An Interview with Tom Barrett
On Tuesday, Tom Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee and one of the two leading Democratic candidates for governor against Scott Walker, spoke with The Progressive’s political editor, Ruth Conniff, about the upcoming Democratic primary in Wisconsin, his recent decision to get into the race against Walker, and how he balances that with his swearing-in as mayor, on the morning of this interview.
Q: You were sworn in as mayor today and you are also running for governor. So how come you waited to get in the race? What’s the deal with that?
BARRETT: Well, as you may or may not know, what I had said was that I would make an announcement of my intentions once the Government Accountability Board had certified an election. And the reasons for that were pretty obvious.
I did not know whether the Republicans would try to delay this for months or even years. And I thought, well, I’m going to see when this is a reality. And when it’s a reality I’ll make my announcement.
So at approximately 9:30 am on March 30, the Government Accountability Board made its announcement that the election was certified. And at 4:30 on the same day I announced to my supporters that I would be a candidate for governor.
So that’s one level. But there were other levels here as well. Another level is that there is no question that the Republicans have their guns set for me. They want to keep me out of this race. That’s why they started running commercials against me before I was even a candidate.
Had I been a candidate for governor in January, you could have added three months of additional commercials against me.
I want to set the terms of engagement in this; I don’t want them to set the terms of engagement. So there was some strategy involved as well.
Q: So that’s the strategy—getting in late—is it possible it’s too late, though? The other candidates have been out there for a while. What do you make of your match-up with Falk and the criticisms of you by the unions?
BARRETT: There’s was a poll yesterday by PPP (Public Policy Polling) for Daily Kos, it had me leading the Democratic primary by 14 points. More significantly, it had me leading among Democrats in the Democratic primary by 19 points.
That underscores one of my big contentions. As Scott Fitzgerald said, to the extent that Republicans are going to be messing around in the Democratic primary, they are going to be messing around to keep me out of the general election.
You take that, you couple that with the tremendous outpouring of support that I have gotten in seventeen, eighteen days from both present and former public elected officials in the state—that, I think, sends a powerful message.
There are probably over 60 of them now--people who either were waiting for me or were waiting for a candidate that they thought would be in the best position to defeat Scott Walker. So I would think that someone would say, “Wow, how did Tom Barrett amass over 60 endorsements in a ten-day period?”
I think it underscores my viability. I think it underscores my ability to work with people. And it underscores that there are people throughout this entire state—and it really, geographically is very, very widespread, and even, ideologically, within the Democratic Party, it goes from conservative Democrats to very liberal Democrats, from very pro-union Democrats to Democrats who represent poor areas, for example. So I think rather than people saying, “Wow, where did Barrett come from on this?” I think more people are saying, “Wow, talk about a guy who comes out of the chute fast. Here’s a guy who comes out of the chute fast!”
Q: That same poll showed Walker at 50 percent, and you at 45 percent for a general election. So why won’t this race be a repeat of 2010, when that was pretty much the outcome?
BARRETT: Several reasons. One, keep in mind that Scott Walker has already spent over $10 million. And when that poll was taken I probably had spent maybe $100,000. So among the major candidates, the amount that I’ve spent is literally chump change, when you look at how much is being spent. And I’m beating the Democratic field by a double-digit lead, and within the margin of error for a Republican who has spent over $10 million. That shows you, OK, this thing may not be over. But there are other factors as well.
Keep in mind that there are negative commercials that have been running against me for, again, five, six weeks now. There essentially have been no commercials going after Scott Walker. The money that has been spent on the Democratic side really hasn’t been spent attacking his record. And I have a criticism of that. Why aren’t we looking at his record? Whether it’s his attack on collective bargaining, whether it’s the fact that the state of Wisconsin under his leadership lost more jobs than any other state in this entire country in 2011, or the war against women, the way he handled foreclosure dollars, the voting legislation, you name it. I think that’s been a mistake that Democrats have made, and groups that are supporting Democrats, through this process up to this point.
Honestly, I hope that changes very, very soon if people are serious about having a new governor.
Q: Can we get into the substance of union criticism of you? There has been some pretty harsh criticism of you from the unions. Particularly, Rich Abelson, head of AFSCME in Milwaukee, who has been friends with you, said that you were too slow to condemn Act 10 [the law eliminating public employees’ collective bargaining rights], and that you used the end of collective bargaining to drive a hard bargain with public employees in Milwaukee.
