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Wis. Democrats Vie For Chance To Challenge Gov.


And in Wisconsin tomorrow, voters will pick a Democrat to take on Republican Governor Scott Walker. He's facing a recall election in June. That's after Walker sparked huge protests with a law that strips collective bargaining rights from most public employees.

From Milwaukee, Marti Mikkelson of member station WUWM reports on the crowded primary.

MARTI MIKKELSON, BYLINE: There are five Democratic hopefuls who want to oust Governor Walker. But first, they have to win tomorrow's primary.

MAYOR TOM BARRETT: Thank you, thank you very much. I would love to have your vote next week...

MIKKELSON: Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is shaking hands with the lunch crowd at a diner in downtown Milwaukee. Cathy Friel-Dombeck says he has her vote.

CATHY FRIEL-DOMBECK: Just because he has a good track record. He's done well for the - he was a great congressman and a wonderful mayor, and I think he'll be an excellent governor.

MIKKELSON: This would be the second time Friel-Dombeck has voted for Barrett in the past 18 months. Barrett ran against Walker in 2010, but lost by a 4 percent margin. Barrett says if he wins the primary, he's confident he'll wrestle away the governor's office in June. He says many people he talks to regret voting for Walker.

BARRETT: They would come and say I'm sorry, I voted for Scott Walker. I made a mistake. My response has always been, go and sin no more. Clearly in 2010, the Republican base was very motivated. The Democratic base was not motivated. Russ Feingold and I walked into a Tea Party buzz saw. There's no question about that. It was the worst year in Democratic politics in the state of Wisconsin since the 1950s.

MIKKELSON: Barrett is currently ahead in the polls and considered the frontrunner in the primary race. Wisconsin Secretary of State Doug La Follette has also thrown his hat into the ring, along with Gladys Huber and State Senator Kathleen Vinehout. But Barrett has received the backing of much of the political establishment.

KATHLEEN FALK: So what have we got going on this week here?

MIKKELSON: A few miles away, Barrett's chief rival, Democrat Kathleen Falk, talks about upcoming campaign events with supporters on Milwaukee's north side. Falk is the former Dane County executive, and marched with protesters at the state capitol for months on end.

Michael Thomas of the Service Employees International Union says he can't wait to vote for Falk tomorrow.

MICHAEL THOMAS: She's a tough negotiator. She's a tough lady, but that's who we need in state government, and someone that's going to bring this state back together.

MIKKELSON: Falk has the backing of the state's largest teachers and employees unions in part because of a controversial pledge, where she promised she would veto any state budget that doesn't restore cuts to collective bargaining.

FALK: I'm the granddaughter of a bus driver from Milwaukee. I will stand with working men and women all the time, every time.

MIKKELSON: A coalition of labor unions has spent more than $4 million on television ads on Falk's behalf. But the real jaw-dropping numbers come from Governor Walker's camp. Financial reports show Walker raised $25 million in the past 16 months, most of it from out-of-state and from big corporations.

Carol Grundy attended a recent rally for Walker and says she donated $100 to help him stay in office.

CAROL GRUNDY: He's the greatest man and he took the greatest challenge that anybody could have done. I wouldn't have had his guts to do what he did. So he's my hero.

MIKKELSON: Governor Walker has been defending the money he's raised, blaming the unions for supporting his rivals.

GOVERNOR SCOTT WALKER REPUBLICAN, WISCONSIN: I wouldn't have to raise or spend a penny, if it weren't for the out-of-state interests being involved in the recall in the first place.

MIKKELSON: Recent polls show that if Mayor Barrett wins the primary, he and Governor Walker will be locked in a dead heat. But the challenge for Barrett would be to get backing from the same unions that supported Falk.

For NPR News, I'm Marti Mikkelson in Milwaukee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Marti, a Waukesha native, joined the WUWM news team in February of 1999. She is also host of WUWM's weekly political podcast, Capitol Notes.

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