Candidate Interview – Tom Barrett

As the last candidate to enter the Democratic Primary in the 2012 Recall election, Tom Barrett got off to a late start – but entered the abbreviated recall race with the highest statewide name recognition of all the candidates. The Mayor of Milwaukee has garnered support and endorsements from key Democratic politicians, but questions persist regarding his record on labor and cuts implemented to public employees in Milwaukee – before and after Act 10. Barrett also created controversy when he attempted, with then Governor Jim Doyle’s assistance, to turn the Milwaukee Public School Board into a mayor-appointed board – as Richard Daley did in Chicago, and Rahm Emanuel continues amidst concern over who the board is accountable to. The plan failed, and Barrett insists he supports public education in Wisconsin.

The interview with Barrett was conducted by phone on April 27, and lasted about 30 minutes.

BD – What does this movement mean to you, not just as a politician, but as a citizen of Wisconsin?

Barrett – This is an unprecedented time in our state political history. I brought my 12-year-old daughter to Madison during the Capitol protests, because I wanted her to see peaceful protests in action. I wanted to get her engaged in democracy, important for people coming of age. I also wanted her, as everyone needs to know, that we are not done yet. With money coming into politics at unprecedented levels on both sides, it begs the question – what is going to happen to democracy? This movement is critical to that question.

BD – What was the determining factor in your announcing your candidacy, and when did you finally decide to run?

Barrett – In February 2011, the day after the Super Bowl, Scott Walker decided to “drop the bomb” (Walker’s words, not Barrett’s) and launched an ideological civil war in Wisconsin. Walker has made the state more divisive than ever and I think people are tired of that divisiveness. We used to be able to talk politics amongst friends, family, at work – and in many cases we can’t do that anymore because of how Walker has turned citizen against citizen in this ideological civil war.

In my opinion, Scott Walker had three opportunities to “dial down” this ideological war. The first was when AFSCME and WEAC both agreed to the increased contributions toward health and pension benefits to help balance the budget. He could have sat down with them and negotiated as we have always done in Wisconsin. Instead, he continued the ideological assault on unions – for no fiscal benefit, but to continue his ideological war.

The second, came after the Senatorial recalls last summer, which sent a clear message that Walker and the Republicans were going too far, and shifted power in the State Senate. Instead, Walker and the GOP continued pushing their ideological civil war during the “jobs” special session. The focus was not on jobs, but instead continued the ideological assault on Wisconsin’s middle class.

The third was after the Ohio referendum repealing the collective bargaining assaults there. There were clear similarities between the Ohio movement and the Wisconsin Recall movement – yet Walker and the GOP continued pushing their ideological assault – ignoring the outcome in Ohio and denying any similarity in the movements.

The first casualty of this civil war has been jobs. Scott Walker has failed by his own metric. He said that he should be judged by his job creation record – and his promise to create 250,000 jobs in Wisconsin. By his own metric, he is a failure. Wisconsin was last in the nation in job creation from March 2011-March 2012 and the only state in the nation to have negative job creation in that time.

I decided to run because this comes down to the election being a response to two questions. First, do the people of Wisconsin want this ideological civil war to continue? Second, are people satisfied with Wisconsin being number 50 in the nation in job creation? I think the answer to those questions are no, and the people of Wisconsin agree. This election is a referendum on Scott Walker, and I am the best candidate to beat Scott Walker in this short election cycle.

As for the timing, six weeks prior to making my announcement I saw an ad from the Republican Governor’s Association attacking me, and I was not even in the race. I decided then to wait until the GAB (Government Accountability Board) certified and set the dates for the election. I made my announcement before the Milwaukee Mayoral election (which I promised the voters of Milwaukee), and about 7 hours after the GAB announced the election dates. I didn’t want to make the strategic mistake of playing Walker’s game and engage him earlier when he had unlimited amounts of money to spend against me. 

BD – On February 14, 2011, you wrote a letter to Scott and Jeff Fitzgerald LINK (Senate and Assembly majority leadership, respectively) referencing then Senate Special Bill 11 (eventually Act 10). The letter asked for further additions to the scope of that bill; including Milwaukee Police and Fire to be included in collective bargaining restrictions and increased health and pension contributions, among other increased cuts. Your opponents have characterized this as an attack on labor. Was this a political letter, in that Milwaukee Police and Fire endorsed Walker in 2010, or were there policy issues behind the letter?

Barrett – Fist of all, in principle, I don’t believe any of the city employees should be treated any differently than any other. A fireman shouldn’t get special treatment that a librarian or janitor doesn’t – that’s not fair, and it’s the game Scott Walker has played in pitting worker against worker. I didn’t want workers treated differently for political purposes, which is what the exemption was.

