Mahlon Mitchell: Wisconsin lt. governor candidate a win for unions

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The media has been focused on the June 5 match-up in Wisconsin between embattled Republican Governor Scott Walker and Democratic challenger Tom Barrett. But another match up might prove an even bigger success for labor.

The race for lieutenant governor (a position without any official duties) between Mahlon Mitchell and GOP incumbent Rebecca Kleefisch is also a race to watch. A victory for Democrats and Mitchell would be a big labor win. Wisconsin’s lieutenant governor is elected to serve only if the governor dies or is incapacitated. However, a victory would be a powerful symbol in the core fight over Wisconsin’s collective bargaining rights that lead up to this recall election.

Mitchell is a Madison labor leader, and president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin. Mitchell, who is African American, is a firefighter with 15 years under his belt at the Madison fire department. He has framed his candidacy as a ‘first responder’ to Wisconsin’s political state of emergency.

A self-proclaimed outsider who takes pride in not being a career politician, Mitchell represents the heart of the collective bargaining fight in Wisconsin. Last winter, thousands of public workers and their allies descended on Madison for weeks of fiery protests, in response to Gov. Walker and the Republican-led legislature’s “budget repair bill,” which stripped the collective bargaining rights of public sector employees in the state. Democratic legislators fled the state in order to prevent a vote on the bill, though it ultimately passed. The massive protests lead to a recall effort, with nearly one million signatures to oust Walker, the lieutenant governor, and four state senators.

Mitchell a ‘union man’

Mitchell is a union man, who says he responded to the calls of Democrats in the state who were encouraging people who were not already in elected office to run. The Republican incumbent, Rebecca Kleefisch, is already on the air with her first television ad in the race, mostly hitting economic themes and the state’s low unemployment rate; and topping it off with a feel good, family vibe. There is no mention of Mitchell in the ad, and no mention of the controversial anti-union legislation that lead Wisconsans to this point.

Contrast that with Mitchell, who is cast as an “everyday guy,” still slightly unpolished; and who makes frequent references to the fact that he has to learn not to curse anymore, now that he’s running for office.

On the issues outside of bargaining rights, Mitchell has focused stopping a voter ID law that was ruled unconstitutional in March; the need for increased funding for education in the state, and the necessity for members of all political parties to compromise in order to improve the lives of the people of Wisconsin.

Political watchers will pay close attention to how the June 5 recall election shakes out. It is possible for Mitchell to win even if Walker hangs on and is victorious, because there are separate voting ballots for each office. However, the likelihood of a party split between governor and lieutenant governor is slim. A loss for Wisconsin Democrats in this long and protracted battle could be a big blow for labor in the long term.