Gov. Scott Walker gets the heck out of Madison.
This was a key strategy during the furor over Act 10 – his legislation hobbling most public sector unions in the state – and he used it again in late February, after a court let slip a document dump with the potential to flatten whatever ambitions he harbored for higher office, or even re-election. Soon, every other political reporter in the country was paging casually, madly or curiously through some 27,000 emails collected during the first John Doe probe to investigate Walker allies and associates for campaigning on the public dime. Written by lieutenants for both Scott Walker the Milwaukee County executive, and Scott Walker the gubernatorial candidate, the emails looked like a godsend for Walker’s ill-wishers, marred as the messages were by insensitive asides and the occasional racist joke. Walker himself rarely appeared in the chains, yet they illustrated in gory detail the mixture of public and political business that had long stewed under his watch.
“No, because I’m not going to get into 27,000 different pieces of information,” Walker replied, keeping his cool. “The bottom line is a Democrat, who led the district attorney’s office, looked at all this, decided not to charge anything other than the individuals you mentioned, who were people who had worked for the county in the past and don’t work for me today. I think that’s pretty straightforward.”
When voters in Wisconsin’s 14th Assembly District, centered in Wauwatosa, elected Scott Walker to the state Legislature in 1993, he ended up sitting across the aisle from a Milwaukee Democrat, then-state Rep. Tim Carpenter, now a state senator. The two struck up a friendship based on a common interest, the Milwaukee Brewers, and discussed plans for an outing to County Stadium but never made the trip. Both were young and vaguely ambitious. “I knew what it was like to come into the Legislature when you are in your 20s,” Carpenter says. “When you get there, it’s best to watch and learn before you speak,” advice that found a supporting example in Walker. The freshman kept a low profile and became an “activist” and “niche” legislator, the Democrat says, with a reputation for staying well-informed on a number of pet issues, such as truth-in-sentencing and voter I.D. Walker also presented himself as a team player for the GOP and eventually caught the eye of Assembly Speaker David Prosser, who took over the speakership in 1995 and, in a fatherly gesture, appointed him to some of his first chairmanships within the chamber.
In the past, an elder colleague had mistaken the Republican for an idle page on the floor
of the Assembly and dropped a stack of bills into his hands, to distribute to lawmakers, but Prosser saw something more. “Scott definitely tried to ingratiate himself with the members of his own caucus,” says Carpenter. “He was smart. He had good political instincts,” and he worked with a smile. “He wasn’t a pit bull.”
State Sen. Mark Miller (D-Monona), who would later grate against Walker during the fight over Act 10, remembers the early legislator as “one of the more conservative members” of the lower house. “He had a tough-on-crime agenda,” which could have lent itself to booming stands in the Assembly – something to define himself before a wide audience – but that wasn’t Walker’s style. “He was not a particularly inspiring speaker,” Miller recalls. “He would sort of speak in a monotone.”
Around this time, Walker began to appear on WISN-TV as a conservative commentator on talk radio host Mark Belling’s Sunday show, “Belling and Company,” which hosted panel discussions on issues of state and local debate. Also making the roster in those days was Mordecai Lee, who noticed that the Republican had come to politics preformed and talk-radio ready. “In substance, I don’t recall a single occasion when he disagreed with Mark,” Lee says, with one important distinction. “He would agree with Mark’s positions but provide a softer and gentler explanation.”
Despite Walker’s nice-guy rationales – or perhaps because of how effective they could be – fellow lawmakers began to envision the Republican in leadership. “A lot of people knew he was hard-working and driven and likely to move up,” says Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who first encountered the future governor while testifying before a committee in the Assembly on crime. Then, the unthinkable happened. The guppy turned into a bullfrog. A fiscal scandal no one foresaw kicked off an era in which a young-blood conservative could run for Milwaukee County executive, and Walker couldn’t pass up the chance.
Tom Ament’s resignation in 2002, amid the county pension scandal, opened up a post in which he could try his hand at being “in charge,” says Tommy Thompson, who was then serving as governor and thought Walker was a bit crazy to leave the Legislature. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘I don’t think that’s a great career move,’” Thompson says. “His explanation was that there was a need, and he thought he could actually do it. He thought his skills would be that of an executive.
