By Brendan O'Brien
MADISON, Wis (Reuters) - Wisconsin Democrats on Wednesday got a candidate with a famous name to challenge controversial Republican Governor Scott Walker in a recall election when Doug La Follette, a relative of well-known Wisconsin progressive "Fighting Bob" La Follette, said he would run for governor.
Democrats and unions collected a million signatures from Wisconsin voters to recall Walker after he championed a new law that strips public sector unions in the state of many of their powers. But until La Follette threw his hat into the ring, none of the state's top Democrats had confirmed they would take on Walker.
La Follette, 71, who has been Wisconsin secretary of state since 1983, said he would file paperwork on Thursday to declare his candidacy for governor in a special election.
"This is a formal step," said La Follette in a telephone interview with Reuters.
"Governor Walker has been very bad for this state, whether it's cuts to education, the voter ID law, amending the wet land legislation to put wet lands in danger, and removing health care from citizens," La Follette said of Walker's agenda. "We need a governor who will pull all the people together, listen to all the people of Wisconsin -- Republican, Democrat and independent."
The only other Democratic candidate who is somewhat known in Wisconsin is Kathleen Falk, a former executive of the county that includes Wisconsin's liberal bastion of Madison. She lost a bid for governor in 2002.
Last month, recall supporters submitted one million signatures on petitions to the state's election board in their effort to recall Walker. A state agency has set a deadline of March 19 to determine if there are 540,208 valid signatures to force a recall. An election would be sometime in the spring or summer.
La Follette is a relative of Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette, who was governor and then U.S. senator at the start of the 20th century.
Another potential high-powered Wisconsin Democrat, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who lost the 2010 governor's race to Walker, has not said whether he will run again, according to a campaign adviser Patrick Guarasci.
Former U.S. congressman David Obey and state assemblyman and Minority Leader Peter Barca also have been mentioned as challengers. Potential candidates may be choosing to wait until it is clearer when the election will be.
A spokesman for Walker was not immediately available to comment on the new candidate against the governor.
Whomever jumps in the race will have to contend with Walker's $12 million war chest and a loyal conservative base.
The highly controversial union measure created a deep political divide in the state between Republicans, who say the measure was needed to turn the state in the right fiscal direction and Democrats who claim it unfairly strips workers of their rights. It led to the recall of two Republican senators last summer.
In addition to the recall effort against him, Walker has been dealing with a criminal investigation linked to the time when he was Milwaukee County executive -- which has resulted in criminal charges against five former aides and close political associates. The allegations range from embezzlement and theft to political solicitation by a public employee and misconduct in public office. Walker has not been charged.
A Marquette University Law School poll released on Wednesday showed 52 percent of voters believed the investigation was "really something serious" while 40 percent said it was "just more politics."
The poll of 716 Wisconsin voters found opinions about the investigation follow party lines, with just 25 percent of Republicans and 80 percent of Democrats saying the investigation is "something serious."
The poll did not pit current and potential candidates against Walker in a hypothetical recall election nor did it ask whether the investigation hurts Walker politically.
(Reporting By Mary Wisniewski and Brendan O'Brien; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Greg McCune)