Former Wisconsin Congressman Dave Obey denounced reports that Democratic primary candidate Kathleen Falk plans to step up her attacks on Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, who currently leads her in the race to replace Gov. Scott Walker.
Obey, who has endorsed Barrett in the Democratic primary, held a conference call with reporters today and minced no words.
"The candidates do not enhance their chance of winning if they spend the next two weeks in petty sniping," Obey said.
The Barrett campaign organized the conference call to respond to a report in Politico on the Falk campaign's plans to more aggressively criticize Barrett in last two weeks before the May 8 primary.
The story cites Falk's newest ad, titled "Only One":
“When Scott Walker shut out every day people and robbed workers of their basic rights, only one candidate took him to court. When the recall movement took shape, one was there from the start,” a woman's voice intones in the ad, over video of Falk at the historic protests in Madison, people carrying recall petitions, and Falk talking to citizens.
The Politico story also notes Falk's remarks to an audience at the Milwaukee Area Technical College on Tuesday, accusing Barrett of “reluctantly” signing the recall petition, “only after being questioned by the media a month after the recall started about whether he had signed it.”
"No one candidate cares more than the others about the outcome of this contest," Obey said. Obey also cited Michael Brown, the founder of United Wisconsin, the group that led the recall petition drive, who has endorsed Barrett: ("As Mike Brown has said, no one candidate can credibly claim ownership of the grassroots movement.")
"That movement belongs to everybody," Obey added, saying he remembers being prevented from entering the Capitol building in Madison during the height of the protests here, "and I remember Tom Barrett being at those rallies."
"To claim that any of the four candidates is not sufficiently opposed to Walker is grasping at straws," Obey told reporters.
Kathleen Falk responded to Obey and Barrett by saying "I’ve been attacked for my labor support and my determination to stand up for working men and women. I’m talking to voters about important differences between Tom and myself. I’ve been part of this movement from the start. We’ll beat Walker with the movement that started a year ago, a strong grassroots campaign with labor, women, environmentalists and community organizers. The real suicide is if elected officials ignore the grassroots, the labor unions, women and the environmentalists who are supporting my campaign because of my commitment to undoing Walker’s harms."
Tom Barrett, who announced his candidacy the day the recall election was officially certified on March 30, much later than the four other Democrats in the primary, has picked up a round of high-profile endorsements. Joining Obey are U.S. Senator Herb Kohl, state senators Lena Taylor and John Erpenbach (two of the fourteen who fled to Illinois to delay passage of Walker's union-busting budget repair bill), Assembly Democratic leader Peter Barca, and the statewide policeman's union.
A big difference between Barrett's candidacy and Falk’s is union support.
Falk, who entered the race first, back in January, locked up endorsements from up all the major statewide unions--including the AFL-CIO, the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), SEIU, and the public employees' union, AFSCME.
Early in her campaign, Falk signed a pledge to veto any state budget that doesn't fully restore public employees' collective bargaining rights.
Barrett has criticized Falk's pledge, saying that Republicans have already gotten everything they want in the current Walker budget, and could simply call Falk's bluff and extend the budget indefinitely--with its cuts to education and health care--rather than supporting a new budget that restores collective bargaining.
John Erpenbach and Lena Taylor endorsed Barrett's plan to hold a special session on collective bargaining and to propose stand-alone legislation on the issue, saying it was more likely to pass, could take effect sooner, and did not pose the risks of a budget standoff.
"Just because you have a different strategy for dealing with the governor's mess doesn't make any one of them any less zealous about opposing him," Obey said.
The big labor unions are still behind Falk.
But as money and institutional support from the Democratic Party appears to be lining up behind Barrett, the campaign says it has received calls from some of the big labor unions assuring Barrett they will back him if he wins the primary.
Barrett has had an uneasy relationship with WEAC, the statewide teachers' union, since it adamantly opposed his bid to take over the Milwaukee Public Schools back in 2009. The union endorsed Barrett's candidacy for governor against Scott Walker in 2010, but, Barrett says, did not work to get him elected.
Over the weekend, delegates to a WEAC convention appeared to try to smooth over contentiousness in the primary by voting to unify behind the eventual nominee.
AFSCME has strongly criticized Barrett for driving a hard bargain with public employees last year. AFSCME leaders in Milwaukee say Barrett used Walker's union-busting law, Act 10, to extract major concessions on hours of work, overtime, and health care benefits from its members.
In a recent interview with the Progressive Barrett defended himself against AFSCME's charges: "I’m the only candidate in this race that has been a public official who had to put together a budget in the post-Act 10 world,” he said.
After Walker cut $15 million in state aid from Milwaukee, Barrett had to make hard choices, he says. “I am the city with the fourth-highest number of children living in poverty in the entire country. I have foreclosures. I have people who are out of work. And my choice, quite bluntly, was: Am I going to lay people off, or am I going to have them pay towards their health insurance?”
AFSCME sent a message to members backing away from a YouTube video in which selective quotes give the impression that Barrett actually supported Act 10. The union acknowledged that the ad was misleading and “over the top," and that directing members attention to it showed "poor judgment."
Protester Miles Kirstan heckled Barrett during a press conference at the Capitol last week, demanding to know why he invited Rahm Emmanuel, "the union-busting mayor of Chicago," to a fundraiser in Milwaukee, and calling Barrett an agent of the "status quo."
Falk, for her part, sent an email to supporters after Barrett got in the race saying, “The insiders of Wisconsin politics are trying to mow us down and make sure that only their voices are heard on Election Day.”
Obey responded to the "insider" comment by saying, "That's an argument people use if they don't have any other argument."
"I don't think recall elections are the proper time for a suicide pact," Obey added. "Not to get together behind the winner of the primary is a suicide pact."
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "An Interview with Tom Barrett."
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter