Mahlon Mitchell, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin, speaks during a rally at the state Capitol last June.

Michael P. King- State Journal archives

“If you run, isn’t it better that we’re having this discussion now?”

So said John “Sly” Sylvester, the WTDY/AM 1670 radio host, to Mahlon Mitchell in November. The Madison firefighter and president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin had come on Sly’s show to respond to accusations that he -- a major state labor leader -- had sent Gov. Scott Walker what Sylvester called a “love letter” immediately after Walker announced Act 10, his plan to eliminate collective bargaining for all public employees except for public safety workers like firefighters and police officers.

Mitchell did in fact release a statement in support of the governor’s decision to exempt firefighters from the changes. And nothing in the statement suggested he opposed the measures being taken against other public workers at the time.

Jim Palmer, the executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, released a similar statement.

“While the collective bargaining changes offered by Gov. Walker in his budget adjustment bill will impact many devoted public employees, the WPPA applauds him for exempting Wisconsin’s public safety workforce and recognizing the critical services they provide,” it said.

Nevertheless, by the time the protests erupted at the Capitol the following week, Mitchell was marching to the tune of the bagpipe-playing firefighters who came from all over the state to protest the governor, and Palmer joined him in a new statement denouncing the budget repair bill. The Madison firefighters were especially active participants in the protests, and their union president, Joe Conway, called for boycotts against businesses that contributed to Walker’s campaign.

In contrast, the Milwaukee Police Association and the Milwaukee Professional Firefighters, both of whom endorsed Walker's gubernatorial candidacy in 2010, did not come out against the legislation. In fact, many have suggested that Walker's exemption of cops and firefighters from Act 10 was his way of paying them back for their support.

“Mahlon is the first to admit he jumped too quickly on that press release, but once he did see the full ramifications he was at the first rally and every rally since,” explains Mitchell’s campaign manager, Stephanie Biese.

There was little public speculation about Mitchell’s apparent about-face until the fall, when rumors began circulating that he was exploring a potential run for governor. Sylvester and others ridiculed the idea, pointing to the first press release as evidence of opportunism and hypocrisy. Mitchell acknowledged he only began voting in elections in 2008, having been disengaged from the political process earlier in his life. Perhaps for this reason, Sylvester suggested to Mitchell during his program that he run for a lesser office first, such as the state Assembly.

For the time being, Mitchell seems to have made the wiser choice in running for lieutenant governor. So far his only opponent is Milwaukee private eye Ira Robins, whereas the high-profile Democratic primary for governor would have pitted him against experienced pols in former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk and state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout.

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Even Sylvester -- who supports Falk for governor -- put aside his past criticisms of Mitchell and endorsed the political novice Tuesday on his show. “Thanks for standing up for Wisconsin, Mahlon,” reads the “Sly in the Morning” blog.

Interestingly, the recording of the show in which Sylvester lampooned Mitchell for the “love letter” is no longer available on the website. The talk show host could not be reached for comment about that.

The Republicans, however, have not forgotten about Mitchell's press release.

“[W]e're confused as to how Mahlon Mitchell will make the case for his candidacy, given that he wrote a letter applauding Governor Walker for his budget reforms,” said the Republican Party of Wisconsin in a press release.

Jack Craver is the Capital Times political reporter, focusing on elections, candidates and campaign finance.