BARRETT: I’d be happy to address that. I think it’s important to keep in mind that I’m the only candidate in this race who has had to put together a budget in the post-Act 10 world. And that’s an important point. And bear in mind that in the budget that corresponded with Act 10, the city of Milwaukee lost nearly $15 million in state aid. And that’s the largest cut that this city has ever received from state government. And there’s a levy limit. So those are the cards that are dealt to me. All right? 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, AA I going to lay people off, or am I going to have them pay towards their health insurance?
And there were some, and I would think Rich would probably acknowledge this, that given the choice between paying more towards health insurance or laying people off, he would probably have preferred to lay people off.
Q: And you feel that was the wrong choice?
BARRETT: From my standpoint, I feel the progressive move was to make sure that I was not laying people off in this economy. Again, this is the economy where Scott Walker lost more jobs than any other state in the entire country. I was not excited about laying people off into that environment.
Q: What about the slowness to criticize Act 10?
BARRETT: If you take a look at it, you’ll see, my criticism probably began within 36 to 48 hours.
Q: So did you in fact see that as a major assault--the end of public employees’ collective bargaining rights?
BARRETT: What I said consistently was that I did not support the end of collective bargaining. That I thought people had a right to organize, and to bargain.
Q: But then once it was ended, did you feel that was a tool that was reasonable for you to use, sitting on the management side?
BARRETT: I have the obligation of dealing with the real world. And literally my choice was: Was I going to lay people off? Or was I going to save public health services, neighborhood libraries, and make sure that we had public safety employees?
As I said to Rich and to others, we cannot print money at the local level.
Q: What about the takeover of the Milwaukee public schools? That was another big issue for unions.
BARRETT: To me, in many ways, that’s a more legitimate criticism in that there’s a philosophical disagreement there. What I was concerned about, and remain concerned about, in terms of education in Milwaukee, is both the educational attainment and system conditions in the school district. This goes back three years. I looked at the fiscal condition of that school district three years ago and compared it to a car going toward a cliff at 90 miles an hour. And I thought, What are we going to do here? We are going to have to deal with these issues. And so I felt, as did governor Doyle, as did others, that having a change in governance would be a way to stabilize that, and hopefully provide a leadership course. We did not prevail. But clearly, I would say, that was where things went south with WEAC, primarily.
Q: Aside from the labor issues, school privatization has been such a huge feature of the Walker Administration. Milwaukee has been ground zero for that for decades now, with voucher schools, charter schools, the defunding of public schools—do you see that as a big issue in this campaign?
BARRETT: I see it as a big issue. I’ll tell you, as mayor of the city it’s been a big issue, and I’ve worked on it for the last five years. And where I have placed my energies, and you can ask anybody who has been involved in this at the state level or the local level, where Tom Barrett’s been involved, it has been to deal with the funding of those schools, because they were funded in a way that penalized Milwaukee taxpayers, and created economic incentives to create more choice schools, and my argument was always you had to eliminate the funding flaw that penalized Milwaukee taxpayers and rewarded school districts around the state, because it was intended to have every other school district make money as more seats were created in the Milwaukee public schools.
We were successful over two or three biennium, in getting language that dealt with poverty issues, that dealt with the funding flaw. And all of that was eliminated in one fell swoop in Governor Walker’s budget. So I certainly would be intent on re-establishing those. If that happens, that gives you a clearer picture of the cost of this program. And I think legislators are less inclined to support the program or expand the program if it’s not a money-maker for them.
Q: Do you see it as a threat that the school privatization lobby is as big as Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce? Do you see defending public education as a primary cause?
BARRETT: I absolutely do. I can tell you that my number-one funding priority for the state budget is to replenish the funding cuts that Scott Walker had in his budget.
Q: I want to ask you also about the pledge that Kathleen Falk made to restore collective bargaining rights, to veto any state budget that didn’t include that. You’re taking a different side. How do you see it as possible to restore those rights, if not in the budget, and what do you make of the promise that she made?
BARRETT: My approach would be a multifaceted approach to restore collective bargaining. I support the restoration of collective bargaining. I always have. And we will look for the right vehicle to get it accomplished. But let’s talk about the state budget, because I think this deserves some attention.
