In The News
A tale of two wives on the campaign trail
By Dominique Paul Noth
For those of us who dare answer the telephone or watch television during an election season, the days leading up to the Wisconsin primary brought quite different encounters with the families of candidates for governor.
The one I could most justify – and not just because I have long liked Tom Barrett -- was the rare but powerful appearance of his wife in a TV commercial, the first time Barrett’s team deliberately used his beat-down outside the State Fair in a political context.
Everyone knows the story – how Barrett saw a beefy guy trying to rip a baby away from its grandmother. After asking a family member to watch his own kids, Barrett stepped forward to try to ease the situation and stop the violence. And suddenly the guy pulled a metal tire iron from under his shirt and beat Milwaukee’s mayor to the ground and within an inch of his life despite Barrett’s efforts to protect himself. News footage, which made up much of Kris Barrett’s TV ad, revealed the aftermath, a bloody Barrett with broken teeth and permanent damage to one hand.
The bulk of the commercial was heartfelt, a straight account of family reaction, and I had always been curious about that. Here was a moment we’ve all been through and here was how he behaved.
I’ve been to the State Fair with my family and like many others I wondered what I would have done. Wade right in and try to calm an obviously violent situation? Protect total strangers? I’m pretty sure I would have looked around for a policeman, or rushed away with my family away and tried to call 911.
Tom Barrett didn’t. He went right in.
His wife held her emotions in check, she is no professional spokesman, but even a year later you could tell this was staggering to his loved ones. They may be proud of him, but they sure don’t have to like what happened. Still, she noted, “There’s people with the kind of character who don’t think about circumstances, about what might happen to them. They just respond. And I don’t think he ever thought about it.”
Not just on TV but in person in a long career covering politicians, I’ve seen the reaction to trouble and to violence. It takes a certain amount of hard-nosed wading in just to run for public office, and leaders of both major parties have acquitted themselves well, revealing something of their personal traits. I recall Ronald Reagan’s humor after being shot and nearly dying.
I recall an unpublicized moment I witnessed several years ago at the Pfister Hotel when a former vice president, Al Gore, leaped forward to help a falling TV cameraman while the rest of us media types stood frozen (or maybe wondering how such a big man like Gore could move forward so fast). But I’ve also seen politicians flinch at violence or mishaps, or look around for an aide. I even saw one candidate, who shall go nameless, duck out a side door.
So the human side of the Barrett moment always struck me as something worth hearing more about. I had no problem with the campaign inserting something everyone is talking about anyway into a political race.
A few days later, in a timing hard to shake off as coincidence, particularly since Barrett’s TV commercial had such a powerful immediate impact, I answered the home phone to find a robocall from another wife rarely visible in a campaign context. And it was bizarre and trivial by comparison.
Tonette Walker was on the phone complaining, of all things, about something perfectly natural, how one Democrat was giving a million dollars of his campaign donations to another Democrat, Tom Barrett.
Was she gong to complain that the well-heeled Jim Sensenbrenner hadn’t done the same for her husband? No, it turned out.
The weak purpose of the call was to state that Jim Doyle gave the money to Barrett to “get” her husband. Yes, it was all about Scott, she said. The donation was aimed at derailing Walker and helping Mark Neumann as a candidate.
It was hard not to laugh. (It would also have been useless because the recorded voice wouldn’t hear the ridicule.) I had just recently been talking to the Barrett camp, and off the record they were far more worried about Walker’s opponent. Neumann may have been a conservative clone on key issues but he was also a wild card in political terms.
They were even chafing to expose Walker’s record – and aware that Neumann would have taken off the table the Milwaukeean vs. Milwaukeean thing and added the unknown element of Northern Wisconsin where Neumann had stronger following. (Don’t just believe this liberal writer -- look at the county by county map after that GOP primary.)
So once again, through his wife’s robocall, Walker was trying to deflect attention from reality, and maybe a little bit to counter the truly moving story of Barrett leaving State Fair.
We elect governors on the issues and the ideology. If we elected on moral character, on who steps forward instinctively to help people and who ducks and weaves, this wouldn’t even be a race.