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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

Big Labor Kathleen Falk pictured with members of the United Food and Commericial: falkforwi/flickrWisconsin labor unions have rushed to support Kathleen Falk, pictured here with members of the United Food and Commericial Workers. falkforwi/FlickrIn April 2011, Falk stepped down as Dane County executive. She vacationed with her husband, former state Rep. Peter Bock, by bicycling from Florida to New York. Once back in Wisconsin, Falk says she has spent "virtually every single day" supporting the anti-Walker cause—campaigning for last summer's state Senate recall candidates, attending fundraisers, knocking on doors, talking to citizens.

As summer drifted into autumn and Falk continued work on the effort to gather more than half a million signatures to recall Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, her conversations around the state took on a more direct, personal tenor. "People came to me and said, 'Falk, we're gonna recall Walker. You need to be ready to run.'" One afternoon, a UPS deliveryman arrived at her house with a package—and a plea. It was months before she entered the recall fray. He told her, "I hope you run against Governor Walker. I'm a Republican and I voted for Walker, but he didn't do what he said he was going to do."

The pleas piled up, and in mid-January of 2012, Falk announced her candidacy. Her campaign, she says, is built on "openness, transparency, and honesty," unlike Walker, who, she wrote in a December op-ed, "used a big deception to get elected" and "has continued to try to mask his extreme agenda by saying one thing but doing another." She has pledged to restore the bargaining rights that Walker rolled back, repeal new voter ID legislation, and restore the $73 million Walker cut from the state Technical College System by ending a GOP-backed tax break for multi-state corporations.

The state's most powerful labor unions wasted no time lining up behind Falk. SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin; SEIU's Wisconsin state council; the American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin; the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees' Wisconsin affiliate; and two United Food and Commercial Workers branches all decided to back her run. EMILY's List, the national nonprofit that works to elect more female politicians, has also backed Falk. With recall spending projected to reach $100 million, and with Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity and heavyweight GOP donors opening their checkbooks, Walker will likely outspend Falk. She'll need the unions' money, grassroots networks, and organizing muscle in her camp to counter Walker's millions. "We're going to be doing everything we can to get her elected," Palmer, the president of SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, promises.

Labor's full-throated backing of Falk will no doubt figure prominently in Republican attacks if she wins the Democratic nomination. Walker has already fundraised off of "big labor bosses," "big union-sponsored mercenaries," "mercenary labor thugs," and "union bullies."

Paul Maslin, a veteran Democratic pollster working for Falk's recall campaign, says he wouldn't be surprised if the governor and his allies cast Falk as a labor stooge if she faces Walker in the general election. But Maslin downplays the liabilities from Falk's strong union ties. He argues that whoever faces Walker in the recall will be slammed as a labor stooge, even if it's Milwaukee's Barrett, a popular Democrat whose relationship with unions is frosty at times. "We might as well have a candidate the unions support," Maslin says.

"She needs to convince voters outside Dane County and southern Wisconsin that she knows something about voters in Green Bay and northern Wisconsin."

Falk also faces charges that she can't win on a statewide level. Her 2002 bid to be the state's first female governor fell short in the Democratic primary, and in 2006 she lost a squeaker to Republican J.B. Van Hollen in the race to be attorney general. Falk's critics who question her electability point to that 2006 loss. In a banner year for Wisconsin Democrats, Falk came up short, if only by 8,859 votes out of 2.1 million cast. Falk and her supporters counter that she received more votes in 2006 than Barrett did in his losing gubernatorial run four years later.

Perhaps the steepest challenge for Falk, though, is wooing voters beyond Madison, an enclave of progressive politics that outsiders describe as "85 square miles surrounded by reality." A recent Marquette University poll showed that 47 percent of respondents didn't know enough about Falk to have an opinion. (A separate survey (PDF) by left-leaning Public Policy Polling found that 27 percent were undecided.)

Charles Franklin, a political scientist at Marquette University who conducted the Marquette poll, says Falk's apparent lack of name recognition statewide, despite her 2002 and 2006 campaigns, can be interpreted for good and bad. "It points to a weakness, in that she needs to reintroduce herself to the state," Franklin says, "but it's also a strength—that even with a relatively high don't-know rate, she's still competitive with Walker in the polling."

Indeed. Falk beat Walker 48 percent to 47 percent in PPP's February poll, and trailed him 49-42 in the January Marquette University poll. Looking to June, Franklin says, Falk's path to victory means entails racking up big wins in Dane and Milwaukee counties, the state's Democratic strongholds, and then winning the swing counties in the northeastern and western parts of Wisconsin that Barack Obama won in 2008 but swung Republican in 2010. "She needs to convince voters outside Dane County and southern Wisconsin that she knows something about voters in Green Bay and northern Wisconsin," he says.

What's painfully obvious in every recall poll is the polarization of Wisconsin voters. Roughly 47 percent of voters want Walker out, while roughly 47 percent support and believe in him. Maslin, the pollster who works for Falk's campaign, says it's the remaining 6 percent of voters who will decide the election. Those 6-percenters, Maslin says, "have no reason to make a judgment now, and they're going to wait until the last possible minute. When they do vote," he continues, "they'll leave all the stuff aside, whatever they thought of this recall originally, all the noise and the back and forth, and they'll make a judgment about who do they trust. That's where I think she's going to have an ace in a hole."

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