By Brendan O'Brien
MILWAUKEE (Reuters) - Wisconsin's controversial Republican Governor Scott Walker is under fire from Democrats following the release of a year-old video clip in which he describes to a supporter his "divide and conquer" strategy for dealing with organized labor.
In the video clip, part of a documentary filmed by a man who has contributed to the campaign of Walker's main Democratic opponent, Walker is chatting with Beloit, Wisconsin billionaire Diane Hendricks before meeting with a local economic development group shortly after he took office in 2011.
"The first step is we are going to deal with collective bargaining for all public employee unions because you divide and conquer," Walker said to Hendricks, who has contributed $510,000 to his campaign, according to a state campaign finance database.
Walker used the phrase in response to a question from Hendricks, who asked the governor if Wisconsin "would ever become a completely red (Republican) state and work on these unions and become a right-to-work" state?
Walker faces a recall election on June 5 after he angered unions and Democrats by pushing through the state legislature last spring a substantial diminution of the power of public sector unions. He faces Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in a vote that polls have so far shown will be close.
The law championed by Walker forced local and state government workers such as teachers to pay a portion of the cost of health insurance and pensions, limited wage increases to the level of inflation, made union dues voluntary and forced unions to be recertified every year.
The "divide and conquer" comment drew a sharp response from Barrett.
"Scott Walker is finally honest about his secret plot to 'divide and conquer' Wisconsin by launching an ideological civil war against working, middle-class families," Barrett spokesman Phil Walzak said on Saturday.
Barrett, who lost to Walker in the 2010 gubernatorial race, won a primary Tuesday against a field of three other Democrats.
Asked about the comment at the start of the Wisconsin state Republican party convention in Green Bay on Friday, Walker did not deny he said it. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel quoted him as responding: "It's about standing up and saying I'm drawing the line in the sand and saying, 'I'm putting the government firmly on the side of the taxpayer again.'"
Walker has consistently defended the union measures as needed to close a yawning state budget deficit. If he prevails in the recall vote, Democrats said they believe he has a more nefarious agenda for unions.
They accused Walker of wanting to follow in the footsteps of another Midwest state, Indiana, in making Wisconsin a "right to work" state. Right to work legislation allows an employee to opt out of paying union dues even at a unionized private workplace.
"I have no interest in pursuing right-to-work legislation," Walker said Friday in Green Bay.
The video of Walker last year was filmed by Brad Lichtenstein, who was working on a documentary on the city of Janesville, Wisconsin. The documentary "As Goes Janesville" is about the closing of a General Motors plant and the city's attempt to create jobs.
Lichtenstein gave $100 to Barrett in 2010 when the mayor unsuccessfully ran against Walker for governor, according to the state political contributions database.
The latest public poll, by Rasmussen Reports earlier this week, showed Walker leading Barrett by 50 to 45 percent in the recall. It is unclear if the video will have an impact on the campaign as almost everyone in Wisconsin has already decided what they think of Walker.
Polls show an extraordinarily low 5 or 6 percent undecided with more than three weeks to go until the June 5 vote.
(Editing by Greg McCune)
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