 In Milwaukee, as in most major cities, the bulk of our labor expenditures are in pension and healthcare costs. When Scott Walker’s budget made massive cuts – greater than at any other time under any other governor – in shared revenue to the City of Milwaukee, he forced me to choose between using Act 10 and making massive layoffs. It put many of us in local governments in a bad situation – of choosing to use Act 10, which we objected to as bad law, or laying people off in a bad economy. I chose to use Act 10, because after analysis, it was apparent that most of the people who would have to be laid off were new, younger workers. My administration didn’t want to lay those people off in a bad economy with few job prospects. It was a no-win scenario Scott Walker forced many of us into, taking away local control by massive cuts to shared revenue. I have always opposed the taking away of collective bargaining rights. I am also the only candidate to put together an operating budget post Act 10 and deal with those consequences. (Note: It was pointed out to Mayor Barrett that Kathleen Vinehout had authored a state budget as a response to Scott Walker’s last year, and while never passed or presented to the Legislature, it did address fiscal issues without the deep program cuts seen in Walker’s budget. Barrett indicated he had not seen the Vinehout budget.)

BD – How do you repair the damage done in this budget to Labor, Public Education, and Healthcare in this political climate, and the Legislative Fiscal Bureau forecasting a revenue deficit of over $200 million– after Scott Walker came into office with a surplus of $56 million?

Barrett – We have to closely examine Scott Walker’s tax policy, and close loopholes and political favors in the tax code that allow companies and the wealthiest individuals to avoid paying their fair share. That money must be re-invested in our public schools, tech schools, and universities to create an educated and skilled workforce. That is how we create good jobs, build our infrastructure and get Wisconsin on track.

BD – Do you believe that collective bargaining is a basic human right?

Barrett – Yes. I believe collective bargaining is the right of every worker, private or public.

BD – How do you connect with and relate to the grassroots citizens and organizations that started this movement, and be accountable to them?

Barrett – 2010 was a very different year politically. As I’ve said before, Russ Feingold and I ran into the nationwide Tea Party “buzz saw”, yet I only lost to Scott Walker by about 6 points. My campaign is only 4 weeks old, and we’ve made great progress in reaching out to the grassroots, engaging grassroots, and will continue to do so. I have also picked up key endorsements across the Democratic spectrum.

BD – What will be your first act as Governor?

Barrett – I will take a multi-faceted approach to repealing Act 10 through a Legislative Special Session. We cannot afford to wait until the next budget cycle to repeal Act 10, so the only way to do it immediately is through a Special Session.  Another issue with placing collective bargaining in the budget is that in Wisconsin, unlike the federal budget, the state would continue to operate under the Walker budget until the new budget is passed. This would put the Republicans in the position of already having the budget they want, and just stalling until collective bargaining is removed from the budget – or we continue under the Walker budget. We can’t afford that either – with some of the largest cuts in state history to education and healthcare, we can’t play that game with the next budget.

BD – Do you think you would have the votes in the Assembly (assuming it remains Republican and the Senate flips to Democratic) to call a Special Session? Senator Vinehout indicated in a previous interview that she felt there are some moderate Republicans in the Assembly who may have had a change of heart on collective bargaining?

Barrett- I agree with Senator Vinehout. Having been a Legislator, I know that something that looked really good 15 months ago looks very different now. There was considerable pressure on the Republican Legislators to fall in line; and now after recalls, divisiveness, and the direction polls are moving – the consequences of Act 10 are adding up. It’s important to look back after the birth of collective bargaining in Wisconsin and realize that there have been 5 GOP Governors – Knowles, Dreyfuss, Thompson, McCallum, and now Walker. Only Scott Walker has been so divisive, and gone so far as to repeal most of the collective bargaining rights of public employees.

This election revolves around some very central issues – collective bargaining, ending the ideological civil war, and the worst job performance in the country. Add to that the attacks on public education, healthcare, and women’s rights – and this election will be a referendum on Scott Walker.

To conclude this interview, a few author comments:

Tom Barrett is a different candidate than in 2010. He seems to have a genuine passion and fire, also seen in Kathleen Vinehout. One walks away with the idea that he gets it. An interesting part of our conversation outside of the interview related the fact that his family has been directly affected by Scott Walker – Barrett’s wife being a public school teacher. Barrett also considers his city to be under direct assault by Walker – for example the killing of high-speed rail, and the manufacturing jobs that would have followed. The question this writer came away with is – does Tom Barrett get it? Has Scott Walker affected his life and his city to the extent that he has had an epiphany bringing him to this movement? Or is this political expediency and opportunism?

We may very well have the opportunity to find out the answer to that question.

Next – I go back on my word, and make an endorsement in the Democratic Primary. Why? Because a blogger/activist’s prerogative is to change his mind, and I feel it necessary to make a statement.

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