I’ve asked this question at a number of forums. Obviously, they are forums that are attended primarily by Democrats. I ask how many people support the current Scott Walker budget. Of course, in Green Bay I think there was one hand that went up. In Madison I don’t think there was a single hand that went up. And then I ask how many people are opposed to the current Scott Walker budget? And every single hand goes up.
So let’s take that as a starting point. That under the current Scott Walker budget, the Republicans have gotten every single thing that they want.
So now we get to next year. Let’s say that collective bargaining is not included in that budget. If I or any other governor want to say to the Republicans, all right, you have not included collective bargaining in this budget. I am going to veto this budget, which means I am not going to get what I want, and you are going to get everything that you want. What do you think their response is going to be?
Q: They are going to go for everything they want.
BARRETT: Yeah. So if you want a vehicle to have Scott Walker’s current budget become the permanent budget for the state of Wisconsin, this is how you would go about doing it. And, they will blame the Democratic governor for vetoing out increases in educational funding, or increases in health care funding, and they’ll be able to have it both ways. There won’t be increases in educational funding, there won’t be increases in health care funding, and they can blame the Democratic governor for that.
Q: So how will you get something done if there’s no Democratic majority in the Assembly, and you want to restore public employees’ collective bargaining rights and also do something on all these drastic budget cuts, what is the mechanism for doing that as governor then?
BARRETT: Let me go back a second, because this gets into the seriousness of this election and the damage that Scott Walker has done to this state. And it gets back to the 2010 election. And keep in mind that WEAC, they endorsed me, but when it came to more support than that, it was not there. OK? And so they now have obviously run into the most anti-education governor in the history of the state. And the damage that was done is not damage that is going to be repaired by me or any other Democrat overnight.
Again, I’ve been very clear that I’m going to support the restoration of collective bargaining rights and do everything I can to get it done. I’ve talked about, for example, a special session. And talked about doing it in a separate bill. And talked about doing it in the budget. So I am not going to paint myself in a corner with one strategy or another strategy. But I think what people are failing to recognize is that if I or another Democrat is successful in changing the leadership in Madison in the governor’s office, that in itself is a monumental change.
And, along with that, I would argue, if I or another Democrat wins this election, the Senate will go back Democratic, so we would be able to get a special session bill through the Senate. The Assembly, obviously, is Republican. But there were Republicans in the Assembly who voted against this. And I am not convinced that Republican Assembly representatives, who are watching what goes on in the Senate recall and the governor’s recall, would not think twice or rethink what their position is on restoration of collective bargaining. And if they don’t, it gives us an issue for the fall election.
Q: So what are the things you would try to do immediately?
BARRETT: Restoration of collective bargaining rights would be at the top of the list. I also would reverse the actions the governor has taken in taking the money for foreclosure, and put that back with homeowners and communities that have been adversely affected by the foreclosure crisis. Here in Milwaukee we’ve got 4,300 abandoned homes. And I felt that that lawsuit dealt with people who were victims of a bait and switch. And then to have the governor and the attorney general take the $25 million made them second victims of a bait and switch, with the state purporting to help them but taking the money to fill the budget hole that didn’t even exist the day before Scott Walker was governor.
Q: I also want to ask you about the grassroots energy for the recall and how much your campaign can tap into that: the 30,000 volunteers who gathered the million signatures, and whether or not, if this is going to become a TV ad war, and it’s going to be outside groups spending money, that kind of squanders that grassroots energy?
BARRETT: I think it’s important to look at what happens up to this point. And as I’m sure you’re aware, Russ Feingold has been critical of what’s happening in the race already in terms of the outside ads that are in play. None of those outside ads are ads that are in favor of Tom Barrett. And there’s been over $2 million that has been spent on those ads just in the Democratic primary alone.
Q: Will that continue?
BARRETT: I don’t know.
Q: Or do you feel that it’s unilateral disarmament to allow the other side to spend millions and millions of dollars and not have that come in on your side?
BARRETT: Yeah, but we’re talking about the Democratic primary. It would be different if that money were going against Scott Walker. That money’s not being spent against Scott Walker.
Q: What about in the general election? The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign thinks there’s going to be $60 to $80 million spent. And even though Democrats haven’t spent a lot of money yet, with a lot of outside groups—the anti-Walker side is going to reach historic proportions as well. How much will your campaign rely on that and how much will you be able to do a genuinely grassroots campaign?