“He was gambling a lot,” Thompson adds, “and I give him a heckuva lot of credit for it.”
Walker won the special election and two re-election campaigns in 2004 and 2008, yet often found his hands tied when it came to county finances. A bloc of liberal county supervisors controlled the County Board, and legal opinions indicated that even “golden parachute” pension benefits like those approved under Ament were nearly impossible to roll back. “I still see them go through,” says the current county executive, Chris Abele, who sought another round of legal analysis, from the Foley and Lardner firm, after his election in 2011. Lawyers devised a way to reduce the payments, a strategy Abele put into practice. But with different advice, Walker could do little more than ask new hires to sign waivers forgoing the windfalls.
To his critics on the County Board, Walker was an absentee executive who forwarded budgets to the panel that required no new taxes but were practically untenable. In a yearly square dance, board members revised the plans upward, sent them back to Walker for his veto, and overrode said veto, setting the contours of county spending for the year. Supervisors complained to Miller, then serving on the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, that they had to “bail Walker out” of irresponsible decisions, though many of the county’s signature services continued to decline. Bus routes decreased nearly every year, between 2002 and 2010; fares rose from $1.50 to $2.25; and ridership dropped 22 percent. Moreover, county parks, once heralded as the city’s “emerald necklace,” continued to decay, and by 2008, county officials were estimating that needed repairs and maintenance, if completed in full, would cost about $275 million.
Walker first ran for governor in 2006 but made an early and strategic decision to step aside and allow U.S. Rep. Mark Green, who led in fundraising, to seize the Republican nomination uncontested. “That primary was going to be an uncomfortable one for many people,” Fitzgerald says. “We were being forced to pick sides.” Walker’s surprise exit in March 2006, which elated Green and the state GOP, hearkened back to State Rep. Walker, the team player. “Party activists from southeastern Wisconsin showered Walker with three standing ovations as he announced his decision before hugging Green,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported from the Republican event in Waukesha.
By biding his time, Walker had both preserved the statewide contacts he’d established and inspired loyalty within the party for a more serious run in 2010. This was a useful step – but only the latest in a decade-long quest for higher office. “Early on, he was working on extending his base outside of his Assembly district,” says Carpenter, who found Walker mailers in his South Side district, and even knew a few movers and shakers who had received letters from the representative. “He must have known who the big voters were.”
Compared to the many millions Walker would raise and spend in the months leading up to the 2012 recall, expenditures in 2010’s contest for governor seem downright parochial. The nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign estimates total spending, for all groups and candidates, at a humble $37.4 million, with much of that invested in attack ads. The Republican Governors Association dumped about $5 million on spots tying Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett to former Gov. Jim Doyle, and the Greater Wisconsin Committee spent almost as much in its counteroffensive, which helped to close Barrett’s $4 million fundraising gap with the well-connected Republican. Walker won 52-46 and entered office with dual GOP majorities in the Legislature, meaning that, for the first time since the days of Tommy Thompson, the party held the keys to the kingdom.
Walker allies Scott Fitzgerald and State Rep. Jeff Fitzgerald commanded the state Legislature in 2011 as Senate majority leader and Assembly speaker, respectively, and moved quickly to pass key legislation for the new governor. Successful bills weakened the powers of ordinary citizens or other parties to sue companies over grievances, replaced the state Department of Commerce with a public authority, and advanced an income tax cut for manufacturers in the state. In Walker’s words, Wisconsin was “open for business.”
Scott Fitzgerald, the elder of the Fitzgerald brothers, would figure importantly in the complex drama to follow, and 2011 became a tale of two Scotts whose styles had more subtleties than the cartoonish cabal – between two loyalist brothers and an imperious Walker – that opponents described. The governor had been an Eagle Scout, and Fitzgerald had served in the Army Reserve. The legislator had a journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and had owned a newspaper in Juneau, and Walker had, from the beginning of his career, understood how to package himself for TV and radio news.
