MADISON, Wis. — The Democrats’ hope for ousting Scott Walker is a low-key, well-liked Milwaukee mayor whose last brush with fame came when he interceded in a fight outside the Wisconsin State Fair and got badly beaten with a tire iron.
With less than a month before the June 5 recall election, it will take all the political muscle Tom Barrett can muster to knock off the Wisconsin governor, who has become a national hero to conservatives and a fundraising powerhouse.
Barrett’s recall challenge is a rematch of the 2010 governor’s race. In the 18 months since the two men last appeared on the ballot together, Wisconsin has descended into political chaos fueled by Walker and his aggressive attack on collective bargaining for public-sector workers.
The governor’s foes collected more than 900,000 signatures to force the election, which is only the third gubernatorial recall in American history. Now it’s up to Barrett to bring home enough votes to remove Walker.
Turnout in Tuesday’s primary topped 30 percent, the highest for a primary in Wisconsin since 1952. Barrett, who defeated three Democratic opponents, gave an impassioned speech to supporters, saying he would heal Wisconsin after more than a year of turmoil.
“He’s fired up,” said longtime friend Kathy Smith, who was neighbors with Barrett for 11 years around the 1990s. “He’s just got this fire in his belly. He wants it.”
It won’t be easy.
Since defeating Barrett, Walker has become a GOP star. He’s a hot draw at Republican Party events nationwide, and he’s shattered fundraising records by bringing in $25 million, compared with less than $1 million for Barrett. He’s also blanketed mailboxes, phones and television airwaves with ads attacking Barrett.
Walker frames the race as being more about political courage than his political future.
Barrett also knows a thing or two about courage, both political and personal.
His first race — a 1982 Democratic primary for state Assembly — ended in a 39-vote loss. In his most recent contest — the April re-election for mayor — Barrett won with 70 percent of the vote.
A lifelong Milwaukeean, the 58-year-old lives in the same neighborhood where he grew up and attends the same Catholic church of his youth. Like Walker, he’s spent nearly all of his adult life in public service — including eight years in the Legislature, 10 in Congress and eight as Milwaukee mayor.
Along the way, he lost two races for governor — the 2002 Democratic primary and the contest against Walker.
During the 2010 race, doubters complained that Barrett was too laid back to win and not passionate enough. He tried to fight that perception this year with a campaign ad showing him repeatedly yelling “Pow!” when talking about Walker’s proposals. His primary night speech also showed a revved up Barrett rarely seen in the last race.
People don’t realize just how competitive he is, says state Rep. Peter Barca, a friend of Barrett’s for more than 28 years.
When they served in Congress together in the 1990s, Barrett always wanted to take extra time in the batting cages before congressional baseball games. His decision to run against Walker so soon after losing to him exemplifies that competitiveness, Barca said.
“Not many people would have the tenacity, after losing for governor, to come right back at it again,” Barca said.
Barrett’s sense of purpose and passion for helping people was on full display as he was leaving the state fair in August 2009 with his two daughters, his sister and his niece.
He heard a call for help and found a woman being beaten by her daughter’s ex-boyfriend as she tried to protect her 1-year-old grandchild.
Barrett got out a 911 call before the man struck him with a tire iron, breaking bones in his right hand and some of his teeth and resulting in stitches in his head.
“That showed the kind of guy he is,” Smith said. “He’s there.”
Barrett woke up in a hospital bed to news that Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, the man who beat him in the 2002 governor’s primary, was not seeking a third term.
After being urged by the White House and other Democrats to get in, Barrett finally announced he would run two days after the final pins were removed from his hand.
The fingers on his right hand are still slightly askew, although he can shake hands and hold a beer — two things needed to campaign in Wisconsin, Barrett jokes.
Following the attack, Barrett was hailed as a hero. T-shirts showed up around Milwaukee saying, “Our mayor ain’t no cream puff.”
Walker beat him by 5 points, or about 125,000 votes.
With that loss still fresh, Barrett was not the first candidate to come to mind when talk of a recall heated up last year.
But after other party leaders such as former Sen. Russ Feingold and retiring Sen. Herb Kohl demurred, Barrett quickly became the leading Democrat to enter the fray.
The unions, who have clashed with Barrett over the years, backed rival Kathleen Falk. But they quickly lined up behind him after the primary win, saying they were united against their true target.
Barrett insists voters are also more fired up than they were in 2010, an off-year for Democratic candidates across the country. Rooms that were half-full that year are overflowing this time, Barrett said.
He pledges to draw sharp contrasts between what Walker said on the 2010 campaign trail with what actually happened after he took office. He says Walker has torn the state apart and “loves pitting people against one another.”
“It’s time to bring Wisconsin together,” Barrett says in his most recent television ad.
Walker, through his television advertising and his own Tuesday night speech, has attempted to brand Barrett as a step backward, saying he supports policies that led to a $3.6 billion budget shortfall.
“The differences couldn’t be more stark,” Walker’s campaign spokeswoman Ciara Matthews said.
Both sides have four short weeks to make their cases. No one, Barrett included, imagined it would come to this.
“If 18 months ago you would have said another governor’s race is coming in 2012,” Barrett said, “I would have said, ‘What are you smoking?'”