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Wisconsin Democrats Select Recall Challenger to Take On Gov. Scott Walker’s “Ideological Civil War”

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Wisconsin Democratic primary voters have picked Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett to face controversial Republican Gov. Scott Walker in a recall election. Protests erupted across Wisconsin last year after Walker announced plans to eliminate almost all collective bargaining rights for most public workers, as well as slash their pay and benefits. Walker and Barrett will now square off in a recall election on June 5. We go to Madison to speak with Matthew Rothschild, editor of The Progressive magazine. Rothschild notes Walker’s bid to remain in office has been aided by massive contributions from rich donors nationwide. “Walker is the darling of the vicious business class in America. He’s a hero to every boss who wants to put [a] boot on the throat of labor,” Rothschild says. “And these people … have just been opening their wallets.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to Wisconsin, where Democratic primary voters Tuesday picked Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett to face controversial Republican Governor Scott Walker in a recall election next month. After being declared the winner, Barrett said in a statement, quote, “Wisconsin cannot afford to continue to suffer through Walker’s ideological civil war.”

In 2010, Barrett lost the Wisconsin governor’s race to Walker by 5 percentage points. Since then, Wisconsin has been split by an ideological civil war driven by Walker’s attempts to crush union power in the state. Protests erupted across Wisconsin last year after Walker announced his plans to eliminate almost all collective bargaining rights for most public workers, as well as slash their pay and benefits. Thirty thousand teachers, students, and state and municipal workers took part at a rally at the Wisconsin Statehouse in Madison.

AMY GOODMAN: More recently, Walker has privately signed a series of controversial bills aimed at curbing women’s reproductive rights. He has also signed bills to repeal the state’s Equal Pay Enforcement Act, which gave women and other marginalized groups more power to fight wage discrimination. According to the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health, women in Wisconsin make 75 cents for every dollar men earn. Walker faces a recall election June 5th. His administration is also facing an investigation for campaign corruption.

To talk more about the election results in Wisconsin, we’re going to Madison to speak with Matt Rothschild. He is the editor and publisher of The Progressive magazine.

Matt, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about the significance of yesterday’s Democratic primary, and then we’ll move on from there to the recall election.

MATTHEW ROTHSCHILD: Well, it was a big night for Tom Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee, last night. He had an overwhelming victory over his challengers in the Democratic primary. He won 58 to 34 percent over his leading opponent. And so, what we have is this colossal rematch set up between Tom Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee, and Scott Walker.

And Scott Walker is a lot less popular than he was last time when he beat Barrett by 5 percentage points, but he still has a great deal of popularity, which is shocking to me. I mean, he still is polling at 49 percent or 50 percent approval rating after all these disgusting things that he’s done, which you’ve itemized some of them. He’s also, you know, waged war on the environment and the social safety net and public education and free speech. And if he continues in power, those assaults are likely to go on. So this has huge ramifications here in Wisconsin and also nationally.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Matthew, what do you think accounts for Governor Walker’s continuing lead in the polls, in these early polls?

MATTHEW ROTHSCHILD: Well, it’s been a riddle. I mean, right now they’re neck and neck, Walker and Barrett. But why Walker is still so high is really a tremendous puzzle. And part of it is, he’s been successful in pitting public sector workers against private sector workers in this terrible race to the bottom. So some private sector workers are jealous of the wages that some public sector workers have been getting, even though public sector workers have had a freeze on their wages for three or four years, at least working for the state government. And so, this idea, though, that we all should just, you know, beggar thy neighbor and fight for scraps is an idea that he seems to be selling. And he also talks about, you know, budget discipline and giving state government and county government and city governments the tools to have some flexibility, and what he means is the tools to really gouge out labor. And that’s what he’s been doing ever since he got into power.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s interesting that they’re even right now in the polls, given the amount of money that Governor Walker has raised. Can you talk about where the money is coming from and how much it is?

MATTHEW ROTHSCHILD: Well, it’s an astronomical amount of money, Amy. I mean, he’s raised $25 million over the last year, $13 million over the last couple months. He was raising it in just bushel loads—$500,000 from Bob Perry of the Swift Boaters, $250,000 from Foster Friess, the guy who was funneling money to Rick Santorum, $250,000 from Sheldon Adelson, the guy who was funneling money to Newt Gingrich. And, you know, the Koch brothers are pouring money into Americans for Prosperity and the Republican Governors Association, which are spending millions on these ads for Scott Walker.

