MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, Mother's Day is just around the corner and, in Mexico, in fact, it is today. So, if you are still searching for a way to pay tribute to Mom, why not do it up big the way they do in Mexico and hire a mariachi band? Mother's Day is actually one of the biggest days of the year for mariachi musicians. We will hear more about that in just a few minutes.
But, first, we have a newsmaker interview with one of the men who will be at the center of one of the most closely watched races this election year. Tom Barrett is the mayor of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but two years ago, he made a bid for the governor's office in Wisconsin and lost to the current governor, Scott Walker.
But, this week, Wisconsin Democrats chose him from a field of Democratic candidates to stand against Walker in a recall vote in June. And Tom Barrett joins us, now, by phone.
Mr. Mayor, thanks so much for joining us.
MAYOR TOM BARRETT: It's great to be with you.
MARTIN: And I should mention that we did speak to Governor Walker on this program a few months ago. We've been reaching out, asking him to join us once again. Having said that, Mr. Mayor, what do you think you've learned in the two years since your last race that makes you better equipped to beat Mr. Walker this time?
BARRETT: Actually, I don't know that it's so much what I've learned. I think it's what the people of Wisconsin have learned because, in 2010, Scott Walker ran on a platform of creating 250,000 jobs, but soon after taking office, he completely reversed course and, rather than focusing on creating jobs, he launched an ideological civil war, here in the state, by going after workers' rights.
And, unfortunately, Wisconsin, under Scott Walker, lost more jobs in 2011 than any other state in the entire country. So there's really several reasons why this has happened and I think the people of the state of Wisconsin are now saying, wait a minute. You said you were going to come in and focus on jobs and, instead of doing that, you've become the darling of the far right in traveling around the country giving fundraising speeches about how successful you've been in going after workers' rights.
MARTIN: You think that the voters of Wisconsin will have buyer's remorse?
BARRETT: Well, that will be the question and I think they will. And I can tell you, I've run for office many, many times and this is the first time I've ever had anybody - and this has happened many, many times - come up to me and apologize, say, I'm sorry I didn't vote for you. And my response is always, go and sin no more.
MARTIN: Well, as you mentioned, the major factor driving the recall effort was Governor Walker's efforts to limit collective bargaining rights for some public workers. I'm saying some because most public safety workers are exempt. But it's been widely reported, Mr. Mayor, that this law actually saved your city millions of dollars in labor costs.
First of all, do you think that that is, in fact, true? Do you credit that reporting? And, secondly, does that complicate your ability to make this an issue?
BARRETT: If you think a little bit more about what their criticism is of me, their criticism of me is that I was fiscally responsible. And if they want to debate whether I was fiscally responsible and they're on the side that I'm fiscally responsible, I'm happy to agree with them on that.
But what I had to do, facing the largest cut that the city of Milwaukee ever faced from state government, was make a decision whether I was going to lay people off or not and I chose not to lay people off. And, as a result, they're saying, well, you used the tools that we gave you.
But my view is, look, I wasn't going to lay people off during a time when your leadership was resulting in the state of Wisconsin losing more jobs than any other state.
MARTIN: Isn't that the core of the governor's argument, though, that the state needed this flexibility in order to close a yawning statewide budget gap?
BARRETT: There are two separate issues. The one issue is whether employees should pay more towards their health care and pensions, and even the leaders of the unions agreed with that. But no one saw coming this attack on collective bargaining and workers' rights. That really was the spark that started the entire unrest here in the state of Wisconsin.
MARTIN: Most of the big public sector unions in Wisconsin backed your primary opponent, the former Dane County executive, Kathleen Falk. They are endorsing you now, as I understand it, but...
BARRETT: That's correct. Yes.
MARTIN: But do you feel you need more work to do to convince rank and file members that you are the best choice? And what's your best argument to them?
