each year, and slashed education and health care funding, among other changes. In the weeks and months that followed, Falk slammed Walker at every turn and filed the first lawsuit challenging the legality of the bill's passage. (Falk argued that Republicans in the state Senate didn't have the quorum required by law to pass the bill; her suit was later dismissed.)

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