News Column

Wisconsin Governor Holds Off Recall Vote

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Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker became the first governor in the country's history on Tuesday to survive a recall election, besting his 2010 rival in a contest that broke spending records and captured the nation's attention.

"Tonight we tell Wisconsin, we tell our country, and we tell people all across the globe that voters really do want leaders that stand up and make the tough decisions," Walker told an overflow crowd at the Waukesha County Exposition Center.

He said he would meet with his Cabinet Wednesday to focus on the economy, and said he hoped to soon bring Democrat and Republican lawmakers together to meet over brats, burgers and beer. He cut off the crowd when they booed a mention of Barrett.

"Tomorrow is the day after the election and tomorrow we are no longer opponents," he said. "We are one as Wisconsinites."

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett called the Republican governor to concede around 10 p.m., about an hour after The Associated Press and television networks called the race for Walker.

Barrett told his backers at the Hilton in downtown Milwaukee: "Never ever stop doing what you think is right. That's what makes this such a great country.

"Please, please, please remain engaged, remain involved, because we will continue to fight for justice and fairness in this city and state."

The race was a rematch of the 2010 race, when Walker beat Barrett by nearly 6 percentage points. Turnout Tuesday was far higher than it had been 19 months earlier.

Throughout this spring's brief campaign, polls showed a tight race with Walker leading, but Democrats said they felt confident they could beat the governor because of voter anger over his policies.

Plans to recall Walker started shortly after he introduced his plan last year to all but eliminate collective bargaining for public workers. The plan prompted tens of thousands of protesters to occupy the Capitol and Senate Democrats to leave the state for three weeks in an effort to block the bill, but Walker's fellow Republicans managed to send the measure to him for his signature in March 2011.

In a reminder of last year's demonstrations, more than 1,000 people gathered on the Capitol lawn Tuesday as results came in.

Walker's opponents weren't able to start the recall process until he had been in office for a year, and they began gathering signatures in November. State election officials determined more than 900,000 of those signatures were valid, nearly twice as many as needed.

Now that Walker has survived the recall, he cannot face another one for the remainder of his term, which runs until January 2015.

Also on the recall ballot were Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and four state Senate seats. Kleefisch defeated her Democratic opponent, Madison firefighter and union president Mahlon Mitchell, in the nation's first-ever recall election of a lieutenant governor.

Three of the Senate races were called for incumbent Republicans, but definitive results weren't available for the Racine County race.

"Now this is what democracy looks like!" Kleefisch told supporters at the party she held jointly with Walker, using a phrase that became an anthem for Democrats during last year's protests.

In one sense, Walker defeated not just Barrett, but history. Only two other governors in the U.S. have ever faced a recall election - California's Gray Davis in 2003 and North Dakota's Lynn Frazier in 1921 - and both lost.

The recall race for governor was viewed as crucial nationally, with both sides seeing it as a test of whether politicians could take on unions and survive. Last year, GOP Ohio Gov. John Kasich approved a law curtailing collective bargaining that went further than Wisconsin's, but voters there overturned it in a November referendum.

While that vote weakened Kasich, Walker developed into a national star among conservatives for his tough stance with unions.

"Wisconsin has given their stamp of approval to Gov. Walker's successful reforms that balanced the budget, put people back to work and put government back on the side of the people," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement.

In an interview, he said Democrats would be in disarray, in part because President Barack Obama didn't campaign in Wisconsin on behalf of Barrett.

"I think the Democrats are going to have a circular firing squad on their hands for about three weeks," he said. "Obama is going to show up in a month or two and say, 'Hey guys, remember me, you need to help me get re-elected.' I think a lot of Democrats around here are very disappointed in this president. They're going to look back at him, 'Thanks a lot, pal, we appreciate the help.'""

Rep. Robin Vos, a Republican widely expected to be the next speaker of the Assembly, said the majority in Wisconsin "was silent until today."

"And the results can be called nothing less than deafening," Vos said.

Mike Tate, chairman of the state Democratic Party, had a different take.

"This was a fight that was worth having," he told Madison-based WISC-TV. "There are some fights that are worth losing over."

At Barrett's party, Tate noted that Walker outspent the Milwaukee mayor by millions of dollars. He said the state would still support Obama in November.

"Wisconsin is not now a red state," he said. "It's a mistake to call it a red state and it will not be that in November. It's a purple state."

"The results of tonight's election show that Wisconsin remains a state divided," said Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, a Democrat, in a statement. "On both sides, I believe the people are ready to end the polarization of the past 17 months." Walker argued during the campaign that his changes on collective bargaining and requirement that public workers pay more for benefits were crucial to balancing the state's budget. He said the economy was starting to turn around on his watch and that he could still meet a 2010 pledge to create 250,000 private-sector jobs during his first term.

Monthly employment surveys said Wisconsin lost nearly 34,000 jobs last year, but Walker's administration in May released figures from a quarterly census that said the state had actually gained 23,600 jobs in 2011.

Normally, those figures would not be made public until late June - three weeks after the recall election - but the administration said it was releasing them early because people deserved to know the actual condition of the economy. Once vetted, the census figures are considered by economists to be more reliable than the monthly ones.

Barrett blasted the early release of the information, saying Walker was setting a new precedent 20 days before an election by publicizing numbers that the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics had not publicly signed off on. He noted that even using Walker's comparatively rosy numbers, Wisconsin performed the worst of Midwestern states.

Even with the win, Walker will continue to face challenges. Three of his aides from when he was Milwaukee County executive have been charged, as has an appointee and major donor. The secret John Doe investigation, led by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, continues. Walker has put $160,000 into a legal-defense fund but has said he does not believe he is a target of the probe.

Barrett tried to use the investigation as a campaign issue, raising it in daily news conference and campaign stops and blanketing the airwaves with ads about it. But the probe didn't give him enough votes to oust Walker.

Democrats had urged candidates with a better track record in statewide races - such as U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl or former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold - would get in the race, but they declined to do so.

Public-sector labor leaders tried to keep Barrett out of the race and spent about $4 million in an effort to help former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk beat him in the Democratic primary. After Barrett won, the unions turned their attention to helping him with ads and get-out-the-vote efforts.

Barrett had said he would have called a special legislative session to restore collective bargaining, but that would have proved difficult because of the large Republican majority in the state Assembly. With Walker remaining as governor, efforts to pass pro-labor legislation will be virtually impossible.

The campaign was by far the most expensive in the state's history. Walker raised more than $30 million since January 2011, with the majority of it coming from out of state. That was more than seven times as much as the $3.9 million Barrett raised since joining the race March 30. Walker was able to raise so much because of his national profile and a provision of state law that lifts the normal donation limits for certain expenses during recalls.

Two donors gave him $500,000, and more than a dozen others gave him $100,000 or more. Barrett had to abide by the normal limits.

Holding the election itself was expected to cost taxpayers up to $9 million. The May primary was estimated to cost the same amount, for a total of up to $18 million.

Tuesday's election marked the second round of recalls in Wisconsin in less than a year. Last summer, nine state senators - six Republicans and three Democrats - faced recall elections, and Democrats gained two seats in those contests. That put them just shy of running the Senate.