Gubernatorial recall: A rematch or new blood?

When I was a young and callow fellow, I tended to gravitate more toward candidates who really spoke to me. I prized integrity, gravitas, and deep intellectual curiosity over unctuousness, glamour, and insincere demagoguery.

So, for instance, in ’88 I backed Paul Simon over Gary Hart and Michael Dukakis (apparently, Dukakis wasn’t nearly nerdy or awkward enough for me). In ’92, I preferred Paul Tsongas (the pro-business liberal) to the ultra-smooth Bill Clinton. And as recently as 2004, I dismissed dreamboat Lotharios like John Edwards and lantern-jawed military men like John Kerry in favor of G.I. Joe-sized vegan Dennis Kucinich. (Full disclosure: I am also a vegan, but I was surprised to learn recently that many people are not.)

Eventually, I came to the disquieting realization that I was not searching for a leader so much as a fourth for Dungeons & Dragons. It was a fatal mistake. Just because I happen to be too nerdy for words doesn’t mean our leaders should be, too.

Of course, we all tend to create our ideal candidates in our own image. It’s the mistake Republicans appear to be narrowly avoiding this primary season. Sure, some true believer conservatives may feel a warm, squishy sense of familiarity when they watch Ron Paul channeling Ayn Rand or Rick Santorum throwing gays under the bus (hopefully not literally – yet), but Mitt Romney is electable. And as I’ve been saying for months now, Mitt Romney will likely be the nominee. He may be a Massachusetts moderate, but unlike Michele Bachmann, Donald Trump, Ron Paul, and the rest of the Funky Bunch, he has refreshingly few moments where it looks like he’s being remote-controlled by a peyote-infused Gary Busey.

Which brings me to the (now inevitable) gubernatorial recall. Among the first candidates to announce is former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk. I like her. I like her a lot. I fear I like her too much. The words “Dane County liberal” are already echoing through my head like a Charlie Sykes See ‘n Say. I live in Madison, but I grew up in Manitowoc and lived for many years in the Fox Valley. People here are more likely to think like me than people up north are. In the Fox Valley, I spoke like an unabashed social liberal and rode my bike everywhere. I might as well have driven a Soviet tank down College Avenue while tossing free heroin needles and copies of The Daily Worker from the turret.

The more I read about Falk, the warmer and fuzzier I feel about her. She earned a B.A. in philosophy from Stanford, a law degree from the UW, and is also a graduate of Harvard University’s Senior Executives in State and Local Government Program. Scott Walker is a college dropout. (The only reason I mention this is I’m kind of a jerk.)

She’s an advocate for the poor and the environment, but as Dane County executive, was able to balance the budget without alienating her constituency or, as she recently told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “without breaking the back of any one interest.”

Sounds refreshing. Really refreshing.

Plus, seriously, would it kill us to have a woman governor? Wisconsin has had 41 chief executives, and not one has been a woman. (And no, Rebecca Kleefisch is not much of a consolation prize.) I contend that the quickest way to stop the kind of frat-boy hazing our public workers have endured these many months is by having a fair-minded woman who knows how to work and play well with others enter the picture.

Then again, Falk has yet to prove she can win a statewide election. She ran for Wisconsin attorney general in 2006 and lost – narrowly – to J.B. Van Hollen. Could the shift in political sentiment and the evident animus much of the electorate now feels toward Walker put her over the top?

Possibly, but I can’t help but keep hearing, “Dane County liberal, Dane County liberal, Dane County liberal ….”

Which makes me wonder if Tom Barrett is the safer choice. He came close to beating Walker last time, has greater name recognition than Falk, and currently leads her in a poll of likely Democratic voters, 46% to 27%. If he were persuaded to vie for a rematch, he might be able to position himself as the logical choice, giving Wisconsinites a chance to correct the mistake they made in November. Having lost to Walker by just 5% during a midterm election that saw Democrats all over the country get massacred, it seems likely the changing political winds in our state could lift him to victory.

Recall supporters have come a long way, and have cleared the first hurdle with a full head of steam. But if Democrats flub the recall election itself, all that goes out the window. It would be like going 15-1 in the regular season and then losing by 17 on your home turf to a nine-win team whose quarterback looks like a hung over 16-year-old Cub Foods bagger.

What? Too soon?

Scott Walker marched into office declaring that Wisconsin is open for business, but the actual results have been tepid at best. While the national employment numbers have looked rosier as of late, Wisconsin has not followed suit, losing jobs every month since July. I’m always reluctant to give politicians too much credit or blame for the state of the economy, and it could be that those numbers have very little to do with Gov. Walker. Then again, the rift he’s created in our state can’t have helped.

I like Falk, but that “Dane County” mantra could prove fatal. I like Barrett a little less, but he might have a better shot.

Democrats, whatever you do, don’t screw it up this time.