MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Newly-released documentary film footage from January 2011 shows Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker describing a "divide and conquer" strategy for going after the state's public employee unions that would begin with going after their collective bargaining rights.
Walker's opponents insist the remarks undermine the governor's long-held claim that his polarizing law stripping most public workers of nearly all their collective bargaining rights was meant solely as a budget-balancing measure.
A complete transcript shows the governor immediately added that the state and local governments need the law to help balance their books. However, it remained unclear Friday exactly what the governor meant by "divide and conquer," and his spokeswoman, Ciara Matthews, declined to explain during a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel first reported the video late Thursday. Filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein captured the clip while making a documentary about the city of Janesville's efforts to create jobs following the closure of a General Motors plant.
It shows the newly-elected Walker talking to a top donor, Beloit billionaire Diane Hendricks, and Mary Willmer-Sheedy, an M&I Bank executive from Janesville. Hendricks asks Walker whether he can make Wisconsin a "completely red state, and work on these unions, and become a right-to-work" state. She was referring to states that have passed laws favored by conservatives that allow workers to not pay union dues or join a union even if they are covered by a union contract.
"Well, we're going to start in a couple weeks with our budget adjustment bill," Walker said. "The first step is we're going to deal with collective bargaining for all public employee unions, because you use divide and conquer. According to a transcript the Journal Sentinel obtained, the governor then immediately said: "So for us the base we've got for that is the fact that we've got -- budgetarily we can't afford not to. If we have collective bargaining agreements in place, there's no way not only the state but local governments can balance things out."
Democrats angry with the collective bargaining changes have forced Walker into a June 5 recall election. Walker's opponent, Tom Barrett, a Democrat who currently serves as Milwaukee's mayor, has been accusing Walker of secretly wanting to make Wisconsin a right-to-work state.
"Scott Walker has plunged our state into political turmoil with his 'divide and conquer' style of governing," Barrett said in a statement Friday. "More alarming is how Walker says in public what he thinks the people want to hear, but then reveals his true colors to the conservative billionaires bankrolling his campaign. We cannot trust what Scott Walker says."
Walker co-sponsored right-to-work legislation in 1993 as a freshman in the state Assembly, but he has declined to say whether he would sign or veto a right-to-work bill if passed by the Legislature. Supporters of right-to-work legislation believe it would give more freedom to workers and make it more attractive for companies to invest and hire employees in a state. Opponents say it undermines unions and doesn't help the economy.
Walker spokeswoman Ciara Matthews said the governor's position on right-to-work hasn't changed.
"Governor Walker has made clear repeatedly that he does not have an interest in pushing right-to-work legislation," Matthews said in a statement Friday morning.
Lichtenstein has since finished the documentary, "As Goes Janesville," which is expected to be shown at film festivals and on PBS stations this fall. Lichtestein has worked for Democratic campaigns and has donated to Barrett.
The conversation was recorded at the Beloit headquarters of ABC Supply, the roofing wholesaler and siding distributor Hendricks founded with her husband, Ken, who died in 2007. Walker was there to attend a meeting of the economic development group Rock County 5.0, which Hendricks co-chairs.
He denied the timing of the clip's release, coming just weeks before the election, was a political maneuver. He said he always planned to release snippets once the film was complete and he had shown it to the principal people in it, which he completed in April.
"It's absolutely not a political attack. This is 28 seconds ... in a 90 minute film," he said.
The video makes for interesting campaign fodder, but likely won't sway many voters. After a year and a half of recall talk, most people have already made up their minds about whether they support Walker.