WASHINGTON -- Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (D) aggressively went after Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) in the first of two gubernatorial debates, taking him to task for an ongoing corruption probe, repeal of an equal pay enforcement law and out-of-state fundraising. Walker largely stuck to his talking points, spending more time going after unions than directly attacking Barrett, and telling viewers that the way to heal the polarized state was to reelect him on June 5 and move beyond the recalls.
Barrett made clear that he views the election as a referendum on Walker.
"This is not a rematch or a do-over," said Barrett, referring to his unsuccessful race against Walker in the 2010 gubernatorial election. "We cannot do-over the decision of Scott Walker to start a political civil war, which resulted in this state losing more jobs than any other state in the entire country in 2011. A decision that tore apart the state and made it impossible in some instances for neighbors to talk to neighbors, for relatives to talk to relatives, for workers to talk to co-workers, because it was too bitter a fight."
Walker said he would like to see a change to the state's recall laws, which require opponents to collect a certain number of signatures to trigger a special election against an elected public official. He repeatedly said the recall process was rehashing old issues and insisted it was time for voters to move forward.
"I think voters need to understand -- we get past June 5, we get back to focusing on jobs and education reform and other issues where in the past, we've worked together, across party lines, with a broad consensus around the state. We can move this state forward," said Walker. "Going back and rehashing the same debate we had last year, as my opponent wants to do, is not the way to move forward."
Ironically, as Barrett pointed out, Walker became Milwaukee County executive in a special election in 2002, after the previous officeholder resigned facing the possibility of a recall. Barrett also said he believed the governor had signed recall petitions targeting Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) and former Democratic senator Russ Feingold.
In addition to the divisive aspect of Walker's term, Barrett focused his attacks on the "John Doe" criminal investigation surrounding some of Walker's former top associates during his time as county executive and his rising status in the Republican Party.
At one point in the debate, the two candidates were allowed to question each other. Walker passed up his opportunity to question Barrett. The Milwaukee mayor asked Walker why he refused to release his out-of-state schedule for fundraising and political trips, and whether he would do so in the future. Walker largely dodged the question.
"For the people in Green Bay who, six times in the last 11 days, have seen me in their community ... to the people I just saw the other day in Oshkosh and Chippewa Falls and Eau Claire -- I think they know where I am at. I am focused on the people of Wisconsin," Walker replied.
Two-thirds of the $13.2 million Walker raised in the last fundraising period came from contributors outside of Wisconsin.
Barrett charged that Walker was trying to turn Wisconsin into a "prototype for the tea party" and was more concerned about his growing celebrity with national Republicans than the best interests of the state.
"I have no desire to be the rock star for the far right in this nation. I have no desire to be the rock star of the far left of this nation. I do have a desire to be rock solid and do everything I can to create jobs in the state of Wisconsin. Because that is what we need right now. We need a governor who will stand up to the special interests. And I will do that," said Barrett in his concluding statement.
Early in the debate, discussion turned to Walker's controversial bill last year that stripped collective bargaining from most public workers. After Democrats realized the GOP-controlled legislature was going to push it through, the 14 Democratic state senators left the state to deny their Republican colleagues the needed quorum. The stand-off led to large pro-labor protests and eventually resulted in the recall elections of public officials who backed the bill.
Walker said he had no regrets about the final outcome, but he did regret that he didn't better explain to the state what was happening.
"My problem was, I fixed it, and then talked about it," Walker said. "Most politicians spend all their time talking about it but never fix it. In the future, we're going to talk about it and fix it."
Barrett accused Walker of deliberately using the budget situation to "try and divide and conquer this state." It was a reference to recently released documentary film footage showing Walker shortly after his election describing a "divide and conquer" strategy against unions.
The debate briefly touched on social issues, with Barrett saying he supports marriage equality and Walker saying he believes marriage is defined as being between one man and one woman.
Predictably, after the debate, both campaigns put out statements declaring their candidate the winner. Barrett's statement read, "Barrett Puts Wisconsin First in Debate Win" and Walker's read, "GOVERNOR WALKER WINS DEBATE."