HARTLAND, Wis. — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said Thursday he's not afraid to lose the historic recall election he faces in less than three weeks, but if he wins he intends to govern in a more inclusive, consensus-building way.
Walker, the 44-year-old son of a preacher, hasn't wavered during his tumultuous 16 months in office, refusing to back down on an anti-union bill that sparked massive demonstrations, made Wisconsin the center of a national debate over worker rights and spurred the recall.
But more than a year after he signed the law eliminating most public workers' collective bargaining rights, the Republican governor told The Associated Press he doesn't want to go through that acrimony again and intends to govern in a way that includes winning buy-in from more people at the outset. He cited as an example education reforms he got passed last year with support from the state superintendent and other educators who opposed him on the union rights bill.
But while he talked about reaching for consensus, Walker also refused to say whether he would veto right to work legislation if it ever reached him. And, he said he's not promising to be more bi-partisan.
"I still think people elected me before in November 2010 and they'll elect me again because they want me to fix things," Walker said. "They want me to keep the focus and attention on fixing things. We're just going to make sure we've got a more comprehensive and inclusive process to get there."
Walker faces Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in the June 5 recall election, only the third time in the nation's history that a governor has stood for recall. In both previous cases, the sitting governor was ousted.
Walker didn't divulge his plans, let alone solicit public input, before introducing his collective bargaining bill in February 2011. But he has repeatedly said over the year since it was a mistake not to have a discussion about why he was seeking such a dramatic change. He says the law, which also requires workers to pay more for health insurance and pensions, was needed to help balance the state budget, while critics see it as a political move meant to cripple the unions, which almost always back Democrats.
While the law effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers, Walker did not go after private sector workers, even though as a state lawmaker in 1993 he sponsored a bill to make Wisconsin a right to work state. That would allow workers to forego paying dues even if they are covered by a union contract.
Questions about whether Walker still wants that to happen were raised after a video from January 2011 emerged last week in which he tells a wealthy donor that he's going to employ a "divide and conquer" strategy when taking on public sector unions. Walker refused Thursday to say whether he would sign or veto a right to work bill, skirting the question by saying he will make sure one never passes.
"We don't want to redo the debate we had last year," he said.
The collective bargaining fight made Walker a conservative hero. His campaign for the recall election has been bankrolled with massive donations from some of the country's biggest conservative donors, including $500,000 from Bob Perry of Texas, the financier who helped pay for the Swift Boat Veterans ads that attacked Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry during the 2004 presidential campaign.
But the issue that dominated Wisconsin politics last year has largely taken a back seat in recent days as Walker and Barrett prepare for a rematch of the 2010 race the governor won by 5 points.
When told that Walker wouldn't comment on the right to work bill, Barrett accused the governor of caring more about his rich donors than the people of Wisconsin.
"By refusing to say he would veto that legislation it sends a strong message that he does not want to fall out of grace with those people who are sending records amounts of money into the state for his campaign," Barrett said.
While the Democrat has pledged to work to undo the collective bargaining changes Walker enacted, he's also hammered the governor on his record in office the past 16 months, the $25 million in campaign donations that have mostly come from out of state, and his progress toward meeting a pledge to create 250,000 jobs by 2015.
Despite the attacks, a poll released Wednesday by the Marquette University Law School showed Walker slightly ahead of Barrett 50-44, with a 4.1 percentage point margin of error.
"I'm not afraid to lose," Walker said. "I plan to win, I'm running to win, but I'm not afraid to lose to do the right thing."
And if he does lose?
"I'll figure it out starting June 6," Walker said.