An intense, face to face, fast-paced hour of the candidates in Wisconsin’s recall election for governor making their strongest pitches – you can bet this was the debate many people were waiting to see.
And it was brought to people statewide – in fact, nationwide and in some foreign countries – from the Appellate Courtroom of Eckstein Hall, home of Marquette Law School.
The extraordinary debate between Republican Gov. Scott Walker and his Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, was moderated by Mike Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy. Make your own conclusions about the candidates, but here’s a vote for how Gousha handled the session: He kept it focused on key issues, let the candidates talk to each other and attack each other, and made it a great opportunity for people to get fresh knowledge of each of them, just five days before the election. He was, as all who know him expected, the consummate professional.
Walker described himself as a politician willing to make hard decisions and defend the working people of Wisconsin. Barrett described himself as someone who practices Wisconsin values Walker has not followed and who defends the middle class.
Each portrayed himself as willing to take on powerful special interests the other supported. For Walker, that meant his willingness in 2011 to go after public employee unions. “Somebody needs to stand up and take on the powerful special interests,” he said. For Barrett, that meant Walker had aligned himself with wealthy conservatives while allowing services and costs for low income and middle class people to get hit. “People who make a lot of money do very well under Scott Walker,” Barrett said.
Walker attacked Barrett for not having a plan for how to balance the state budget. “Just to be clear here, the mayor doesn’t have a plan and all he has is attacking me,” Walker said.
Barrett said he would balance the budget through “shared sacrifice” that would come from all those involved, including union employees. Walker used last year’s state budget process as a vehicle for attacking his political enemies, Barrett said.
Barrett criticized cuts in education spending and said class sizes were going up across the state. Walker said changes that give school districts more freedom in shaping their educational policies were helping education improve and that spending cuts were offset by increased payments by employees for health and retirement benefits.
Among the most intense moments: When Walker said Barrett was hiding the truth about crime statistics, in line with a recent report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on serious crimes being classified as lesser offenses. Barrett responded by attacking a new ad from the Walker campaign that focuses on a case of a baby who was killed.
“This is Willie Horton stuff,” Barrett said about the ad’s claim that Barrett was involved in classifying the baby’s death as a lesser crime. “You know that’s false,” Barrett told Walker. “You know that’s false. I had nothing to do with that. You should be ashamed of that commercial, Scott Walker.”
Walker did not respond directly.
Asked by Gousha about the John Doe investigation into activities during Walker’s time as Milwaukee County Executive, Walker said, “I’ve said time and time again, I’m not a target of this. . . .My integrity has always been high.”
Barrett told Walker should release e-mails about what went on and tell the public who has contributed to his criminal defense fund.
Asked by Gousha about Walker’s criticism of Barrett’s record as mayor, Barrett said Walker was attacking Milwaukee for political gain. “It’s easy to attack the city. It fits in very comfortably with someone who has a divide and conquer strategy,” Barrett said.
Walker said he loves the city and recently proposed a $100 million to help a large swatch of the central city while Barrett wants to spending comparable amounts on a trolley service in downtown Milwaukee.
In closing statements, Barrett said, “this is an election about trust and I’m asking you to trust me.” He said he does not want to be “a rock star” of either the left or right, but to be “rock solid” for Wisconsin.
Walker said, the election was about his courage in taking on tough challenges so that Wisconsin will be at least as good a place for his children as it has been for his generation.
The head to head exchanges, with Gousha keeping it focused on the forefront issues, made the session a powerful moment as the historic election nears. And it was all going on right in Eckstein Hall.
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