ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Next Tuesday, a very unusual election will put conservative Republican Tea Party politics to a test. Wisconsin's Republican governor, Scott Walker, faces a recall vote. His opponent is the Democrat he defeated in 2010, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Wisconsin Democrats petitioned for Walker's recall after his aggressive stance against public employee collective bargaining rights. As we've reported here, money is flowing into the race. Nearly $60 million has been spent, about three quarters of that sum by the Republicans.
Governor Walker has a lead in the polls. We invited both candidates to come on the program. The governor has turned us down but Mayor Barrett joins us now. Welcome to the program.
MAYOR TOM BARRETT: It's great to be with you.
SIEGEL: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, in an editorial supporting the governor, reason that one policy - in this case, rights of state workers - doesn't justify a recall. In effect, the bar is higher for recall than in a typical election. What's wrong with that argument?
BARRETT: Well, what's wrong with the argument is that the state constitution is pretty clear what the parameters are for a recall. And, in fact, Scott Walker himself became a county executive in Milwaukee County following the recall. And what's happened here is the whole issue of workers rights was sort of the first volley, if you will, in what has become a 16-month political civil war in the state of Wisconsin.
It's been so divisive. And it wasn't an accident that it was divisive, because Scott Walker, in his own words, said that he was going to use divide and conquer tactics to go after the rights of working people. And...
SIEGEL: But you say workers rights was the first volley. This is a criticism from Steven Hayes of the conservative Weekly Standard. He says you're effectively running away from the issue...
BARRETT: Oh, no. Not at all. Not at all...
SIEGEL: ... because...
BARRETT: In fact, we've talked about it quite a bit. And I think it's a situation where people understand what his position is and people understand what my position is. But there have also been other things that I think concern people in the state; the anemic job performance in terms of whether we've lost jobs.
SIEGEL: But unemployment in Wisconsin, I gather is at 6.7 percent - not very good but better than most of the country. Doesn't that make it hard to argue that the governor is ruining the economy of Wisconsin?
BARRETT: Well, when he was a candidate he said that he would work to create 250,000 jobs. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics said that for 2011, Wisconsin lost more jobs than any other state in the entire country. And he knew that he couldn't defend that, so he worked with his political appointees to come up with a new measure.
And even accepting those numbers, which cannot be verified until after the election, the job growth would be the lowest among any of the states in the Midwest. And this is from a governor who said he was going to focus on jobs. But he didn't. He took his eye off the prize and began traveling the country, becoming really the darling of the far right.
SIEGEL: Mayor Barrett, would a Democratic administration in Wisconsin realistically be able to address the state's fiscal problems without deep cuts in state services and without cuts in state pay or benefits?
BARRETT: Well, there's no question that the fiscal house has to be in order. And, as the mayor of the city of Milwaukee for eight consecutive years, I've balanced the budget. And I've worked and have had employees pay more and I've done that primarily through collective bargaining. And so, the question is whether you take away workers' rights to organize and bargain or whether you respect those rights.
And even in the primary in this election, I was not a candidate for the big public labor unions. And that was because I'm not someone who is going to just say there are no problems. I've said no to my friends and I've said no to people who don't support me and I think that's the true test of leadership.
SIEGEL: A Marquette University Law School poll, released yesterday, puts you about six points back in a state where President Obama outpolls Mitt Romney by 12 points. That suggests a state that looks good for Democrats and you've just described problems that the governor has.
What's the message that President Obama seems to get across to people in Wisconsin that you seem to be having trouble getting across?
BARRETT: Well, keep in mind, I've been in this race all for 30 - I'm sorry - 60 days and we can't ignore the fact that he has raised and spent $30 million and we've raised and spent about $4 million and most of those millions have come from outside the state. But I think even that money can come back to bite him. These people don't care what's going on in Wisconsin. They want to make Wisconsin a experimental dish for all the right wing initiatives.
SIEGEL: But, of course, they would say that organized labor from all across the country is supporting you and there are pleas over some cable television stations to help support the Democratic campaign in Wisconsin. It's become a national campaign that you have there.
BARRETT: Well, but bear in mind, I was not the choice of those union leaders in the primary and the reason for that is I will never be the rock star of the far right and I'll never be the rock star of the far left. What I want to be is rock solid and create jobs in the state.
SIEGEL: Mayor Barrett, thanks for talking with us.
BARRETT: Thank you very, very much.
SIEGEL: Tom Barrett, who's the mayor of Milwaukee, is the Democratic candidate for governor in Tuesday's special recall election in Wisconsin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.