Wildly different numbers are at issue in Wisconsin.
MILWAUKEE - Counting jobs -- or the lack of them -- is becoming an obsession and a central campaign topic in Wisconsin's run-up to a historic gubernatorial recall election.
The state either is turning the economic corner or sinking deeper into the nation's job-creation cellar, and both Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Democratic challenger Tom Barrett have the numbers to back up their positions.
Walker, a national hero to fiscal conservatives and union opponents, and Barrett, the Milwaukee mayor who is trying to marshal the state's recall fervor, both understand that the economy will be pivotal in the June 5 recall election, as it undoubtedly will be in November's presidential race.
So a dust-up about two sets of mirror-image job numbers -- one a regular fixture on the economic scene and the other a product of a separate employers' census -- is being taken seriously.
"It was a swing from down here, to up here, of more than 57,000-plus jobs," Walker said Thursday, gesturing to show the chasm between the miserable performance indicated in federal reports and the solid gains his own administration reported this week. Walker spoke while visiting a small suburban computer firm whose expansion he trumpeted as proof his tenure is showing results.
Barrett had a different take when he appeared at a Milwaukee train-manufacturing firm hurt when Walker reversed previous commitments to build a high-speed rail line.
"He can't defend his job record, so he wants to create a new gauge to measure it," Barrett said. Walker's newly released job data, he said, was an attempt to "muddy the waters" in the 20 days before the election.
The numbers game begins with 250,000. That's how many jobs Walker promised to create during his four-year term, now in its second year.
But surveys from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics have shown Wisconsin losing jobs in that time. A bureau survey released last month showed Wisconsin to be the nation's worst-performing state from March 2011 to March 2012, dropping 23,900 jobs. No other state was even close. The numbers created a national narrative questioning Walker's ability to deliver on his most important campaign pledge.
This week, as the recall election kicks into high gear, Walker's state Department of Workforce Development reported numbers that were just the opposite. Between December 2010 and December 2011 the department showed a gain of 23,321 jobs. Walker, who has been receiving six-figure personal campaign contributions and reported raising more than $25 million, immediately ran paid TV ads to tout his job-creation success story.
'Job numbers are much better'
On Thursday, the governor donned a blue lab coat to tour the EmbedTex computer firm and insist that his administration's numbers are real. They come from a regular census of employers, he said, covering 96 percent of all companies. By contrast, he said, the federal survey is based on a small sample of Wisconsin employers and is less reliable.
Walker acknowledged that the numbers he cited usually are not released, just forwarded to federal job-counters.
"We thought it was important for employers to know that despite the narrative they've heard before, the job numbers are much better," he said.
Barrett was having none of it. He stood before a gleaming white-and-red passenger train built by Talgo Inc., a company located -- with city help -- in a struggling section of Milwaukee's North Side. The firm's officials said they fear layoffs and a bleak future because of changes in state policy under Walker.
Barrett said the federal numbers are surveys that states and cities have long relied upon, while Walker's timed release amounts to unverified information that cannot be fact-checked on the election's short timeline.
"When you have a sitting governor who introduces an entirely new [employment] measurement 20 days before the election, you can bet this is about his job -- not about the jobs of the people of the state of Wisconsin," Barrett said.
University of Wisconsin-Madison economist Andrew Reschovsky said many economists have thought the negative numbers in the federal reports were at odds with indications of growing personal income and tax revenue.
He said it's "credible" that as Walker maintains, the state's employment history in 2011 is not as bad as the federal survey say. But, he said, even Walker's numbers suggest growth that is, at best, sluggish.
"It's certainly not rapid growth," Reschovsky said.
Nonetheless, the number of jobs, and the images of two politicians fighting for them, are a powerful subtext in the campaign. Charles Franklin, poll director for Marquette University Law School, which has been regularly studying the battle, said voters' views about the economy appear to shift based on the job numbers being reported.
"When one set of numbers make an incumbent look bad, one approach is to find a different set of numbers," he said. Walker may not have convinced his opponents, Franklin said, but he may have succeeded in shifting the focus of the debate from job-creating to job-counting.
The jobs issue has a final subtext.
Barrett has been mayor of Milwaukee since 2004. Before he was governor, Walker was the elected executive of Milwaukee County. Now Walker is blasting Barrett for his city's double-digit unemployment rate, saying, "I think most people don't want Wisconsin to become another Milwaukee."
Those remarks anger Barrett, who said Walker headed the county at a time when unemployment rose by one-third. Now, Barrett said, Walker seeks to turn the state against its largest city.
"This is a leader who's trying to divide us," Barrett said.
Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042