Actually, one of the reasons he’s still popular is they inundated the airwaves from November to today, and they were unchallenged by any Democratic Party or progressive ads countering against Walker. So he had just kind of free sailing there. And now, during the primary, finally, there were some ads up criticizing Walker for all the things he’s done. And in the next four weeks—that’s all we got, is 27 days now—in the next four weeks, there’s going to just be a barrage of ads, both positive and negative, on both sides.

AMY GOODMAN: But the rules around recall elections are different in terms of how much the candidates can raise from outside the state?

MATTHEW ROTHSCHILD: Well, there is a real peculiarity in Wisconsin state law. So when the recall was called up to the time that the recall election process really began, there was a window of time here where Walker could raise unlimited amounts from individuals. Then, in the last few weeks, he could only raise $10,000 each from individuals, which is the standard limit here in Wisconsin. But before that, in the months before that, when it looked like there was a recall coming, he was able to raise unlimited amounts, so people were giving literally checks of $250,000, $500,000, $100,000. Look, Walker is the darling of the vicious business class in America. He’s a hero to every boss who wants to put his boot on the throat of labor. And these people, these vicious right-wingers, have just been opening their wallets.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Walker has used his battle against union in his fundraising campaign, what you talk about, the fundraising that he did out of state. In one of the letters, he writes that unions’ “naked power grab starts here in Wisconsin and then radiates across the country. Mark my words,” he says, “if they barge and bully and get their way here, your state’s next.”

MATTHEW ROTHSCHILD: Well, sure. I mean, this is what Walker has been doing. He’s been nationalizing the election in a way to raise money from his far-right, anti-labor friends. But also, it’s true. That’s what’s at stake here. What is true is, if Walker wins, it will be a terrible blow against organized labor. If Tom Barrett wins, it will be a huge shot in the arm for progressive forces around the country. So, the Koch brothers understand that. Organized labor in Wisconsin and, I think, nationally understands that. That’s why there’s so much focus on Wisconsin these days.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But how has he fared, in fact, on the economy? Wisconsin apparently last year was one of only five states to report job losses.

MATTHEW ROTHSCHILD: Well, and Wisconsin was the worst state of all those five, losing 24,000 jobs in the last year, dead last out of 50 states. So it’s just ironic and ridiculous, ludicrous, that Scott Walker is trying to make a campaign about jobs and low unemployment in Wisconsin, when he has the worst job record of anyone. He campaigned two years ago on creating 250,000 jobs, and he’s lost jobs since he’s been in power.

One of the reasons he’s lost power—lost jobs here is because he’s taking purchasing power away from consumers and workers here in Wisconsin. He was gouging workers’ wages in the public sector by 8, 10, 12 percent, because he was taking healthcare benefits and pension away from workers here on the state payroll, and so they had less money to spend, and so the economy has floundered terribly here in Wisconsin.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about the implications of this for the presidential race. According to the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health, women in Wisconsin make 75 cents for every dollar a man earns. Republican Governor Scott Walker has also pushed legislation aimed at curbing women’s reproductive rights. Republican—yet Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has repeatedly supported Walker. Speaking to Meet the Press last month, New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said that was reason enough to vote for Obama.

SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: What this election is going to be about is which candidate fights for American—America’s women, which candidate actually cares about women’s economic opportunity? This has been a very tough economy. But it’s Barack Obama whose first bill he ever signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which allows women to fight for equal pay for equal work. Women are still making only 78 cents on the dollar. Mitt Romney? His hero is the governor from Wisconsin, who just got rid of the equal pay laws there.

AMY GOODMAN: During a campaign speech in Wisconsin earlier this year, Mitt Romney called Governor Walker a hero.

MITT ROMNEY: It is nice to be in a hall of champions tonight. And I say that—you guys—this is the place. Chairman Priebus, thank you. Jim Sensenbrenner here. Paul Ryan, what a champion! Senator Ron Johnson. And of course your great governor, what a hero he is, Scott Walker. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Mitt Romney endorsing Scott Walker, though you don’t see them together, because it was said that Walker being with Romney would be toxic. And yet, Walker, it is conceivable, will win. Matt Rothschild, talk about the implications of this for national politics. Of course, he also might not win.

MATTHEW ROTHSCHILD: Well, I think they’re—yeah, I think they’re huge. I mean, if Walker is able to pull this off and is able to win, it will help Romney win Wisconsin, which is one of the swing states, and it will—you know, it will give a boost to the Republican Party and the forces on the right nationally. Now, if Walker loses, I think it’s going to help Democrats in Wisconsin. And also, I think it will end speculation that Paul Ryan might be the vice-presidential candidate, because Paul Ryan and Scott Walker are kind of joined at the hip here.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Can you also say something, Matt, about what Democratic senator from New York, Kirsten Gillibrand, said about Scott Walker’s position on women’s issues and on reproductive rights, in particular?

