Wisconsin Democratic debate focuses on attacking governor

MILWAUKEE Fri May 4, 2012 11:51pm EDT

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MILWAUKEE (Reuters) - Democratic candidates vying for a shot at ousting Governor Scott Walker from office in a June recall election aimed their attacks at the Republican incumbent rather than each other during a debate on Friday.

"This state has been at war for the last 16 months," said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the frontrunner in the primary to select a Democratic candidate to oppose Walker.

"I will end the civil war in the state of Wisconsin," said Barrett. "I will restore trust in the governor's office and heal the wounds that have deeply divided the state."

The winner of the Democratic Primary on Tuesday will face Walker in a special election on June 5.

The first-term governor enraged Democrats and public sector unions last year when he pushed a measure through the Republican-led state legislature reducing the power of public sector unions.

The measure forced state and local government workers like teachers to pay a portion of the cost of health insurance and pensions, capped wage increases and required unions to be recertified every year.

Walker's opponents collected nearly a million signatures from registered voters to force a recall vote.

All of the Democratic candidates vowed to restore collective bargaining powers for public sector unions if elected.

They also promised to focus their efforts on creating jobs in the state after a report last week said Wisconsin lost more jobs than any other state in the last 12 months.

"We are all united here in our effort to defeat Scott Walker in a month," said Kathleen Falk, the former Dane County executive who has been running second behind Barrett in polls.

"I'm the candidate to go toe to toe with him, because in my 14 years as county executive, Dane County led the state in job creation," Falk said.

According a poll earlier this week, Barrett leads Falk 38 to 21 percent among Democrats, with 19 percent undecided.

"What Falk needed was a game changer," said John McAdams, political science professor at Marquette University. "Even a poor performance by Barrett would not have sufficed. It needed to be a major blunder. She didn't get it."

Rather than debating among themselves, candidates answered questions from a panel of journalists and Wisconsin residents during the forum.

"The Democrat candidates for governor are resting their hopes of winning on baseless attacks on the governor's record and his successful reforms," Walker spokeswoman Ciara Matthews said after the debate.

The poll of likely voters earlier this week showed Walker and Barrett virtually tied with the governor at 48 percent and the Milwaukee mayor at 47 percent, well within the 3.8 percent margin of error.

(Editing by Greg McCune and Todd Eastham)

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