Barrett calls on Democrats to unify in recall

MADISON (AP) -- Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett called Monday for Democrats to unite behind the party's primary pick to challenge Republican Gov. Scott Walker in a recall election, while one of his challengers asked the governor why he backed a law making it more difficult to bring discrimination lawsuits.

Meanwhile, Walker traveled the state arguing policies enacted since he took office last year have saved the state more than $1 billion, a claim Democrats derided as wildly inaccurate.

Winners of the May 8 primary will advance to the June 5 general election. Barrett, Kathleen Falk, Secretary of State Doug La Follette and state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, of Alma, are seeking the Democratic nomination. Gladys Huber, a Republican, also is running as a Democrat. Walker faces Capitol protester Arthur Kohl-Riggs in the GOP primary.

Falk on Monday kept her target on Walker, sending a letter asking him to explain why he signed a bill making it more difficult for discriminated workers to sue.

The bill Walker signed earlier this month takes away the right of discriminated workers to sue employers in state court for compensatory and punitive damages. They still can sue in federal court. The right to file state lawsuits seeking damages was extended in a 2009 law passed when Democrats controlled the Legislature and the governor's office.

A variety of business groups supported the law's repeal, while trial attorneys and other advocacy groups supported keeping it. Lawsuits brought alleging discrimination in a variety of areas, including age, sex, race and sexual orientation, are affected.

Falk couched her criticism of the new law as an attack on women's pay equity, even though the changes do not apply only to women nor do they make it legal to pay a woman less than a man for the same work. "Gov. Walker was not honest with us about why he signed this repeal of pay equity protections for women,'' Falk said. "Gov. Walker has provided not one piece of evidence to back up his claim.

He owes the women and men of Wisconsin an immediate answer to why he thinks a woman should make less for doing the same job as man.'' That brought a stinging response from Walker's campaign spokeswoman Ciara Matthews, who accused Falk of "outright, blatant lies.'' "It is still illegal in the state of Wisconsin to discriminate against women when it comes to pay, and Kathleen Falk knows this,'' Matthews said.

Walker's office spokesman Cullen Werwie said all groups of people will be treated the same as they had been before 2009 when the change Walker repealed took effect. "Individuals subject to discrimination will continue to be able to seek these damages in federal court and are eligible for back pay, reinstatement, court costs, and attorney fees just as they were under prior law,'' Werwie said.

Barrett renewed his call on Democrats to stay focused on Walker, asking Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate to convene a committee of representatives from all four campaigns to focus on ways to unify following the primary.

Democratic Party spokesman Graeme Zielinski said the party has been talking with all four campaigns about the unity issue, but he had no immediate comment on whether Barrett's request would be fulfilled.

La Follette called it nothing more than a campaign gimmick. Falk and Vinehout did not immediately respond. Barrett previously asked all the Democratic candidates to sign a
clean campaign pledge, saying they can't afford to attack one another in the primary if the winner hopes to have a chance to knock off the first-term Walker.

Even though none of the other candidates signed, the Democratic primary has been mostly devoid of intra-party attacks. None of the Democrats have run television ads attacking one another. Their campaigns have instead been largely focused on Walker. The biggest divide has been behind the scenes, with most unions lining up behind Falk instead of Barrett, whom the largest public sector unions had urged not to get into the race. While he doesn't have the largest unions backing him, Barrett has won support from dozens of past and present Democratic office holders, including retiring U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl.

Walker held news conferences Monday with government officials in Manitowoc and Brown Deer claiming his policies have saved the state $1 billion. The figure was based on adding up totals reflected in local budgets, surveys of governmental officials, and media reports, Walker's office said. "It's not just an estimate but actual documented savings,'' Walker said during an appearance at a Brown Deer elementary school.

Walker said all the numbers were detailed on a website his office created: click here to view the website. But his Democratic opponents, as well as the state party, said his record was nothing to be proud of and pointed to the loss of nearly 1,500 teachers this year due to cuts in public education, a drop in property values statewide and a projected $143 million budget shortfall.