“He’s not a pound-on-the-desk kind of guy,” says Scott Fitzgerald, who isn’t either, and smoothes over divisions in his caucus (which he says has more of a “one-on-one” feel than its counterpart in the Assembly) with a cautious touch. Once a week, Fitzgerald meets with Walker and a number of the governor’s staff members to trade priorities on “a laundry list of issues” and skim across state business. “It’s a lot of laughing and goofing around,” he says, “but we get our work done.”
Although Walker’s friend and compatriot, Fitzgerald defied the governor at a crucial moment in the debate over Act 10, according to Unintimidated, Walker’s 2013 book dramatizing his first two years in office. And the governor was furious. He’d wanted to wait a day longer before approving the signature bill, recently divested of its fiscal components, but Fitzgerald rushed ahead, passed the bill in a matter of hours and exposed the state to an open records lawsuit. At the time, Walker was out of town, jetting around the state on a “hangar tour” to shore up support for the bill. “In retrospect,” the book concedes, “senate leaders were probably smart to get the vote out of the way,” before protesters could react.
There’s a small genre surrounding what politicos around the state said when they first heard about the governor’s plan to stab at the heart of collective bargaining. State Sen. Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center), who later became the only Republican in the state Senate to vote no, is reported to have uttered, in disbelief, “Come on, people kill each other’s dogs over this shit.” Cantankerous Senate President Mike Ellis’ response was a profane variation of “Gov. Walker has lost his mind,” according to Unintimidated, and Thompson says he thought that the gambit was “really gutsy.” After years of bobbing along in Milwaukee County, practically a lame duck, no one was sure how bold a Gov. Walker would prove to be. Act 10 settled the question for Thompson. “That shows he wants to lead,” he thought. “He’s going to be an aggressive leader.”
The role of Republican lawmakers in composing and passing what started out as the “Budget Repair Bill” in early 2011 and later came to be known as “Act 10” – so far, the reform central to Walker’s growing legacy – was pivotal. In Unintimidated, the idea to vastly weaken public employee unions emerges in the governor-elect’s mind in the fall of 2010. But not until a circle of Republican lawmakers stand around a computer in the Capitol and peck out a scaled-back version does the bill itself begin to take shape. Walker and staff had presented a harsher plan to Scott and Jeff Fitzgerald, and Scott Fitzgerald had laughed it off, thinking it another joke. “You’re not serious,” he replied, but Walker said he was.
In the book, two Walker lieutenants – Keith Gilkes, his longtime campaign manager, then serving as chief of staff, and another staffer, Eric Schutt – walk into Ellis’ office to find the circle of typing lawmakers, which included the Fitzgerald brothers; state Rep. Robin Vos (R-Burlington); state Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), a co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee; and Ellis himself. On the computer in front of them, a word processing document is titled, in large letters, “Nuclear Lite.” This diluted version leaves collective bargaining in place for wages, with strict limits, and non-fiscal issues, such as work rules, and goes on to serve as the template for Walker’s official plan. The “Budget Repair Bill” closes an immediate shortfall of $137 million by increasing state employee pension and health care contributions, and in preparation for the state budget to come, disentangles government from what Walker calls the “Lilliputian threads” of bargaining.
His reference to Gulliver’s Travels arose from years leading Milwaukee County, where he clashed with the AFSCME local representing a large portion of public employees. Unable to bargain concessions, Walker imposed furloughs and entered the governorship embittered by the “union bosses.” Nearly every paragraph in Unintimidated turns on Act 10, its successes and enemies, and the story is as much of a local government official writ large, breaking down old obstacles, as it is of a fiscal purist and Reagan admirer.
Walker’s life is strangely bound up with the former president: He and Tonette Walker mark their wedding anniversary on his birthday, and every year, they host a dual celebration featuring the former president’s favorite foods, “macaroni and cheese casserole and red, white and blue Jelly Belly jelly beans,” the book says, “and have musicians perform patriotic songs and Irish music.” Reagan’s firing of 11,000 striking air traffic controllers in 1981 was the sort of precedent to both embolden and unnerve the Wisconsin governor. Lost jobs in any form would nullify his message of creating jobs and moving “forward,” yet from the beginning, he’d wanted to fix the “structural deficit” in the state budget, something that experts agreed would improve the Badger State’s fiscal condition after years of shifting priorities. Former Gov. Jim Doyle had plugged shortfalls with funds from the federal stimulus act and a number of segregated accounts, and unless Walker increased state taxes (which he wasn’t going to do), the wobbly structure could come apart and force leaders to impose drastic cuts.
