Gov. Scott Walker vs. unions: Wisconsin set to count recall petitions

Petitions calling for the recall of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who emerged last year as the national face of anti-union legislation, are due Tuesday. Signature-counting is set to begin this week.

Scott Bauer/AP
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, center left, and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, center right, participate in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration on Monday, in Madison, Wis. Organizers of efforts to recall both Walker and Kleefisch from office plan to turn in petitions with more than 540,000 signatures Tuesday to force a recall election. Also pictured, from left, is Madison Police Chief Noble Wray, state Superintendent Tony Evers and University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor David Ward.

Petitions calling for a recall of Republican Gov. Scott Walker are due Tuesday, and as Wisconsin gears up to count signatures, analysts say it’s near certain that the recall election – the final phase of a partisan struggle that began with a showdown over unions last February – will go forward.

Six Republicans are being targeted this round, but most of the focus has been on Governor Walker, who emerged last year as the national face of anti-union legislation and is considered the most vulnerable.

With the opposition saying they have more than enough signatures to trigger the recall election, it is no longer a matter of “if” the election will happen, but “when,” most observers say.

“Everyone anticipates it will happen,” says Barry Burden, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “This does feel like a final judgment.”

Wisconsin voters already sacked two Republican state senators in a recall election last summer, after a contentious spring when the Republican majority in the Legislature passed a bill that weakened public-sector unions in the state. In addition to Walker, the recall efforts this time target Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and four Republican state senators.

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If the recall election succeeds, Walker will be only the third governor in US history removed from office by a recall. The last was former California Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, in 2003.

Democrats say they have collected more than the 540,208 signatures required by state law to make the recall election happen. In a speech this month at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, Walker said he is resigned to the reality of the election taking place midway through his first term.

He said the state’s union leadership wants his ouster only because, under the new rule, unions can no longer deduct dues automatically from paychecks of public-sector employees.

“What it really comes down to, I took away the gravy train, the free money they had before, and gave that right back to the workers to make that decision,” the governor said.

Last week, the Government Accountability Board, the state agency tasked with public elections, reported that the recall election would cost taxpayers $9 million, a figure that both sides are using to their advantage in their ongoing public relations campaign. Republicans are characterizing Democrats as wasteful in their mission to vilify Walker, while Democrats say the state money – a total sum spread across more than 2,000 municipalities – is worth the effort.

Mike Tate, chairman of the state’s Democratic Party, acknowledged in a recent statement that the $9 million price tag was “great,” but added “the cost of doing nothing is far greater. This undertaking is the biggest investment in the future of our state and families we can make.”

Who might be angling for Walker’s seat is not yet certain. The single candidate who has publicly expressed interest so far is state Sen. Tim Cullen, a longtime moderate who served in the state Senate from 1974 to 1987 and then ran again and won in 2010.

Other possible contenders include former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, former US Rep. Dave Obey, Assembly Democratic leader Peter Barca, US Rep. Ron Kind, and Mahlon Mitchell, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin. The most likely, and best-known, candidate is Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who lost to Walker in 2010.

When the recall election would be held is also uncertain. If the signatures are verified without contest, state elections officials say, the earliest it could be held is late March, although if either side requests a primary, it could be as late as June.

A loophole in state law allows both sides to raise unlimited sums. Walker is at an advantage: He reportedly raised more than $5.1 million late last year and is expected to almost double that in the coming months.

“The law benefits Walker, and gives him more time to raise big bucks,” says Mr. Burden.

All eyes are on the signature count starting this week and expected to take place in a state-owned building in Madison that was being prepared with surveillance cameras and barbed wire security gates. A county circuit court ruled last week that election officials must verify each signature for accuracy, a task usually reserved for the petitioning party and the opposition.

The added burden means more time and money. The month-long process will now likely be stretched to at least 60 days and it will now involve $100,000 in computer software and technical assistance. The new hardware will electronically read and create a database of signatures that staffers will then review individually.

The expected number of signatures up for review: 1.5 million.

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