A comparison of leading Democratic candidates Kathleen Falk and Tom Barrett going into Tuesday’s recall primary shows their differences are more about style and political strategy than substance on the issues.
Both campaigns have hammered against Gov. Scott Walker’s cuts to public education and vowed to restore school spending. Both have focused on the need for job creation and derided Walker’s record on it.
On public health matters, the economy and, yes, on collective bargaining for public workers, they are essentially on the same page over the long haul.
Where Falk and Barrett differ is not as much in their ultimate policy aims, but in their approaches.
, almost the instant the deadline for turning in recall signatures passed. She quickly declared her intention to fully restore all aspects of public collective bargaining that Republicans had repealed.
She sought and won the endorsements or recommendations of a slew of labor organizations, including the largest public employee unions — AFSCME, SEIU, WEAC. Falk even went so far as to sign a “veto pledge” to turn back any state budget that arrived on her desk without restoring collective bargaining in full.
Barrett, by contrast, waited… and waited… to get into the race, and just days before being re-elected as mayor of Milwaukee.
Barrett eased into the question of collective bargaining, refused to sign any such veto pledge, and while he has more recently said he would work to restore collective bargaining, he would do it in measures, not in one fell swoop.
Falk is seen as intense, outspoken and unabashedly liberal.
Barrett is seen as more mild-mannered, deliberative and moderate.
Given the fierce political division that has prevailed in Wisconsin for more than a year since the passage of Act 10, one could be forgiven for thinking that Falk — early and unstinting in her assault on Walker’s measures — ought to be wiping up the floor with Barrett among angry Democrats.
In fact, the opposite seems to be true. Barrett was statistically even with or ahead of Falk in most polls even before he declared his candidacy. As soon as he did declare, he began to gain steam. In the latest poll, released Wednesday by the Marquette University Law School, Falk had dropped precipitously to lag Barrett by a 17 percentage point margin.
One analyst believes that Falk has been her own worst enemy by seriously miscalculating the political climate.
Barrett seen as 'more likeable,' less divisive
John McAdams, associate professor of political science at Marquette, who has analyzed that and earlier polls as closely as anyone, has as much as declared the race over.
"I'll be shocked if he doesn't win," McAdams said. "We in this business are sometimes shocked, but I don't think we will be this time.
“I think it’s been obvious that Barrett has been a better Democratic candidate. In earlier polls, he was shown as ‘more likeable.’ He cuts a more moderate figure.
“In spite of criticizing Walker’s measures, he used them to balance his own budget.”
Falk, on the other hand, cast herself almost as Walker in reverse, McAdams said, in heavily currying favor with public unions.
“But being the union candidate doesn’t get you much in Wisconsin,” he said, “especially in the public sector. Just being the union candidate is not a big boon.
“Our poll showed people split about evenly on their support of public workers’ unions; there’s much more support for private workers’ unions, and that hasn’t changed."
“Falk hasn’t chosen to campaign to the general public, particularly any independents. There’s a small group of people in the middle that adds up to the difference. And they just don’t care that much about collective bargaining as an issue.”
The Marquette poll did, indeed, show that not just a few people in the middle, but, in fact, as issues that concerned them most.
“That veto pledge was probably a mistake,” McAdams said. “I think it indicates she is more combative, but some people have had enough of that.”
Barrett, McAdams said, also has more statewide recognition.
“Fewer people said they didn’t know enough about him to have an opinion. Between that and a more likeable, less confrontational persona, it’s no surprise that Barrett is outpolling her.
"That said, they are both liberal Democrats, and they would aim to be in the same place in the end."
Teachers feel Falk is tailored to them
Among the unions supporting her, there is some belief that Falk is the stronger, more substantive candidate on policy issues, with more clear, detailed plans — but that the message may not have reached the general public.
“There are differences,” said Christina Brey, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Education Association Council, which offered Falk its recommendation well before Barrett entered the race.
“To be clear,” Brey said, “we also spoke to a lot of potential candidates. It was a pretty detailed process. And we feel (Falk) is the strongest candidate to recall Scott Walker.
“We looked at clarity of positions and plans, and intensity of their belief and commitment," Brey added. "We talked about priority issues to our members, such as keeping educators employed and able to bargain collectively — because when they no longer have a voice in their working conditions, that has a direct impact in the classroom.”
Brey said WEAC felt the need to make an early recommendation to its members because the time frame of the recall process was so tight.
“The governor since November has been able to raise unlimited funds," she said. "We needed to get the ball rolling. The reason was largely to open the door to start talking about the issues.”
