Tom Barrett wants a second shot at Scott Walker. The 58-year-old mayor of Milwaukee lost to Walker by nearly 125,000 votes in Wisconsin's 2010 gubernatorial election, a bitterly fought race in a tea-party-fueled GOP landslide year. Now, 18 months later, Walker's anti-union and staunchly conservative agenda has divided the state and created the momentum for a June 5 recall election. The populist outrage will favor the Democrats, and the polls show Barrett is best-positioned to oust Walker. But first he must win his own party's nomination in the May 8 primary—and that's no lock.
Barrett plans to spend the next month on what he calls the "political speed-dating" circuit, raising money and rallying support around the state, all while continuing to run Wisconsin's largest city. Perhaps his biggest obstacle, though, is Wisconsin's largest labor unions, which have wasted no time slinging mud at Barrett and pouring money and manpower into backing his main rival, former Dane County executive Kathleen Falk.
Barrett and Milwaukee's unions weren't always at loggerheads. In fact, when Barrett was considering a run for Milwaukee mayor after leaving Congress in 2002, he sought the advice of a man who's now one of his most outspoken critics in the labor community: Rich Abelson, the longtime executive director of one of Milwaukee's most influential unions, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees' District Council 48.
The two men were "good friends" back then, Abelson recalls. When Barrett served in Congress, Abelson says, he agreed with Barrett's decisions "99.9 percent" of the time. One afternoon, they met for lunch to discuss Barrett's mayoral bid. "I don't want to run for mayor if I'm going to alienate everyone," Barrett said. "The fact of matter is," Abelson replied, "the minute you sit down in the mayor's chair, the percentage of time that we agree is going to drop to 75 percent. This is where the rubber meets the road. The decisions you make as mayor are going to be far more controversial."
Indeed they were. Today, Abelson describes his relationship with the mayor over the past nine years as "up and down" and "disappointing." His grousing mostly stems from two particular incidents, both in the winter of 2011. In one episode Abelson claims Barrett failed to negotiate in good faith with AFSCME Council 48 and the AFL-CIO over a new contract for the city's public employees, at one point proposing to limit employees' bargaining rights. (Barrett says the city's proposal was part of the collective bargaining process. He also stresses that budget cuts pinching Milwaukee forced him into tough decisions about whether to make public workers pay more for benefits as a way to avoid layoffs.)
Abelson also says Barrett waited too long to condemn Act 10, the bill unveiled by Walker in February 2011 that cut bargaining rights for many public employees and made it harder for unions to recertify and collect member dues. That hesitance still stings Abelson. "I think it's an issue for him in this election."
Labor has certainly made it one. Days after Barrett declared his candidacy, AFSCME's Wisconsin chapter sent an email blast to its members that included a deceptively edited video suggesting that Barrett once supported Act 10. AFSCME later admitted the video was "over the top" but held firm in its criticism. "While we used poor judgment in directing our members' attention to an Internet video that went over the top to make its point, we believe it is essential to bring attention to Barrett's record on collective bargaining," the union said in a statement. "Unfortunately, it is not a good record."
Recently retired congressman Dave Obey, who endorsed Barrett and is campaigning on his behalf, ripped the video as "misdirected and unfair." A longtime ally of organized labor, Obey hails Barrett's record on labor issues. "For 42 years in the Congress and 6 years in the state Legislature, my opponents knew I was in the corner of labor, and still am," he says. "It's safe to say that Tom Barrett's record on labor issues is every bit as good as mine."
For his part, Barrett says labor's attacks are false and, moreover, damaging to Democrats' overarching goal of defeating Scott Walker. "For any of us to spend one second attacking the other, it's bad policy, it's wrong, and shame on us," he says. "We can't run this far in the marathon only to have someone trip someone up in the final two yards."