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Controversies on table at Wisconsin recall debate

June 01, 2012|By Bob Secter
(AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps )

MILWAUKEE — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and rival Tom Barrett leveled sharp attacks on each other's competence, integrity and motives during their final debate before Tuesday's recall election, which could offer a preview of the November election in this probable swing state.

Barrett, the Democratic mayor of Milwaukee, accused Republican Walker of stripping public workers of collective bargaining rights to do the bidding of wealthy business interests, divide the state and transform it into “an experimental dish for the far right.”

Walker painted Barrett as a tool of powerful unions whose demands had financially crippled the state. “The mayor wants to go back to a system where a handful of special interests dictated everything,” he charged.

Barrett vowed to restore collective bargaining for public employees, framing it as a matter of respect, not fealty. He warned that private sector unions would be next to see their bargaining rights diminished if Walker remained in office.

Walker denied that, saying he didn't want to risk repeating the turmoil triggered in Wisconsin after public workers launched a wave of demonstrations in protest, occupying the Capitol for weeks, and ultimately spearheading a recall petition drive that led to the upcoming vote.

But he refused to answer directly when asked if he would veto anti-union “right-to-work” legislation if it reached his desk. “It's not going to get there,” Walker said. Such legislation would mean no worker could be forced to join a union or pay union dues, even in a union shop.

The recall’s backdrop is that Wisconsin could be one of a handful of states to decide who wins the presidency come November – Republican Mitt Romney or President Obama. Obama won here by 14 percentage points in 2008, but the race is likely to be much closer this year.  

Much of Thursday night’s debate centered on two controversies. The first was a spreading criminal investigation that has led to charges against a few top Walker aides from his days as Milwaukee County executive. Walker has said he is not a target of the investigation, which centers on the awarding of contracts and political activities of some of the workers.

Barrett pressed Walker for details on who is bankrolling the governor’s $160,000 criminal defense fund, but Walker declined to get into specifics. Walker said that  his own office had tipped investigators to suspicions of wrongdoing and that prosecutors had asked him not to discuss details.

Walker ripped into Barrett over recent revelations that Milwaukee police had low-balled the volume of violent crimes in the city. Just weeks ago, Barrett was touting a drop in violent crime on his watch, but a recent investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel showed it was in fact on the rise.

Barrett blamed the police data problems on clerical errors and noted that homicides were indeed down substantially.

“I have a police department that arrests felons,” Barrett said. “He has a practice of hiring them.”

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