Milwaukee Mayor Barrett bears the hopes of a grass-roots movement

  • Article by: JIM RAGSDALE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 30, 2012 - 8:38 AM

He's facing Scott Walker again for Wisconsin's top job.

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Gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett fired up a crowd Tuesday in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis. Barrett, being far outspent, is relying on heavy campaigning.

Photo: Casey Lake, Wisconsin Rapids Tribune via AP

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The Hudson café was packed with red-shirted "Recall Walker" partisans when the tall, silver-haired man they are counting on to reclaim their state arrived to channel energy of their 17-month crusade.

"He can raise millions and millions of dollars from out of state," Tom Barrett, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, said of his opponent, Republican Gov. Scott Walker, during his "speed-dating" campaign stop last week. "He's got that on his side. I've got YOU on my side."

This is the opportunity and the challenge for Barrett, the 58-year-old mayor of Milwaukee: to tap into the spirit of a grass-roots movement that neither he nor any other politician created or led. Since ringing the Capitol with protests in February 2011 against Walker's union-slashing budget bill, the anti-Walker movement led to a mass walkout by Democratic state senators, an initial round of recall elections last summer, a 900,000-signature recall petition drive and next week's recall election pitting Barrett against Walker.

"There's no politician or elected official or party leader who's the one who pushed this forward," Barrett said after the Hudson event. "This really did come from the ground up."

Barrett, a Milwaukee native, has been a fixture in Wisconsin Democratic politics since he was first elected to the State Assembly in 1984. He spent a decade representing Milwaukee in Congress, lost a Democratic primary for governor in 2002, was elected mayor of Milwaukee in 2004 and was re-elected, easily, in 2008 and again last month.

Barrett was the Democratic candidate for governor in 2010, losing to Walker by 5 percentage points in a year that Republicans won both houses of the Legislature and unseated veteran U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold. He was not labor's first choice to lead this revolution, but he easily defeated that candidate, former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, in the recall primary on May 8.

Falk, the other Democratic primary candidates and the unions are now marching behind Barrett, although the unions spent heavily in Falk's losing primary effort, raising questions as to how much they will be able to spend on Barrett.

He is a career politician known for steadiness and decorum, not a firebrand who rose from the barricades of the movement. His city's problems with unemployment, crime and poverty have made good attack-ad fodder.

Ben Sparks, spokesman for the Republican Party of Wisconsin, cites Milwaukee's 10 percent unemployment rate, a poverty rate that nearly hit 30 percent last year and tax and fee increases under Barrett's leadership. The Walker campaign has called for an investigation of reports that Barrett's office mistakenly reported that violent crime was going down in the city.

For all Barrett's years in elected office, Sparks says, Barrett is not campaigning on a single accomplishment as an elected official. "The Democrats and Tom Barrett have failed to make even a plausible case for this recall," Sparks said.

Partisan civil war

But Barrett can fight back.

Leaving the state fairgrounds in 2009, he put himself between a screaming woman and her angry boyfriend, calling 911 as the man went at him with a tire iron. The mayor was hospitalized and his right hand, despite surgery, still does not fully close or open.

"We're in Wisconsin," he said, displaying his wounds when asked about them last week. "I have to be able to do two things -- shake hands and hold a beer. I can do those just fine."

In Hudson, Barrett warmed to the task of finishing the job the anti-Walker demonstrators had begun.

He repeated his mantra that Walker has been purposefully divisive, an agent of a national Tea Party agenda that is bad for the state, and a lecture-circuit rainmaker who runs on six-figure checks from mostly out-of-state billionaires. He hit Walker hard on a continuing criminal investigation at his last job as Milwaukee County executive, saying it cast further doubt on whether he can be trusted.

He said Walker's leadership has created a civil war atmosphere in the state. "I have never seen a situation in my life where neighbors don't want to talk to neighbors," he said.

Barrett reprised Walker's statements to a corporate executive in a private video, made before Walker moved to restrict union power in 2011, but only released last month. Walker appears to describe his attack on public-employee union bargaining as part of a "divide-and-conquer" strategy that would lead toward making Wisconsin a right-to-work state. He said it would help fix the state's budget deficit.

"This man said there was a crisis, and he was going to use this crisis to try to divide this state," Barrett said.

In several recent appearances, Barrett cited Walker's ineffectiveness at meeting his robust job creation goals, his late-in-the-game release of previously unreported -- and more positive -- job numbers and Walker's attacks on his former home base of Milwaukee, which Barrett has called "throwing Milwaukee under the bus."

Barrett supporters at Keys Café and Bakery soaked up the candidate's partisan attacks with their morning eggs and French toast. They are the ones whom Barrett, the Democrats and the state's labor unions are counting on, hoping that they can put as much passion and energy into electing Barrett on June 5 as they did into recalling Walker.

Key to that will be accepting Barrett as their leader.

"Governor Walker started this civil war, and I will end it," Barrett said, as the coffee shop burst into cheers.

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042

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