MADISON (AP) — Democratic candidates for governor Kathleen Falk and Tom Barrett disagreed Wednesday on the best way to restore collective bargaining rights for public workers that were taken away under a law championed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker that motivated a drive to recall him from office.
Falk and Barrett outlined their differing positions at a candidate forum that attracted an overflow crowd of hundreds in the liberal capital city. They are the front-runners in the Democratic race that also includes Secretary of State Doug La Follette and state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout.
Falk has received the backing of every union in the state that has endorsed in the race so far, including the AFL-CIO, the statewide teachers union and the largest union representing state workers. Their backing came after Falk promised to veto any state budget that doesn't restore the bargaining rights that Walker and the Republican Legislature took away last year.
"The only bill that has to pass the Legislature is the budget bill," she said, making the case for using it as the vehicle to restore bargaining rights.
But Republicans currently control the Assembly 59-39-1, and the Senate is evenly split 16-16 with one vacancy. If Republicans hold on to at least one house, a budget veto could lead to stalemate. Unlike the federal government and many other states, if there is no new budget in Wisconsin the old one remains in place and the government does not shut down.
Barrett, the Milwaukee mayor who lost to Walker in 2010, said that is why a veto wouldn't work, because it could leave Walker's current budget in place indefinitely.
Barrett, a former congressman and state lawmaker, said he would introduce a separate bill and call a special session to pass it by persuading moderate Republicans to support it.
"It would change the minds of a lot of those Assembly members as they see senator after senator and the governor recalled," he said.
Three incumbent Republicans are also standing for recall June 5. A fourth who was targeted has resigned, and that open seat will be filled in the same election.
La Follette said the only way to restore collective bargaining rights is electing progressive Republicans and Democrats in the November elections. Vinehout said she supports restoring bargaining rights through a bill and trying to pressure Assembly Republicans to vote for it.
"There is strong public support across the state for collective bargaining," she said.
Despite the differences on how to restore bargaining rights, the four Democrats steered clear of attacking one another in the forum and instead focused their ire on Walker and legislative Republicans.
Barrett, who lost to Walker by 5 points in 2010, said he went "toe to toe" with him many times then and he has the experience to beat him this time. Falk, who was Dane County executive for 14 years before retiring in 2011, said her record running the county where Madison is located shows she is ready to be governor.
La Follette, who was first elected secretary of state in 1974, said there has to be more civility in the state and government has a positive role to play in achieving that.
Vinehout, who was first elected to the Senate in 2006 and is from Alma, said the state needs a fresh start and she is the one to provide it.
"We have to heal the divisions among us and respect each other while we deal with our differences," she said.
The forum comes less than a month before the May 8 primary and capped a busy day of developments in the campaign that's moving in hyperdrive.
Retiring U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, whom many Democrats hoped would challenge Walker, endorsed Barrett.
Barrett released his first television ad of the campaign Tuesday night, not mentioning any of his Democratic challengers but instead accusing Walker and his policies of starting a civil war in Wisconsin.
"As governor I'll focus on jobs and education," Barrett says while looking at the camera. "And I'll fight to restore collective bargaining rights for teachers and public employees."
Walker's campaign spokeswoman, Ciara Matthews, said Barrett is using the ad to distract voters from his own record of raising taxes, increasing government spending and job losses in Milwaukee during his time as mayor. She also referenced Barrett's loss to Walker in the 2010 election and his defeat in the 2002 Democratic primary for governor.
"Wisconsin voters have rejected Tom Barrett's out-of-touch liberal policies twice before and will do so again," Matthews said.
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