Meet the Walker Recall Candidates: Kathleen Falk
Post by Emily Mills on 2/28/2012 10:46am
There are perhaps few other names in Wisconsin politics that can conjure up equally strong support and opposition than that of Kathleen Falk.
The former Dane County Executive was the first out of the gate to declare her candidacy for governor the day after petitioners turned in some one million signatures to recall Gov. Scott Walker from office. Since then Falk has racked up a slew of endorsements, as well as attacks.
I had the chance to sit down for an interview with Falk on Monday, where she talked about why she decided to get into the race, the importance of her commitment to restoring collective bargaining rights, and that “Dane County Liberal” label so often thrown at her.
First and foremost, I wondered, when Falk announced in October 2010 that she would resign her position as Dane County Executive effective the following Spring, did she have any idea that she might go on to run for governor so soon after that?
“Oh gosh no,” Falk answers, laughing somewhat wryly. “Who could have foreseen this? Last thing I could have expected. I had been County Executive, the longest serving, and I had gotten the manure digesters done and I launched the alcohol coalition, the two things that I had run on in ’09. And I turned 60. And I knew I wanted one more big, challenging job in my life – and finding it while County Executive—I worked 24/7, that’s not an exaggeration—I didn’t have time, let alone the space to figure out what that next job would be.”
Instead, the day after new County Executive Joe Parisi was sworn into office in April, Falk and her husband, former Democratic State Representative Peter Bock, undertook a bicycle camping trip from Florida to New York, something Falk says she’d always dreamed of doing but had previously never had the time.
“I was hoping in that month I’d be able to figure it out, but there was no revelation in the sky,” she notes.
By the time Falk returned to the state in May the recalls against several Republican Senators were just heating up. She began getting calls to speak at various rallies, to travel the state helping the Democratic Party candidates running in those races, which Falk says she was happy to do.
Then, in August, the calls shifted gears from requests for speaking engagements to encouragement to run for governor in the still theoretical recall against Walker.
“People started saying, ‘Falk, you gotta get ready, you’re going to be the one who has to run.’ I said, show me the polling numbers, and why me?” she explains in a matter-of-fact tone. “So they went out and did all that and got the numbers and what people were looking for: They were looking for someone with executive experience, so they didn’t want a business leader model, but they didn’t want a legislator type — no disrespect intended, but they wanted someone who knew how to run stuff.”
Falk frequently points to her 14-year run as Dane County Executive as evidence that she is one of those people who knows “how to run stuff.” And, she notes, the polling was enough to get her to seriously consider a run, but the recall still wasn’t guaranteed. At that point people were still arguing over the proper start time to the petitioning period and whether or not enough signatures could be gathered over the holidays.
Over the course of the winter, though, Falk says her travels around the state to support the recall effort, and the people she met and spoke with along the way, finally convinced her to throw her hat in the race. She said the most cited concerns were about the big cuts to education and health care, in addition to collective bargaining rights and myriad other issues.
“I walked into an Appleton group, where normally you’d see 15 people there and now there’s 45,” she recounts. “I would normally know half of them, now I know 10 of them. There’s something going on out there, it’s not just the people who normally do political advocacy but a whole other group. And so I quickly saw that we were going to do this.”
Falk and the other potential candidates — Kathleen Vinehout, Tom Barrett, and Tim Cullen among them — had already been invited to talk with some of the statewide unions so they could determine who to endorse.
Shortly after Falk made her announcement AFSCME, the state’s largest public employee union, officially backed her. WEAC made its recommendation for her soon thereafter, as did the national group EMILY’s List, which supports women candidates for office.
Certainly, one of the big reasons Falk has won the support of labor groups is both her history of negotiating with them and her recent pledge that, if elected, any budget bill that came before her without restoring collective bargaining rights for public employees would get her veto pen. That declaration has gotten her both praise and criticism, but Falk is unequivocal in her stance:
“I think it’s not only important to answer that question, because one of the reasons people are so cynical on politics in general is because politicians say they’re for something and then they don’t do it,” she explains. “It’s real easy to say you’re for collective bargaining, but how you gonna get it done? So over this last year as I’ve been going around the state at the behest of people sending me here there and everywhere to be helpful to the cause, people would regularly, and understandably, say well Falk, how will we restore collective bargaining? How, procedure-wise, will you do it? And I’d say, well, the governor can’t do it by executive order, doesn’t have that power. You could introduce a bill but the Assembly Republicans aren’t going to schedule it. You could call a special session and Assembly Republicans don’t have to convene – they decide whether to come to a special session, a governor doesn’t.”
So, what then? “The only bill that has to pass every two years is the budget bill – that’s why Walker eliminated collective bargaining through it, and that’s how you restore it. And unless you’re willing not only to say that’s how you’ll do it, but go to the mat by saying you will veto a budget bill without it, then you have no leverage. That’s how you get. It. Done.”
