The Democrats’ Recall Forum @ UW-Whitewater

On Wednesday night, 4.25.12, Wisconsin’s Democratic candidates for governor and lieutenant governor (and a few other Democratic candidates) attended a forum at UW-Whitewater, in Whitewater, Wisconsin.

I’m a resident of Whitewater, Wisconsin (population 14,622), where I also publish a city blog, FREE WHITEWATER, and a blog of news squibs, Daily Wisconsin. I would have attended even if the forum had been farther away, but the trip required only a bicycle.

Below are observations on the night, focusing on the gubernatorial candidates. I’ll begin, though, with a news account from WKOW that nicely summarizes the event. Thereafter, observations on the evening.

The Audience.

The large, modern auditorium was packed for the event. Although on a college campus, most of the attendees were middle-aged, with a fair number of senior citizens. Only a minority of those attending were of conventional college age.

In the back of the room, one saw a row of television cameras (six by my count), with print reporters and still photographers in other parts of the auditorium.

Nearly all were dressed casually, as is common for Wisconsin, with a few older attendees in coats, and an even smaller number of younger men in coat & tie.

The event was well-organized, with each candidate or speaker receiving an introduction from a college student. The program was set for 7 PM, lights were dimmed at 7:05, and the night began.

The Gubernatorial Candidates and the Lt. Gubernatorial Candidate.

Wisconsin has four Democratic recall candidates: Tom Barrett (mayor of Milwaukee), Kathleen Falk (former county executive of Wisconsin’s second largest county), Doug La Follette (current Wisconsin Sec. of State), and Kathleeen Vinehout (a state senator from Alma, a small town in northwest Wisconsin).


Barrett spoke first, followed by a few candidates for down-ballot races, and then the other gubernatorial candidates. The schedule was set this way to accommodate his schedule, but it also reflects the current state of the race – Barrett leads other Dems by double digits in polls. When he enterred, a few minutes before he spoke, a steady stream of well-wishers greeted him and shook his hand (more, I’d gues, than any other candidate).

The audience greeted Barrett, in coat, blue shirt, and blue-gray tie, warmly. Not a rousing ovation, but the steady and strong applause leading candidates typically receive.

Barrett is a sold speaker, if not a dramatic one. All the candidates emphasized the same themes, but Barrett by speaking first introduced them to the attendees: that Walker’s campaign promses were different from his actual governance, that this actual governance overturned years of settled labor law, that Walker was unduly divisive (creating a ‘civil war in Wisconsin’), and that while job creation has been mediocre social issues have receive too much attention.

Barrett made no mention of an ongoing corruption probe into the conduct of Milwaukee County officials during Scott Walker’s tenure as Milwaukee County Executive.

Some have wondered if Barrett’s feisty enough. I can answer that he’s feisty – how much, and whether enough, Wisconsin will see if he faces Walker between May 8th and June 5th.

But here’s what Barrett’s offering: that he’ll end the ‘civil war’ in Wisconsin. That he’s reasonable enough, calm enough, and agreeable enough to restore a less contentious state politics. For some, that’s a step back. But it begs this qesution: has Scott Walker been worth the candle? If one could do all this again, would one still encourge it be done as Walker has done it? Will Wisconsin voters ratify these last eighteen months?

It depends on how many eggs one can break and still serve an omlette people will eat.

Walker’s doing well enough in polls, and trading as of the morning of 4.30 on Intrade favors a Walker win in June.

Mahlon Mitchell.

The Democrats have one candidate for lieutenant governor, to face incumbent Rebecca Kleefisch. Mitchell’s a lieutenant with the Madison Fire Department, and after listening to him for only a few minutes three things become clear: (1) he’s a fine and engaging speaker, (2) although he’s not run for office before, he’s obvioulsy been thinking about Wiscosnin politics for years, and (3) if the Democrats win in June he’s certain to be a major force in Wiscosnin Democratic poltics. (He’s in his mid-thirties, so it could be a long career.)

Mitchell’s three main goals are job creation, restoring education spending, and a focus on Wisconsin’s poverty.

Of all the candidates who spoke, no one received stronger applause than Mitchell. He ended his adress with “God Bless Wisconsin,” to an enthusiastic resopnse.

