Scott Bauer, Associated Press
MADISON, Wis. — A Democrat widely viewed as a union favorite emerged Wednesday to challenge Gov. Scott Walker, a day after petition circulators spurred by anger over the Republican's moves against organized labor said they submitted more than enough signatures to force a recall election.
Kathleen Falk's announcement was the first in a likely series of decisions by potential Democratic challengers to Walker now that recall petitions are in the hands of election officials. An influx of candidates would mean Democrats would have to hold a primary, pushing any election against Walker back another month.
Unions have been active in the recall campaign, which was driven by opposition to Walker's proposal passed last year that effectively ended collective bargaining rights for nearly all public sector workers. Having union support doesn't always translate directly into a win, however, and some rifts between union leaders and one potential Democratic candidate have already emerged.
Falk, who had led a procession of activists to the state elections board office to file the paperwork starting the recall petition drive, is well-known in Madison, where she served as Dane County executive for more than a decade. She lost in the Democratic primary for governor in 2002 and in a run for attorney general in 2006.
She catered her announcement Wednesday to union members, saying Walker launched an "all-out attack on the longstanding rights of teachers, nurses, snowplow drivers and workers who have bargained fairly."
Walker's spokeswoman said Falk was "hand-picked by big-government, public employee union bosses."
Spokeswoman Ciara Matthews branded Falk as a two-time loser and said she would "take Wisconsin back to the days of record job loss, massive deficits, and double digit tax increases."
While Falk is the biggest Democratic name to enter the race so far, moderate state Sen. Tim Cullen has been quietly raising money and seeking support, and said Wednesday he is still planning to run. Cullen, 67, served in the state Senate from 1974 to 1986 before he left to become secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services under Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. He later worked for nearly 20 years as an insurance company executive, before being elected to the Senate again in 2010.
He argues that his bipartisan background, and his experience in the private sector, makes him a desirable candidate in one of the most politically polarizing times in Wisconsin history.
Walker was elected in 2010 as part of a national Republican tide, and quickly angered unions. Democrats have framed his budget-balancing tactics as an attack on one of their key constituencies. Thousands of demonstrators staged protests at the Capitol for three weeks and 14 Democratic senators even fled the state in an attempt to block the collective bargaining plan.
Democrats want a recall vote to happen quickly and argue that Walker's strategy is to delay it as long as possible. But Walker, in an interview with The Associated Press, denied that he was trying to stall.
"There's nothing we're doing that's about pushing the timing back," Walker said. "I think the sooner we're done with this the better for the people of Wisconsin."
Both sides were waiting for the state elections board to go to court, perhaps by the end of the week, to seek more time to review the 1.9 million signatures that circulators said they submitted against Walker, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and four Republican state senators. Any recall election is unlikely before May.
Maintaining unity against Walker is vital, even if Democrats need to have a primary, said party spokesman Graeme Zielinski. He said having multiple Democratic candidates "amplifies the opposition" and makes it more difficult for Walker to focus his attacks against a single opponent.
"I don't think anybody will jeopardize that with a rough-and-tumble campaign that will make the person who emerges unelectable," Zielinski said.
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