BARRETT: Well, I can tell you when people have asked me about independent expenditures, my response has been if there’s independent expenditures they’re really independent because I don’t know anything about them.
So it’s not as if we’ve set up an operation here to start establishing independent expenditures.
And what we’re doing—and this goes back to your first question about the entry into the race and why I waited, March 30 roughly 6:00 is when the GAB then allowed people to circulate nomination papers. And ten days later we had collected probably 7,500 nomination signatures, which is far more than any other candidate in this race. So I think it shows you that I had the ability to hit the ground running. And clearly I did that.
If you take a look for example at the Facebook operations for me and either of the Kathleens or Doug LaFollette for that matter, take a look both at how many people are following it or talking about it, I have by far the highest number. And it’s even what’s been the most popular week--usually it’s the week you get into the race. So if you look at either Kathleen Vinehout’s or Kathleen Falks’s—their most popular week was the week they got into the race. For me, the most popular week is the week starting April 8. So I think what that demonstrates is that we’re building. Because it wasn’t when I made the first splash that we got the most Facebook followers. It was actually subsequent to that.
And so what I’ve been able to do is connect with people throughout the state. And I understand that the social media is a big part of this now. And I understand that that’s very important. And I think that was a lot of the success of the recall movement, was people communicating through social networking.
Q: So is that the main way this is going to be different from 2010? How are you going to run a different campaign from the one in 2010?
BARRETT: I think, first of all, every campaign is different. And Russ Feingold and I along with state legislators throughout the country ran into the Tea Party buzz saw. And it was the worst Democratic year in Wisconsin since the 1950s. It was a bad Democratic year. The base was dispirited. And now, what you have is a situation where the base is not dispirited. And both sides are fired up.
So right there, that’s one thing that’s different. Add to that what has happened with Governor Walker’s leadership and his decision to “drop the bomb,” and to start what has now been a 16-month political civil war in Wisconsin, people have a far different view of him than they did in November of 2010. So it’s a much different environment.
Q: So what’s going to be the key to turning things around, so it’s not 50 Walker, 45 Barrett, but the other way around if you win the primary?
BARRETT: If you look at the 2010 election compared to 2008, there probably were 837,000 or 800,000 more people who voted in 2008 than in 2010.A lot of our base sat out. So I think that’s certainly going to be part of it. But again, I’m not naïve: Their base is more ramped up. Our base is more ramped up. So a lot of this is going to be turnout.
Q: What do your next few weeks look like in terms of your schedule? Are you traveling all over the state?
BARRETT: I will continue to travel around the state, and we are developing more contacts and more position papers and everything that goes into a campaign. And that will continue at a very high speed over the next three weeks.
Q: And you don’t think the primary is going to be harmful? Do you see it as a plus or a minus, this Democratic primary?
BARRETT: I think you could see it, if you look at my campaign, I’m running against Scott Walker. And shame on us if we spend any energy going after each other.
Q: I know you denounced the Youtube ad that compared you to Walker.
BARRETT: Well, not only did I denounce it, everybody who was objective did. And just to put that in perspective, what had happened there: I had literally made a decision that I would go into the lion’s mouth, if you will, and call them out on the hypocrisy of what was going on. And so I chose deliberately not to walk into a room of people who were sympathetic to me, but a room of people who were hostile to me. And say, look, the union leaders have agreed that they would pay for their health care and pension. They have agreed to that. This is not about payments for health care and pension benefits. This is part of the ideological war to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public employees. And in that room there were probably, there were hundreds of people. And if there were three people in that room who agreed with me, they were very quiet.
But then to have AFSCME turn around and use that in the exact opposite way, first of all, undercuts its credibility, and I think does a disservice to its members and people who care about these issue. And anybody who listened to the audio of that and what they put together would agree with what I just said.
Q: It does seem like ultimately even AFSCME said it was wrong. But what about just getting the energized support of the labor base that’s supporting Falk right now? And what promises can you make to them to really carry the ball for labor?