And why Falk?
“Kathleen Falk has been absolutely clear in her opposition to using public tax dollars to fund private voucher schools,” Brey said. “She has not wavered on union rights since the beginning. She has been strong on women’s issues — and 75 percent of our workers are women.
“Also, generally, just her involvement in the grassroots movement that developed here. She’s been a part of it since the beginning. It’s been important to see her up front.
“We’ve got a clear record to look at.”
To labor, Falk is the perfect anti-Walker
Falk “was involved in the recall from the beginning,” Shansky said. “That’s not an anti-Barrett statement, just a pro-Falk statement.”
Like WEAC, AFT wanted to move quickly on the recall, Shansky said.
“We interviewed her, we talked to her about a lot of different issues, and she had a very good record,” he said. “She was strong relative to education, strong relative to collective bargaining, she has a strong environmental record, and as Dane County executive, she worked cooperatively with labor.
“Compared with Scott Walker, she is on the opposite end of every one of those efforts, and that is where we stand.
“That said, and all other things being equal, I can assure you — I can’t stress strongly enough — the candidate who comes out ahead will have our full support.
“June 5 – that’s where the focus is.”
To police, Barrett is the antidote to division
Falk’s list of union endorsements dwarfs Barrett’s, but he did not come up empty.
A handful of unions are backing Walker, among them the Iron Workers District Council of North Central States and the Wisconsin Professional Police Association.
These unions are very strong for their size, enjoy broad-based respect, and their members are much less likely to be liberal.
The WPPA is the state’s largest law enforcement group, with 10,000 members.
“Our board determined early on that we would wait for a full slate of candidates,” said James Palmer, president of the WPPA. “It was important to hear from our members.
“The other unions made a rush to judgment. That was a miscalculation on the part of the unions.
“Then, some of the things Kathleen Falk did early on hurt her — particularly the unwise and narrow-minded veto decision," he added. “I don’t think the general populace want someone who’s in the pocket of labor unions any more than they want someone who’s in the pocket of big business.”
“To the grassroots, I think, a single issue makes a candidate less electable.”
Electability, to the WPPA, is what it is all about, Palmer said.
“This is a calculus our board went through,” he said. “Our membership feels like Scott Walker has been bad for Wisconsin, bad for public safety. We lost our right to bargain our health care. In our line of work, that's a major issue.
“Our primary goal must be that Scott Walker is defeated.
“When we looked at the four candidates, Tom Barrett was not only good on our issues but also best positioned to defeat Scott Walker."
“If you look at law enforcement officers, they are mostly conservative. Our members have been saying, and I've heard it over and over, ‘I’ve been a lifelong Republican, and this is embarrassing. Never again.’”
The biggest difference between Falk and Barrett, Palmer said, in agreement with Marquette’s McAdams, “is a distinction in style.”
“Tom Barrett would use a multifaceted approach to restoring collective bargaining. That’s a style that will be well-received.
“Scott Walker has been criticized for a ‘My way or the highway’ approach, and Kathleen Falk often sounds the same.”
Local organizers just want a winner
At the grassroots level, there is little concern about any of the perceived differences between Falk and Barrett in either style or substance — but plenty of agreement that either one of them must rise to the occasion of taking on Walker and winning.
Dale Dulberger, who is active with the liberal group Grassroots Tosa said of the Democratic candidates, “On a scale of 1 to 10, I don’t see too much difference on policy matters.
“Kathleen Falk had the endorsements, she’s competent, she's female — and that could be important — and she balanced the budget” as Dane County executive.
“I thought she might be a potential leader, but I’m also supportive of Tom Barrett. When he ran for governor the second time, I thought he’d make a fine chief executive.
“It’s understandable that with political experience at the state, federal and municipal levels, he would be seen as a better candidate for these times.
“You’ve got to measure people on what they’ve done. Tom has supported collective bargaining; so has Kathleen.
“Tom has managed the city of Milwaukee in a gentler way. But external forces and the marketplace haven’t worked for him. He’s done a pretty good job, but what’s needed is a structural change, a Marshall Plan to rebuild this economically distressed area.”
On a state level, Dulberger said, the issue is “jobs, jobs, jobs….”
Dulberger said that he had spoken recently to an acquaintance who is an out-of-state businessman, and by no means a liberal.
“He said, ‘You know something is wrong when there’s this much noise, this much static.’
“Whoever is elected (Tuesday), people will close ranks behind them.”