Kathleen Falk: Can she win?
Sounding progressive themes before a labor temple audience, Kathleen Falk spent much of her time fielding questions and hearing concerns from those who came out to see her last night in Wausau. If the discussion was any indication, jobs remain the Number 1 focus of voters by far – something that Scott Walker campaigned on but has not been able to deliver upon. Falk hammered on the fact that Wisconsin is the only state in the country to have lost jobs for six months straight; the entire run of Walker’s first budget, so far.
But the big question that recall petition signers and others who are tired of GOP rule will have to answer over the next few months is whether Falk can win. This will be her third run at statewide office and Team Falk is hoping it will be the charm. In 2002, she captured 27 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary for governor. Jim Doyle picked up 38 percent and Tom Barrett 34 percent in the race that eventually gave Doyle two terms as Wisconsin governor. In 2006, she took the Democratic primary for attorney general and came within fewer than 9,000 votes – less than one percentage point of difference out of more than 2.1 million votes cast — of winning in the general election against Republican J.B. Van Hollen.
But it was that 2006 primary that some in the Democratic fold found troubling. Word was that former attorney general and then-governor Jim Doyle had prodded his Justice Department colleague and former gubernatorial primary rival Falk to run against Democratic incumbent Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager, his successor in that office. Lautenschlager had picked up a drunken driving citation in her state car, after taking the vehicle into a ditch in Dodge County in February 2004 – very damaging stuff for the state’s chief law enforcement officer.
I like Peg Lautenschlager a lot, but I supported Falk in that race because I felt it was the correct political call; that Peg would be unable to defend against the Republican challenger, given the baggage. Others saw Lautenschlager as a hero – both as a woman who won a high statewide elected office and for her courageous struggle with breast cancer, which also began in 2004 and from which she emerged successfully. She had served in the Assembly where she made a lot of good friends. She came within six points in a 1992 congressional race against longtime Republican Tom Petri, when she was only in her mid-30s. It was hard to give up such a promising rising star over one incident, as serious as it was.
It didn’t help for Falk when Van Hollen ended up being elected anyway. But if you put in your closer in a tie game with no outs and two men on base, you’re not always going to get the win. Regardless, the rift that ensued from that race may not necessarily be entirely a matter of bygones for everyone, even now. Walker won’t pick up any votes from those folks, but it creates the opening for other Democrats enter the primary to run for governor and it could also mute some of the enthusiasm for Falk if she ends up being the nominee. That’s something that Democrats can’t afford in a very intense and well-funded race by Walker to hang on as guv. Throw in four GOP senators up for recall simultaneously in a contest where the Dems will do well to take two and you have a very interesting political backdrop in play. There is also the possibility that even with many millions to play with, the polarizing nature of Walker’s governorship and continuing revelations in Walkergate could leave him in no position to defeat any credible Democratic challenger by election day.
As for Falk, she served 14 years as Dane County executive and also a dozen as Public Intervenor in the Wisconsin Dept. of Justice, until Tommy Thompson eliminated the position in 1995 at the behest of folks like WMC. (They likely didn’t appreciate her previous work with Wisconsin’s Environmental Decade, Inc. either.) So her resume shows plenty of experience in environmental themes that are important to the Democratic base (think mining legislation) and she’s been prominent in the recall activities. Some have tried to chalk her recall presence off to simple opportunism, but that doesn’t match her long track record of activism and it should give her an edge with labor over someone like Tom Barrett in a race for which labor issues figure so prominently. In addition to serious political chops, Falk draws the stark, night-and-day contrast with Walker’s agenda that Democrats will want. Nobody will be able to say she’s not eminently well qualified.
So back to the big question: Can Falk win? The answer: Absolutely. But since other shoes are likely to be dropping in this one, it’s way too early to say if she will.
And just as Kathleen Falk was bringing her road show to Eau Claire this morning:
Vinehout is one the “Wisconsin 14” — the Democratic state senators who fled to Illinois last year for three weeks to stop a vote on Walker’s union-busting proposal. A farmer, (and a PhD, too), Vinehout was first elected in 2006 and narrowly won re-election in 2010 during the GOP wave.