MILWAUKEE Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker will face a recall election on June 5 over a new law he championed that strips public sector unions of most power, becoming the first U.S. governor to face a no-confidence vote in nearly a decade.
The five-member Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, which manages elections, voted unanimously on Friday to formally certify more than 900,000 signatures calling for Walker's ouster, setting in motion the recall election.
Democrats and labor unions, outraged by the law they see as an attack on the rights of workers and their unions, gathered nearly double the number of signatures needed to force a recall vote.
A Democratic primary will be held on May 8 to choose Walker's opponent in the recall vote. The Democrat who could face Walker is Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in a rematch of the 2010 election narrowly won by Walker, although Barrett has not yet formally entered the race.
No elected U.S. state governor has faced a recall vote since California's Gray Davis was ousted in 2003 and succeeded by actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Walker set off a firestorm shortly after he was elected when he pushed through the Republican-led legislature a law stripping public sector unions of most of their powers.
The law forced local and state workers such as teachers to pay part of the cost of health insurance and pensions, and stripped union power to negotiate wage increases beyond the level of inflation. But what most infuriated unions was a provision that required them to be recertified by a vote of membership every year, which threatened their existence.
The law sparked weeks of pro-union protests at the capital in Madison, and Senate Democrats fled the state in a futile attempt to stop the measure from becoming law.
Walker said the measure was needed to close a budget gap and put Wisconsin on a firmer financial footing.
The stakes are high for both sides in the recall election. Organized labor sees Walker's agenda as trying to break unions and is concerned that if the law is allowed to stand it could encourage other states to do the same.
Indiana has approved a so-called "right to work" law allowing union members to opt out of paying dues, and Ohio tried but failed last year to force through a law curbing union power.
Wisconsin also is expected to be a closely contested state in the presidential election in November. President Barack Obama, a Democrat, last year openly supported the union opposition to Walker and leading national Republicans have sided with the governor.
"If Walker wins, it will be public ratification of what he has done over the past 18 months. If he loses, it will be evidence that Democrats and their allies can still mobilize public support for their positions," said Ken Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, speaking hours before the recall election was formally announced.
Despite the success of the recall petition drive to oust Walker, a poll this week suggested Wisconsin is closely divided, with Walker holding a slight edge over Barrett.
Barrett, who is standing for re-election as Milwaukee mayor against token opposition on April 3, has said he would announce whether he is running for governor before Tuesday. He can run for governor while remaining mayor.
Money is pouring into Wisconsin from across the nation to help both sides in the recall fight. Since the beginning of 2011, Walker has raised $12 million, some of it from big donor Super PACS. Unions are expected to generously fund whoever the Democrats choose to face Walker.
(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien; Writing by Greg McCune; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Vicki Allen)