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Gubernatorial Recall Election Polarizes Wis. Voters


It's been more than a year since Wisconsin Democrats began talking about recalling the state's governor, Scott Walker. Next week they'll get their chance to do it. Last night, Walker and his Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, traded barbs in their final debate before Tuesday's vote. Turnout is expected to be very high, as the recall is sharply dividing voters in Wisconsin, so much so, some have just stopped talking to each other. NPR's David Schaper has the latest from Milwaukee.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: With polls showing the race remains tight, neither Democrat Tom Barrett nor incumbent Republican Scott Walker held anything back in the final debate at the Marquette University Law School. The two battled over Walker's law that started the recall push 16 months ago, a law that stripped collective bargaining rights from public employees. They also disputed each other's numbers on employment, with Walker insisting he's created jobs and Barrett saying the rest of the region is doing better.


SCHAPER: Walker fired back that his tax cuts, collective bargaining changes and other measures are improving the economic climate in Wisconsin, while he says this about Barrett.


SCHAPER: Walker also attacked Barrett's record as mayor of Milwaukee, pointing to high unemployment, poorly performing schools in claiming violent crime in Milwaukee is up, not down, as Barrett says, leading Barrett to fire this zinger.


SCHAPER: That's a reference to a corruption investigation into the office of Milwaukee County executive, the office Walker held before becoming governor. A handful of former Walker aides associates have been charged with crimes ranging from campaigning on county time to embezzling funds from a veterans group.

Such sharp exchanges are taking place not just between the candidates, but between friends, neighbors, coworkers and even within families.

LISA COVELLI: I think the state is pretty divided.

SCHAPER: Lisa Covelli is having lunch and a Panera Bread in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

COVELLI: I think it's a sore subject with people, and it's unfortunate, because I think people who are friends are afraid to talk about it. And I think people take it very personally if you have one position or another, and it can upset friendships.

SCHAPER: Covelli is an attorney, and says she refuses to talk about the recall with any of her clients.

COVELLI: I have clients on both sides of the fence, and I'm a very good listener, but I don't comment on my personal views. I want to keep them as clients.

SCHAPER: While lunching with her parents, Angela and Tony, the Covellis say recall talk is off limits at some extended family functions. If the topic comes up, they quickly change the subject to...

ANGELA COVELLI: The weather, our children...

COVELLI: Shopping.

COVELLI: ...shopping. Yeah. "Dancing with the Stars."

COVELLI: Donald Driver was a big topic, right?

TONY COVELLI: Yeah. Exactly. Yeah. Yeah.

SCHAPER: Donald Diver is a football player for Wisconsin's beloved Green Bay Packers, in the Covellis say that rooting for him on the reality show "Dancing with the Stars" this spring has been the one thing that both Democrats and Republicans in Wisconsin could agree on.

The latest poll on the recall from Marquette University's law school indicates that a third of Wisconsin voters will no longer talk about the recall with certain people they know because it's such a polarizing issue.

At the Red Onion Cafe in Racine, Peter Kaiser says it even a bad topic to bring up with total strangers.

PETER KAISER: I was at bar a few weeks back, and I ended up talking to a - I think she might have been an attorney - and asked me about it, and I told her what my position was, and she got so mad that she slammed down her drink, grabbed her friend and they walked out of the bar. So that's the level of discourse, at times.

SCHAPER: Prior to that, Kaiser says he was thinking the conversation might, you know, lead to something, maybe, until the recall talk killed the mood. The lesson he learned?

KAISER: Don't mix love and politics.


SCHAPER: Back on the trail, former President Bill Clinton will campaign with Tom Barrett in Milwaukee today, while South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley will give Scott Walker's campaign a boost in Appleton and the Milwaukee suburbs.

David Schaper, NPR News, Milwaukee.


GREENE: And we will be following the Wisconsin election results all next week. You'll hear it here on MORNING EDITION. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter @MORNINGEDITION and @NPRGreene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.