BARRETT: If you look at the Daily Kos poll that came out yesterday, you will see that there are more union members that are supporting me than are supporting her. So I would agree with you that the union leadership is very much in her camp. But I am trying to garner votes both from union members, from rank and file, people who are not members of the unions, from farmers, from people on fixed incomes, from students. So, again, if you look at what we have accomplished in seventeen days, you are going to hear fewer and fewer people saying, “Barrett got into this late,” because how can they say I got into this late if I’m leading in the polls?
And basically every indicator from the number of public officials to Facebook to the nomination papers—every indicator of a grassroots candidate—is tilting in my favor.
Q: How about in Milwaukee? Are people mad that you are mayor, but now you are going to be campaigning? What’s the plan for taking care of your post in Milwaukee?
BARRETT: Well, this is where I was honest with the people here. I made the decision that I was going to tell the people before the election what my plans were. And a lot of that has to do with what happened in 2010. One of my major criticisms of Scott Walker was that he never once in the entire campaign said that he was going to eliminate collective bargaining rights, which was a pretty big thing to forget. And that undercuts his credibility. If I had been elected mayor and then three days later had said, Oh, I forgot to mention I’m going to run for governor, I think that would have undercut my credibility. So I wanted people to know as they went into the polls exactly what I was considering doing.
Q: And you truly hadn’t made up your mind soon enough to have another candidate run for mayor instead?
BARRETT: No. And, again, let’s go back in time here. I had said the day after the 2010 election that I would be a candidate for re-election as mayor. And I just focused on that. As the recall movement went through the summer of 2010, at the conclusion of that there was a question of whether there would be a recall, and I think everybody assumed there would be, a lot of the speculation was that that recall would start January 3, which would have been the year anniversary of when Governor Walker was sworn in. Instead you may remember what happened was approximately a year after the election date you had the grassroots saying oh, we don’t want to wait that long. So they started the signatures roughly November 15. My nomination signatures began December 1, ended January 3. The recall’s ended January 17, so mine was literally tucked in there. And who knew what was going to happen after that? As time went on it became clear there were going to be enough signatures. But you didn’t know about legal challenges, how many signatures would be knocked off. And I love being the mayor of Milwaukee, so I wasn’t going to just say, well, I’m going to completely forgo this current job that I love because of this other thing.
So even earlier than I set the deadline I said to people that I was seriously considering running for governor again, to give full disclosure to the people who hired me—my bosses, the voters of Milwaukee, as to what I was thinking.
Q: Do you think it’s unfair that people say you didn’t have the fire in the belly to run last time and that’s why Walker won?
BARRETT: I think it’s totally unfair.
Q: Do you have it now?
BARRETT: Well, first of all, if you look at the vote totals, look at my totals and compare them to Sen. Feingold’s, they’re virtually identical. So clearly that wasn’t the case. There was a dispirited base. And what I’ve had thus far is I’ve had people say, “Boy, Barrett’s got a lot more fire in his belly this time.” And my response is that, no, there was just nobody in the seats last time. The rooms were empty. That’s the difference.
The base is more fired up.
Q: How important is this recall race in Wisconsin? Do you see this as a crucial moment politically for us and nationally?
BARRETT: Oh, it’s huge. I think Governor Walker is portraying it, as well, that way, and wants to make it part of the national movement. But it’s a huge election.
Q: Joe Biden said, well, you know they gathered the signatures so that shows they made it. I thought that was really depressing. How do you characterize what’s at stake?
BARRETT: Well, I think obviously for labor there’s a lot at stake. But it’s not just labor. I think people are concerned about education financing cuts. We haven’t talked about the war on women, which he clearly has embarked on: a war against women. My issues here, locally, for housing and foreclosures. All of these issues are huge issues.
Q: Do you want to respond to the ad Walker has on the air talking about your record in Milwaukee and job losses and tax increases? What’s your response?
BARRETT: My response is, Governor Walker, and this is something he did say because we went toe to toe time and time again—he did repeatedly say that he would create 250,000 private sector jobs. And by initiating an ideological civil war in February 2011, he completely took his eye off that goal.
And in 2011 under his leadership the state of Wisconsin lost more jobs than any other state in this entire country. And that’s why he’s trying to use this statistic, or that statistic, or some other statistic, to hide that.
He was the one who set the benchmark—jobs created. And using his own benchmark, he had the worst performance of any governor in this country in 2011.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Wisconsinites Start Turning Back School Privatization."
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter
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