By SCOTT BAUER Associated Press
Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, down in the polls to Gov. Scott Walker, aggressively went after the first-term Republican in a debate Friday and accused him of purposefully dividing the state and triggering the June 5 recall election.
A feisty Barrett kept Walker on the defensive throughout much of the hour-long debate in Milwaukee, which was broadcast live statewide just 11 days before the election. Walker is only the nation's third governor to ever stand for recall. The previous two, most recently California Gov. Gray Davis in 2003, were defeated.
Polls show a tight race, with Walker holding a narrow lead within the margin of error of two publicly released polls within the past 10 days.
Walker, who defeated Barrett in 2010 by 5 points to win election as governor, was targeted for recall after successfully passing a law last year that effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers.
Barrett said that proposal, which sparked massive protests for weeks and made Wisconsin the center of a national debate of worker rights, tore the state apart. Walker said his measure, which also forced most workers to pay more for pensions and health insurance, was needed to help deal with a $3.6 billion state budget deficit.
"You decided to use a budget crisis to try and divide and conquer this state," Barrett said, speaking directly to Walker as the two stood near each other behind podiums in a television studio. "That's what happened. That's what led to all of this. And you succeeded. You succeeded in dividing this state."
Walker said he was focused on moving the state forward and didn't want to relive the past.
"Going back and rehashing the same debate we had last year as my opponent wants to do is not the way to move forward," Walker said. "We're turning things around. We're headed in the right direction."
But Barrett said Walker was determined to wage an "ideological civil war" and punish his enemies, most notably unions that have traditionally backed Democratic candidates.
"I will end this civil war," Barrett said. "That is something the people of this state want."
Barrett also accused Walker of caring more about furthering his own political career by traveling the country and raising millions of dollars from powerful conservatives than he does about helping Wisconsin. Walker has crushed fundraising records by bringing in $25 million so far, most of it from out-of-state donors.
"This is all part of that ideological civil war," Barrett said. "He wants this state to be the prototype for the tea party nationally."
Walker said the reason he's in demand nationally is because he "stood up and took on the powerful special interests."
Barrett also prodded Walker to release more information about his involvement with an ongoing criminal investigation that so far has focused on aides and associates of his during his time as Milwaukee County executive. Five people have been charged on allegations including embezzling money from a veterans trust fund and campaigning on county time.
Walker has not been charged, but he did create a legal defense fund and said he would answer questions from the district attorney's office. Walker has said he's been told he is not the center of the probe.
Walker called Barrett's focus on the investigation a desperate move meant to distract from other issues.
"I will continue to have high integrity," Walker said.
Barrett also voiced his support for gay marriage, while Walker said he stands by the state's constitutional ban on gay marriages passed in 2006.
Each candidate was given the chance to ask the other a question. Walker declined, but Barrett asked Walker if he would disclose details about how much out of state fundraising and campaigning he has done since taking office.
Walker did not respond directly, but instead said he's been visible all across Wisconsin since taking office 17 months ago.
Walker defended his record, citing figures Barrett has questioned that show the state added nearly 34,000 jobs last year. Walker said people are anxious for the recall to be over so the focus can return to improving the economy and creating jobs.