The leader of the state’s firefighter union plans to launch a gubernatorial campaign Monday, joining a crowded Democratic field that is expected to grow.

Mahlon Mitchell last ran for public office during the 2012 recall elections, when he was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor and lost to Rebecca Kleefisch. The nearly 1.2 million votes Mitchell received in that election gives him the highest vote tally in a single election of any of the candidates running for governor so far.

At 40, Mitchell is also the first major Democratic contender who is younger than Gov. Scott Walker, who recently turned 50. Mitchell, like Walker, grew up in Delavan and attended Delavan-Darien High School.

“I’m running for governor because after eight years of Scott Walker, it’s time for change,” Mitchell said in a statement to the Wisconsin State Journal.

In 2011, Mitchell, a Fitchburg resident and Madison firefighter, became the youngest and first African-American president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin.

That same year he garnered attention during the protests against Walker’s signature Act 10 law, which curbed the power of public-sector unions in the state. The law didn’t affect police and fire unions, but Mitchell led his members in marches at the Capitol in solidarity with unions that were affected.

A Walker campaign spokesman responded Sunday: “With more people working than ever before, taxes down and a record investment in our classrooms, Gov. Walker’s bold reforms putting taxpayers ahead of the big government special interests have Wisconsin moving forward.”

Republican Party of Wisconsin spokesman Alec Zimmerman criticized Mitchell’s opposition to Act 10.

“After being rejected by voters once before, Mitchell is doubling down on the failed policies of yesterday,” Zimmerman said.

Long line forming

Mitchell isn’t likely to be the last Democrat with some name recognition to join the field.

Earlier this year, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin said he would make a decision on whether to run for governor “sometime around Labor Day.” In a recent interview Soglin said he is likely to run, but won’t make an announcement until January.

Former state Rep. Kelda Roys, who recently had a baby, also said she won’t announce her decision on a possible campaign until January, after the current group release their finance reports for the second half of 2017.

“If it looks like somebody is really doing well and (is) well-positioned to defeat Walker, then I will enthusiastically support that person,” Roys said. “If it looks like there is an opening or I would be a stronger candidate than others in the field, then I would jump in.”

Soglin said his timing isn’t connected to the campaign finance reports.

“The reason I’m waiting until the first of the year is because I want to get the city budget finalized which is over in the next two weeks,” Soglin said. “Then that period from Thanksgiving to Christmas, people don’t spend a lot of time focused on politics.”

So far, state superintendent of public instruction Tony Evers, former Democratic Party chairman Matt Flynn, Milwaukee businessman Andy Gronik, former Wisconsin Democracy Campaign executive director Mike McCabe, Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, and Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, have launched campaigns.

Other Democrats who have registered gubernatorial campaigns include Michelle Doolan, Bob Harlow, Dave Heaster, Brett Hulsey, Kurt Kober, Jared Landry, Andrew Lust, Jeffrey Rumbaugh and Ramona Whiteaker.

Candidates have until June 1 to submit all paperwork to appear on the Aug. 14 gubernatorial primary ballot.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to accurately reflect Mahlon Mitchell's employment status with the Madison Fire Department. The story also clarifies the process for getting on the gubernatorial ballot.

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Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.