In Wisconsin recall’s final debate, Mayor Barrett and Governor Walker take aim at each other

Editor’s Note: The most consequential recall drive in recent Wisconsin history wraps up on Tuesday, June 5. Governor Scott Walker, a Republican, has a lead of around seven percent as his day of political reckoning nears with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat. Walker visited Oklahoma in April for a speech sponsored by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. His address drew hundreds of union activists and allies who protested his remarks.  Kirsten Adshead writes for Wisconsin, a project (like of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity. 

MADISON, WISCONSIN — Apparently,Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Gov. Scott Walker have decided the time for niceties is over.

The two men met for their second and final debate Thursday (May 31), at Marquette University, before they will face off, metaphorically, in Tuesday’s gubernatorial recall election.

The issues on the table weren’t anything new to those who have been following the campaigns — John Doe investigation, job creation, balancing the budget and collective bargaining.

But the candidates were far less cordial than they were during the first debate, held a week ago, also in Milwaukee.

The debate turned testy soon after moderator Mike Gousha asked Walker about the video clip leaked earlier this month showing Walker, in January 2011, telling Beloit billionaire Diane Hendricks he had a “divide and conquer” strategy for public unions.

Walker responded, “I’ve said it repeatedly for the last year and a half, I said I’m willing to take on the powerful special interests. You (Barrett) selectively take pieces of that conversation out. What I said was we have to take out collective bargaining. There’s no way you can balance the budget … without raising taxes, without massive layoffs we’ve seen in other states, without massive cuts in things like Medicaid … you cannot do all those things unless you make some long-term structural reforms.”

Said Barrett: “I don’t view the middle class of the state as a special interest. I think that’s really what the issue is here. Go back to the conversation you had with the woman. She owns a corporation. She’s a billionaire. In 2010, she pays no corporate income taxes, her company pays no corporate income tax, and she makes a $510,000 contribution to you, largest contribution ever, ever in the state history. Now, the reforms are working for her.”

Walker responded by noting that the 2010 tax year occurred before he was governor.

And he later accused Barrett of using the John Doe investigation as a distraction.

“He doesn’t have a plan on anything else,” he said. “He doesn’t want to talk about reforms.”

The debate’s format itself likely increased the potential for hostilities.

A far more casual affair than the previous discussion, the Marquette debate allowed both men to respond to and challenge each other as they sat, side by side.

But the increased animosity also seems to echo a heightened intensity around Wisconsin as people here prepare for a historic recall under the watchful eye of the rest of the nation.

Thirty-four percent of Wisconsinites have stopped talking to someone because of disagreements over Walker or the recall efforts, according to the Marquette Law School poll released Wednesday — up from 29 percent in April.

Prior to Thursday’s debate, Marquette political scientist John McAdams said Barrett needed to continue to attack Walker as the Milwaukee mayor did in the first debate last week.

“That has been (Barrett’s) strategy,” McAdams said. “I think that’s his best hope.”

Indeed, Barrett’s camp was on the offensive hours before the debate began, armed with Thursday’s revelation that Walker’s former spokeswoman, Fran McLaughlin, has become the 13th person granted immunity into the ongoing but secret John Doe investigation into the activities of former aides who worked for the governor when he was Milwaukee County executive.

Walker has not been implicated in the scandal.

But in a “pre-debate statement,” Barrett spokesman Phil Walzak said, Walker’s “excuses aren’t holding up to scrutiny, and his credibility is stretched to the limit. Walker could put the all the swirling questions to rest right now — but he still refuses to answer these questions. The people of Wisconsin deserve transparency and honesty — not stonewalling and evasion.”

McAdams was less sure of what Walker’s debate strategy would be, saying that the governor’s demeanor during the debate would be telling:

• If Walker doesn’t attack Barrett, that likely will indicate that Walker’s campaign is feeling confident and secure.

• If, however, Walker does attack, “that would suggest to me that the race really is narrowing.”

To be sure, Walker’s campaign has not been shy about going after Barrett — particularly, lately, over the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s report that Milwaukee police have been improperly classifying some violent crimes, artificially lowering the violent-crimes rate.

“The people of Wisconsin deserve to know what information the mayor is hiding and why he is refusing to release the complete police data to the media,” Walker spokeswoman Ciara Matthews said in a statement early Thursday. “Instead of stalling the release of these open records by manipulating the court system, Mayor Barrett needs to come clean and be truthful with the people of Wisconsin.”

The Marquette poll, conducted late last week, shows Walker with a 7-point lead among likely voters.

But just how close the race is has, itself, been a source of hot debate this week.

Democrats have said their internal polls, taken after last week’s debate, show a neck-and-neck race.

Both sides agree that, given the tiny number of undecided voters, the race will be determined by each campaign’s ability to turnout voters.

To that end, Friday looks to be a big day as both camps will have help rallying their respective troops.

Former President Bill Clinton was scheduled to stump with Barrett at a 10 a.m. rally in Milwaukee, while South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley was scheduled to campaign with Walker.

Clinton is the most significant national figure to come to Wisconsin during the 2012 campaign.

And his campaign stop, coupled with those from Democratic Governors Association chair Martin O’Malley, the governor of Maryland, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a congresswoman from Florida and the head of the Democratic National Committee, seems to indicate a shift by either the Barrett campaign or the national Democratic party.

National Democrats have not come to Wisconsin to stump for Barrett this year, as they did in 2010.

Walker, in contrast, has campaigned with several high-profile conservatives, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.