BARRETT: Well, actually, I don't think I ever had a problem with the ranking file, so that was probably one of the reasons that I won the primary by such a convincing amount. The rank and file understood where I was coming from because a lot of them would have been affected and they were the ones whose jobs I was trying to save and make sure they weren't being laid off.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with the mayor of Milwaukee, Tom Barrett. He won Tuesday's democratic primary election and he won the right to face Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker next month in a recall election.
You know, there's been a lot of national interest in this race, on both sides and people have criticized Governor Walker, as you just did, I think, for kind of barnstorming around the country. He's accepted a lot of money. There's been a lot of money from outside the state brought into this race.
And I'm wondering if the national interest in this race - does it help or does it hurt, from your perspective?
BARRETT: Well, here in Wisconsin, we've never seen anything like we've seen Governor Walker do in the last three months, where he raised 60 to 70 percent of his money, which was $13 million, from out of state. And a lot of these were contributions that were huge contributions. He's gotten a $500,000 contribution. He's got numerous $250,000 contributions, $100,000 contributions.
And, whether you're a liberal or a conservative, I think a lot of eyebrows in the state of Wisconsin are rising when people say, wait. There's a problem if your sitting governor is raising 60 to 70 percent of his money from out of state. What does this have to do with Wisconsin values or is this just part of the ideological civil war?
And I think that's what people are beginning to recognize, that the reason he is so popular in these far right circles is he's doing exactly what they want to do. And ultimately, if you look at Indiana, for example, the goal is to make these states right-to-work states and take away workers' rights, not just for public employees, but for private employees.
And this move against public employees was the first step, but I don't want you to think that this is a one trick pony, that that's the only issue. Again, unemployment, in terms of the loss of jobs in Wisconsin, is a huge issue. We are the only state, between March of 2011 and March of 2012, to lose jobs.
The fact that this governor has a criminal defense fund, and he's had numerous aides of his and associates charged with crimes while he was county executive and there's a John Doe proceeding right now. There are lots and lots of issues - the war against women, the huge cut in education.
So it's true that it was the workers' rights that started this prairie fire, if you want to call it that, but it has spread dramatically because of what's happened here in the last 16 months and how, from my standpoint, it's very much a divide and conquer strategy.
MARTIN: But the reports indicate that Governor Walker is well ahead of you in the fundraising at this point, I mean, in part because you had a more vigorous challenge to face him. What are you going to do? Are you saying you're not going to accept outside funding?
BARRETT: Well, I will never - I will absolutely never catch him in his fundraising. Again, I don't have people from around the country giving me checks of $500,000, $250,000, $100,000. Again, he's part of a national movement. Don't make any mistake about that.
But what was most interesting was, the week before the primary, there was a poll out and showed, even though he had out-raised me approximately 25 to one, I was one point ahead in that poll. So what I've said to my followers is, buckle up. We're in for a wild ride.
MARTIN: Given that there is - and, you know, we are outside of the state, although we - you know, we do appreciate your giving us the opportunity to speak with you. And there is national interest in this race. Many people are calling the elections this fall - a number of them - as kind of a referendum on where we are as a country on some of these big questions. And there are differences in philosophy at work here, differences in ideology at work here.
Do you see this race as a referendum, in general, as kind of a national kind of bellwether of what's going on here? And what do you think national voters should read into what's going on in Wisconsin?
BARRETT: Well, again, Scott Walker has said that, if he's successful here, that what he's tried to do here - again, going after workers' rights, beginning with going after the public workers. But, again, looking at Indiana, you can see that it ultimately reaches the private workers, as well - that his actions here will spread throughout the country. So he wants, again, the right wing ideologues who believe in right to work, to support him and they are supporting him in huge numbers.
We have a much different scenario on our side. I think that the people of this state want to have this election decided according to Wisconsin values, not according to ideological values that are not within this state.
MARTIN: Tom Barrett is the mayor of Milwaukee. He is the Democratic nominee who will face Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a Republican, in next month's recall election and he was kind enough to join us by phone from Milwaukee.
Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for speaking with us.
BARRETT: Thank you very much.
MARTIN: And, once again, we have reached out to Governor Walker to join us once again and we'll keep you posted. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.