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For the State of Wisconsin, 2011 was a year of political chaos. It all started with a surprise move by freshman Republican Governor Scott Walker to curb the bargaining rights of public employee unions. This sparked massive protests and a week's long occupation of the state capitol. Well, the battle enters a new phase tomorrow when a state board is expected to order a gubernatorial recall election. If Walker were to lose, he'd become only the third governor in U.S. history to lose his job in a recall.
Wisconsin's Public Radio's Shawn Johnson reports.
SHAWN JOHNSON, BYLINE: It started out as a chant.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS CHANTING RECALL WALKER)
JOHNSON: Less than a week after Governor Walker introduced his bill to curb public employee union bargaining rights, protesters were already plotting his recall. The right of Wisconsinites to recall state officials was added to Wisconsin's constitution in the 1920s. But it's never been used on a Wisconsin Governor.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS CHANTING, HEY HEY, HO HO, SCOTT WALKER HAS GOT TO GO)
JOHNSON: That appeared destined to change this winter when Democrats from every Wisconsin county turned in more than 900,000 signatures urging Walker's recall. That was far more than the 540,000 they needed.
Ever since, Governor Walker has campaigned, coast to coast, telling conservative audiences why his recall election should matter to them.
GOVERNOR SCOTT WALKER REPUBLICAN, WISCONSIN: What's at stake in this election is fundamentally about courage.
JOHNSON: In a speech last month at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Walker called collective bargaining an expensive entitlement, and said ending it would save taxpayers' money for generations. Walker asked the crowd to support what he did by supporting his campaign.
WISCONSIN: Lord, help us if we fail. I believe fundamentally having looked at this more closely over time, if we fail - and I'm not planning on it. But if we were to fail, I think this sets aside any courageous act in American politics for at least a decade, if not a generation. That is why we must not fail.
JOHNSON: Normal campaign finance rules do not apply in Wisconsin recall elections. Instead of the $10,000 limit on political contributions that's normally in place, donors can give unlimited funds to an incumbent facing a recall. Governor Walker has received multiple six-figure donations, including a half-million dollars from Texas homebuilder Bob Perry.
Democrats still have to pick Walker's opponent in a primary that will likely be scheduled for May. And while a few candidates are interested, organized labor already has its choice.
KATHLEEN FALK: You know, I'm the granddaughter of a bus driver in Milwaukee. And I learned, early on, how important my grandfather's work in his union was to giving me a better life.
JOHNSON: Kathleen Falk is a former county executive for Dane County, home to Madison. She secured endorsements from most major unions soon after she entered the race. Union leaders say the reason is straightforward. Falk promised to restore their collective bargaining rights in the state budget. She also promised to veto any budget from the legislature that does not include collective bargaining. Republicans call it a quid pro quo.
But speaking at a fundraiser this week, Falk said she's being straight with voters on the issue driving this recall.
FALK: You know, I've been doing this for a long time. And not only do I know how you get things done, but I'm being open and honest and transparent - unlike Governor Walker, who's being recalled because he was not honest with voters.
JOHNSON: The early union nod is unusual because of who has yet to get into the race. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett ran and lost against Walker in 2010. Polls suggest he's best known among Democrats with the highest approval rating. Barrett was coy about his plans at a recent forum, but sounded like a candidate, saying Governor Walker had torn the state apart.
MAYOR TOM BARRETT: Make no question about this. There is a civil war going on in the state right now and he alone started the civil war. I want the war to end. And I think the people of this state want the war to end.
JOHNSON: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel was in Milwaukee raising money for Barrett yesterday. Barrett could announce his intentions any day.
There are other wild cards in this race, including an ongoing criminal investigation of former Walker aides. Governor Walker has hired defense attorneys but has not been accused of any wrongdoing.
Barring the unexpected, the recall election itself will be held in early June. Once the election is ordered tomorrow, Walker loses the ability to raise unlimited cash. But observers say interest groups from both sides will pick up the slack, as the spotlight on this recall election grows brighter.
For NPR News, I'm Shawn Johnson in Madison. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.