In the face of rampant criticism from her opponents for allegedly being a “big labor puppet” Falk is not shy about her union endorsements – she is, in fact, downright proud of them. She talked about dealing with the market crash and recession in ’07-’08, about creating a balanced budget in Dane County that relied on what she calls shared sacrifice.
“What I did was three-fold approach to the budget,” Falk explains. “Yes, we had to do cuts, but one of the things that I held dear was this levy sealing goal that I had created that I tried to keep the county to, because it made me have to reinvent government so that we would be more efficient so that we could deliver more services to people, especially in a growing population. Also it’s important because property taxes are your most regressive form of taxation and that’s what local governments do.”
When she approached the unions about doing their part, she offered to deviate from that governmental standard so long as the unions agreed to sit down at the bargaining table, open their contracts, and reduce wages or benefits as needed.
“They knew this was a big deal to me, and to their credit—I brag about them all the time—we sat down and we got it done.”
The third piece of the budget, Falk said, was across the board cuts taking into consideration the concerns particularly of those who worked in human services. She also points to the work she did reforming Dane County’s criminal justice system, where she was able to delete deputy positions “for the first time in anybody’s history” and to stop a program that sent prisoners to other counties.
“If everybody does something a little bit that they’re not comfortable doing, you get it done, and then people are willing to do it, right, as long as it’s not balanced on the backs of any one of us, which is again what Walker did incorrectly,” she said.
What about the charges that she’s just doing the bidding of the unions? At that Falk is nonplussed. “Walker was going to put the labor hat on anybody who he was opposed to, because that’s his style of politics – demonize, marginalize—and it isn’t working,” Falk says. “And working men and women in this state have refused to accept that and that’s why the million signatures.”
Further, Falk explains, unions and other grassroots organizations have some of the most ground game experience and dedication, and they “know you can’t start running a statewide campaign to beat an incumbent who has $12 million and growing in a one month period. You can’t wait until March 19 for the GAB to say the election date is six weeks from now.”
I asked Falk what she would do, if elected, to bridge the currently deep partisan divide in state government. Republicans are likely to maintain a majority in at least the Assembly and could work to block anything she and fellow Democrats attempt to pass. One of the reasons driving more moderate and even conservative voters to support the recall is their dislike for the extremes that have been on display at the Capitol in the last year.
“If I win, and I hope I do, then there will have been this mandate for the new governor to restore collective bargaining,” Falk asserts. “I could not have been clearer about that position and how I will do it, so the Assembly Republicans would then know they have lost that battle. They have to go back to their districts and explain why they aren’t understanding that. And also because a budget bill has many things in it, so there is an ability to find a common ground that allows you to reach those agreements to avoid gridlock.”
She also suggests that a governor’s job should extend beyond simply being smart about “how you tax and what you spend” to finding other sources of revenue for the state.
An example she cites was the county’s decision to invest in manure digesters that now turn the methane gas released by the landfill that would otherwise go into the atmosphere and contribute to global warming into electricity that MG&E buys for $3 million a year.
“That’s the kind of thing a governor ought to be doing,” Falk says. “Instead of what Walker did, which was one of his first things in office was to shut down the biomass plant. That would have been a way to get more dollars into farms, because of growing the biofuels. That’s what I love doing – in addition to, I hope, shared sacrifice it’s also finding these new sources of revenues.”
“I love figuring out how do we get to point Z from point A, and getting us there with whatever it takes,” she goes on. “Sometimes it takes lawsuits, sometimes it takes education, sometimes it takes science, sometimes it takes political muscle, sometimes it takes moral leadership. There are many different ways to move a progressive agenda, and I was an environmental lawyer for 20 years and County Executive for 14, and that is what I hope I’m good at.”
Finally, I have to ask, what about the “Dane County liberal” epithet that gets thrown at her and other politicians from the area who seek statewide office? Is it a badge of honor or something to work to move beyond?
“The only place I hear that is in Dane County,” Falk laughs. “It’s a Republican talking point. Not because they’re worried a Dane County liberal can’t win – they’re worried a Dane County person can win. How do we know that? We elected Russ Feingold three times statewide, we elected Jim Doyle five times. They’re worried that Dane County does elect people statewide.”
Of her own appeal and electability Falk confidently references her last statewide run for Attorney General, a race she lost to J.B. Van Hollen by just 8,859 votes.
“When I ran six years ago and lost by that one quarter of one percent statewide, after $3.5 million of those awful, awful ads from WMC and their allies, I got a million and 56 thousand votes statewide. That’s 56 thousand more than my friend Tom Barrett got running for governor last year. So I have proven that I can get the votes needed – it’s not a hypothetical, I did it.”
Emily Mills is Editor-At-Large for Dane101, as well as Editor of Our Lives Magazine. She is also a freelance writer, photographer, actor, and musician (drummer and singer in local band Little Red Wolf). Originally from several states up and down the Midwest Emily has called Madison home since 2000. Contact her at