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In one month, Wisconsin voters will decide whether Republican Governor Scott Walker will hang on to his job. Next week comes an important step, a primary election to select a Democrat to challenge Walker in the recall vote. Walker, who took office in January of 2011, angered labor unions with a new law that dramatically curtailed bargaining rights for public sector employees. Now the unions are leading the push to recall the governor.
NPR's national political correspondent Don Gonyea has this report from Milwaukee.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: It's a recall election, but it feels as big as any this state has ever seen. This week, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, one of the GOP's marquee names, stumped with Governor Walker.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE: All the eyes of America for the next five weeks are going to be on the state of Wisconsin.
GONYEA: At that event outside Milwaukee, Walker was cheered as he delivered the message that has so angered his opponents.
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GOVERNOR SCOTT WALKER: We can now hire and fire based on merit. We can pay based on performance. That means we can put the best and the brightest in our classrooms, and we can keep them there. We're the ones standing up for kids. We're the ones that want a better Wisconsin.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)
GONYEA: If Walker loses the recall on June 5th, the Democrat in the race takes over. Among those hoping to replace him is Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who lost to Walker in the 2010 gubernatorial race. In advance of next Tuesday's Democratic primary, Barrett is a solid frontrunner who's kept his focus on Governor Walker.
MAYOR TOM BARRETT: He started a ideological civil war. It lasted - it has lasted, and is continuing to last now in its 16th month, where neighbors don't want to talk to neighbors and co-workers can't talk to co-workers and relatives don't want to talk to relatives about politics because it gets too bitter, and I'll end the civil war.
GONYEA: Barrett has the support of a long list of prominent Democratic elected officials in the state. But he does not have the backing of labor. Marty Beil, the executive director of the public employees union, AFSCME, says they have problems with how Barrett has dealt with unions as mayor of Milwaukee, accusing him of actually taking advantage of provisions in the new law limiting the power of public sector unions to negotiate.
MARTY BEIL: You know, he says he did that because of the economic problems of the city, and maybe rightfully so. But the fact of the matter is he should have sat at the table and talked to the union about that.
GONYEA: Barrett counters that he was dealing with $15 million in cuts included in Governor Walker's budget.
BARRETT: I could have laid off workers, or I could have had them pay more towards their health insurance. And in this environment, and during 2011, when under Governor Walker's leadership, this state was losing more jobs than any other state in the entire country, I declined to lay off people.
GONYEA: The major unions in Wisconsin support former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, who held that job for 14 years, until April of last year. Speaking at a Milwaukee coffee shop, Falk pointed to her own experience with county unions, even in tough budget years.
KATHLEEN FALK: My record is very different, that I sat down with workers and accomplished what was important for taxpayers without destroying workers' rights. By treating them respectfully, I got the job done.
GONYEA: Falk is counting on union ground troops on Tuesday to help her overcome a 17-point Barrett lead in the latest Marquette University poll. One in five voters say they are still undecided.
Something Falk and Barrett have not done in this campaign is spend big money beating one another up. Marquette University's Charles Franklin.
CHARLES FRANKLIN: It looked at one point like it could become negative, but in fact, both campaigns have been very civil to each other and critical of Walker.
GONYEA: He says that should help with the potentially difficult task of uniting Democrats after the primary.
AFSCME's Marty Beil says the stakes are so high, that there's no doubt that should Barrett win Tuesday, he'll have full labor support going forward.
BEIL: We can't lose sight of the target here, and that's Scott Walker. And we've got four weeks to make sure that he's gone.
GONYEA: Walker has financial resources for the recall fight that are unprecedented in Wisconsin. He's raised $25 million, the bulk of it from outside the state. The eventual Democratic nominee won't have anywhere near that kind of money to compete. Still, polls show that a potential general election contest between Walker and Barrett is dead even.
Don Gonyea, NPR News, Milwaukee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.