The dueling candidates for the state’s second highest office met for the first and only time earlier this month for a joint appearance on a Milwaukee Sunday news show.
Their brief time together prompted Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch to describe opponent Mahlon Mitchell as a “really nice guy,” whose decision to become a firefighter is a job she “honors and thanks” him for.
Mitchell, in turn, describes Kleefisch as a bit more polished, a result of her years as a television anchor, and a “rubber stamp” for Gov. Scott Walker’s conservative agenda.
On June 5, the date of Wisconsin’s historic recall elections for governor and lieutenant governor, it will be the voters’ views on the two candidates that will matter. They’ll choose whether the state will switch gears and give Mitchell, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin and a 15-year veteran of the Madison Fire Department, a chance to add the lieutenant governor title to his resume or stick with Kleefisch, who has devoted most of her 17 months in office to job creation, the results of which have not kept pace with her boss’ promise to create 250,000 private-sector jobs during their first term in office.
Kleefisch, 36, rode the tea party wave that swept the state in 2010, handily winning her first bid for statewide office.
In the style of other so-called “mama grizzlies”— female candidates who look out for their young — Kleefisch announced her candidacy via webcam from her kitchen table. She told her audience she was running to make the state a better place for her children. She and her husband, state Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, have two daughters, ages 9 and 6.
That lean approach to government spending continues to earn her the support of other big-name conservative women, including former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who coined the “mama grizzly” term.
“She’s setting an example for every other state in the union because responsible state and local governments will be the entities that defend our republic at a time when there is less and less reason to believe our big centralized federal government will address its self-perpetuated economic problems,” Palin writes on Kleefisch’s website, rebeccaforreal.com.
Named the administration’s “jobs ambassador” by Gov. Scott Walker, Kleefisch cites 23,321 jobs created during 2011, the pair’s first year in office, as a sign the state’s economy is turning around.
Many, however, dispute the validity of that number since it has yet to be verified by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The federal agency will release the verified numbers in late June, weeks after the recall election.
Mitchell, 35, is the middle child of three boys, all of whom are firefighters. Born in Milwaukee, he spent part of his youth in Illinois before his family moved to Delavan, the same town where Scott Walker grew up.
“I joke that he and I took some different classes,” says Mitchell, who now lives in Fitchburg with his wife, daughter, 13, and son, 8.
Mitchell quickly rose to prominence at the Capitol protests that erupted in February 2011, just days after Walker “dropped the bomb” when he announced he planned to scale back collective bargaining rights for most public employees.
During one of the first of the Capitol protests that would become the norm for the following six weeks, Mitchell was pulled from the crowd by Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin chapter of the AFL-CIO, and told to make a speech.
With no words prepared, Mitchell thought of a phrase a fellow firefighter had started to use that had been running through his thoughts. When he stepped behind the podium, he said it.
“The house of labor is on fire. We’ve got to put it out,” Mitchell recalls telling the crowd. “When I said it, people loved it. It sparked something. I spoke at almost every rally after that.”
Additionally, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Wisconsin lost 5,900 jobs in April and 3,600 jobs in March.
“Walker has done an effective job painting all unions as Democrats. It’s how they vilify everybody,” Mitchell says. “Gays, guns and God are the three issues police officers and firefighters are voting on. And that’s got to stop.”
Mitchell says he believes in a woman’s right to control her reproductive decisions and in marriage equality. In contrast, Kleefisch does not. Her views on marriage equality, in particular, drew much attention during her last run for office.
“At what point are we going to okay marrying inanimate objects? Can I marry this table, or this, you know, chair? Can we marry dogs? This is ridiculous,” Kleefisch said during an interview prior to the 2010 election. This time around, Kleefisch is talking less about social issues and more about jobs.
To overcome the conservative voting tendencies of many law enforcement officers, Mitchell started speaking to unions last year about the need to focus their voting power not on candidates that support their social issues but on those who will maintain their union rights.
“The funny thing about Republicans is they say they are for smaller government and less government in your life,” he says. “But they want to be intrusive in everybody’s life on every social issue.”