The Walker campaign, though, would gain nothing in a head-to-head forum between Kleefisch and Mitchell. Both second-chair candidates will tour the state, but if there’s to be any forum or debate, it won’t involve Kleefisch and Mitchell.

Doug La Follette.

Wisconsin’s current Sec. of State, Doug La Follette has been in that job for thirty-five years, winning the low-demand office in both blue and red years. He’s an older gentleman, and former chemistry and ecology professor.

Smart, ones gusses, but slightly dotty, too: at one point he began to veer into a history about how the Kochs have exterted influence in Amercan since Goldwater’s defeat. Whatever many problems the Koch Briothers many present, there’s no one familiar with their history who thinks they were remotedly as they are now right after Goldwater’s deafat. (As libertarians know, theirs has been a gradual, now complete, transformation into former libertarians and current Republicans, however dishonestly they may now describe themselves.)

La Follette has the manner of a smart, slightly batty uncle: sincere and well-meaning, but one suspets he just might think that extraterrestrial technology is behind America’s aerospace achievements, for example, or that the Bermuda Triangle is a gateway to another dimension.

It’s hard to tell if La Follette thinks he might min, although he talks about his track record of success in GOP years. One does come away believing that La Follette truly believes he’s the best candidate to face Walker.

There was an inytermission before La Follette spoke, and during it, he walked the aisles, asking if anyone wanted a Doug LaFollete button. That’s Wiscosnin politcs: a candidate for governor, an older man in a gray suit, handing out his own buttons.

We still have good things others haven’t had for generations.

Kathleen Falk.

First of the Democrats to declare, Dane County’s former county executive now runs behind Barrett, and it must be frustrating. She describes hers as a ‘big tent’ campaign, but what she’s describing as a big tent is really the big, well-furnished house of many left-of-center organizations and unions in the state (Barrett has the support of most left-of-center incumbent politicians in the state).

It wasn’t supposed to be this way – first in, organizationally-backed, she was supposed to sail to the nomination, with Barrett to afraid to enter the race.

It hasn’t been as she expected, and her willingness to take Barrett to task by name (the only Dem to do so), was met with silence. She received applause after she was introduced, and when she finished, but when she criticized Barrett by name (“Unlike Tom, I was…”) — only silence. No aplause, no ceheers, not even any words from the audience — nothing.

If she were a more intuitive candidate, she would have responded to the silence, and put her criticism in context for her audience. She didn’t, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps she interpreted the silence as tacit agreement (athough it wasn’t), or perahps she’s too scripted to gauge her audience moment-by-moment. Either way, it’s hard to see why Big Labor felt so sure of her as their path to success.

I’ve thought that as long as Falk doesn’t finish Barrett, her criticism only make him stronger in a geberal election, by reminding voters that he’s not Big Labor’s first choice. I still think that’s true.

Kathleen Vinehout.

A state senator from a small, northwestern Wiscosnin town, Kathleen Vinehout is a former academic (it’s Dr. Vinehout) with an organic dairy farm. She was one of the Left’s Fab 14, those Dem senators who went to Illinois in 2011 to prevent a quorum for restrictions on collective bargaining.

Vinehout’s no libertarian, but I’ll admit that it’s hard not to admire a strong, fesity woamn with clear point of view (there’s nothing evidently fesity in Falk’s more reserved, measured manner).

Vinehout’s behind in the polls for the May 8th primary, but her staff was easily the best of the evening: they had Vinehout brochures on the arms of chairs in the auditorium, and were soliciting names for campiagn email, etc. as attendees left the hall. (Vinehout was the only one of the candidtes to distribute flyers like this.)

Her presentation centered on changes to medicaid paymemnts in Wiscosnin, and the number of residents who were to be kicked off the public roster.

But her delivery — impassioned, with a raspy voice but confident delivery, seemed to catch people’s notice.

I’d guess this will end on May 8th like this: Barrett, Falk, La Follette (on name recognition), and Vinehout. That’s where the polls are now; they’ll not shift much, I think.

That’s not a bad outcome for the Democrats (there’s a part of me that thinks if Vinehout had enough general election money, she could do as well as Milwaukee’s Barrett). That primary result would, however, avoid the inaspicious selection of Falk or La Follette, who may be sincere, but seem incapable of matching a governor unlikek any other in the history of the state.

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