MATTHEW ROTHSCHILD: Absolutely. I mean, Scott Walker has been waging this war on women here statewide, just as the Republican Party has been doing so nationally. He is restricting the rights of women to get an abortion. They have to ask a doctor’s permission three times, and the doctor has to meet privately with the woman who wants to get an abortion, or he can be prosecuted. And then, amazingly, he’s been going after equal pay for women. I mean, he passed a law—signed a law that says women cannot sue for compensatory or punitive damages if they’ve been discriminated against in the workplace on pay. I mean, that’s—that’s amazing. And if he gets away with that, I mean, it really is trouble for women in Wisconsin and across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s very interesting to look at Wisconsin. You’ve got the head of the RNC from Wisconsin. You’ve got Governor Walker. You also have Paul Ryan, as you said. What is it about Wisconsin? You also have—you know, you’re the home of both McCarthy and the home of La Follette.

MATTHEW ROTHSCHILD: Yeah, it’s been a state that’s split traditionally, Amy. We do have Fighting Bob La Follette, the founder of The Progressive magazine, one of the leaders of the Progressive movement in the early parts of the 20th century. But also this is the state that I’m embarrassed to say brought the country Joe McCarthy. And there have always been this contention between the forces of progressivism and the forces of reaction. And actually, some of the Republicans right now are saying this is the battle before us. Paul Ryan, himself, said this is a battle to see whether progressivism survives in the 21st century. I sure hope it survives.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Given the importance, though, as you’ve pointed out, and others have, as well, repeatedly, of campaign finance in Governor Scott Walker’s continuing popularity, can you say something about how much Democratics—sorry, Democrats have been able to raise through campaign finance compared to their Republican counterparts?

MATTHEW ROTHSCHILD: Well, it’s a good question, and right now the Democrats are just being swamped. Tom Barrett, the Democratic nominee, has one-tenth of the amount of money on hand that Scott Walker has. And Scott Walker is going to raise more. Sure, there will be some money coming in to Tom Barrett now. But at the end of the day, he’s going to be outspent probably three to one or four to one, which sets up just a tremendous fight and a real question as to whether people power—and we had a million people signing petitions here to recall Scott Walker—whether people power can beat the power of money. And we’re going to have to see on June 5th whether people power can win the day.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, how are people organizing? I mean, the mass protests that took place in Wisconsin at the beginning of 2011, with 150,000 people on the Capitol grounds in this state, Wisconsin, which is the birthplace of AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, in 1932, also the birthplace of the John Birch Society, co-founded by the Koch brothers’ father, Fred Koch. It then inspired Occupy, and now Occupy is eight months old. How are people organizing, from Occupy to unions, in this recall election that they successfully pushed for?

MATTHEW ROTHSCHILD: Well, I think there’s tremendous grassroots support for recalling Scott Walker. After all, we had the biggest mass, sustained rallies for public sector workers in the history of the United States last February and March. And 30,000 people were circulating petitions in the dead of winter to recall Scott Walker, and a million people signed those signatures. That represents a tremendous base. It’s an organizer’s dream. And whether the organizers can get those million people out there, and maybe another 250,000 or 300,000 people, really twice the number of votes that Barrett got yesterday, then Barrett will be able to win. But that’s the challenge: getting out twice as many people as voted yesterday.

AMY GOODMAN: Why is Barrett having so much trouble raising money? I mean, of course, he just won yesterday, but given what an uprising, a surge of opposition there was at the beginning of last year?

MATTHEW ROTHSCHILD: Well, Barrett isn’t a representative, really, of the forces that were doing the uprising. That’s the odd thing about this choice, because he’s kind of a standard-issue, moderate Democrat. And even Rahm Emanuel came out and supported him. That’s not going to rally the troops here in Wisconsin. What he really needs to do is represent the forces that brought about this tremendous challenge to Scott Walker and actually brought the recall to bear. If he goes after the few independents that are left—and there’s only about 2 or 3 percent of those people, and I don’t know who they are—then I think he’s going to lose. What he really needs to do is get this base to the polls and have everyone who signed that petition show up at the polls and have one out of every two or three of those people drag a relative to the polls, because, otherwise, he’s going to get beat by all this big money, I’m afraid.

AMY GOODMAN: Matt Rothschild, we want to thank you for being with us, editor and publisher of The Progressive magazine, which is based in Madison, Wisconsin.

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