And that’s what happened. Walker’s first budget, passed after Act 10, included about $1 billion in cuts to state aid, money sucked from school and local government funding. The sole sweetener was that, now released from union bargaining, these entities could raise employee contributions to benefits and – as claimed by the administration’s talking points – more than make up the difference.
Studies have disputed this. Today, the League of Wisconsin Municipalities estimates that changes made possible by Act 10 only offset about $70 million of the $100 million in aid taken from cities, villages and towns. And to determine whether the budgets of school districts were “made whole” under Act 10, the Journal Sentinel charged a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter, Dave Umhoefer, with interviewing a sampling of school officials from around the state. Some said they still had labor contracts in place that precluded savings, or had relied on attrition (which was on the rise) to cut costs. Of the 17 school systems that Umhoefer surveyed, only four had completely offset their cuts to state aid using what Walker had called the “tools” of Act 10.
School systems and the Municipalities League found within their ranks about as many opinions on Walker’s policies as they had mayors, village presidents, veteran teachers and school board members. “About the only thing you can say is that he’s been a polarizing figure,” says Dan Thompson, executive director of the Municipalities League. Some of the savings towns had hoped for didn’t pan out, Thompson says, because many already administered self-funded insurance plans, which can be as much as 20 percent cheaper than consumer plans. Walker had claimed that towns could save by bidding out their consumer plans, no longer controlled by union contracts, and increasing competition.
The MacIver Institute, a conservative think tank based in Madison, has periodically conducted its own analyses and released figures in October estimating Act 10’s savings to school districts at almost $1.9 billion since the law was enacted in 2011. MacIver was created in 2009 to be more nimble than groups consigned to “quarterly reports and white papers,” according to President Brett Healy, who had a previous career as a Republican staffer in the Assembly. “Twenty or 30 years from now,” he says, “we’re going to point to Act 10 as the time we put taxpayers back in control.”
By the summer of 2011, Walker’s approval rating was on the ropes, and Time magazine had suggested calling the governor “dead man Walker.” Still carrying wounds from Act 10, he’d all but had his head held underwater as debate raged over the state budget. In July, near the nadir of his popularity, a poll released by the University of Wisconsin Survey Center measured his approval rating at just 37 percent. Some 65 percent of respondents felt state government was being run “for a few big interests,” up from 54 percent in June 2010, and 70 percent either thought that the state economy was going to stay the same in the next year or get worse.
Democrats were slavering for a recall election, but state law made Walker ineligible until he had served in office for at least a year. In the meantime, the governor, bouncing off the ropes after a bludgeoning first round, had begun collecting unlimited campaign contributions – there are no rules for the period before a recall is ordered – from a national base of supporters and appearing on TV sets. “This was a set of ads where Scott Walker looked directly into the camera and said, ‘Our reforms are working,’” says Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll. The spots appeared to push the governor’s approval, already recovering, near the 50 percent mark, where it has hovered ever since.
The 2010 governor’s race cost about $37.4 million, but campaigns and outside groups spent more than $81 million on the recall Walker ultimately won over Barrett, 53-46. Elections were changing in Wisconsin. As in federal races, a mishmash of nonprofit organizations had begun to play an essential role. If such groups carefully avoid coordinating with candidates and campaigns, they can raise and spend millions to influence voters under the section of the tax code nominally reserved for “social welfare” organizations.
The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign estimates that one such operation, Club for Growth Wisconsin, the state chapter of the national conservative group, spent about $9 million on the recalls and passed more money to allies to spend, including $4.6 million that ended up in the hands of Citizens for a Strong America, an outfit that ran ads against liberal State Supreme Court candidate JoAnne Kloppenburg in 2011. John Connors – a Marquette grad who had previously worked for the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity group – ran Citizens and fanned the Club for Growth grant out to additional Republican-friendly organizations. Wisconsin Family Action, a social conservative group, received $916,000, according to tax filings. Wisconsin Right to Life got about $348,000, and two more grants went to organizations that later backed legislation relaxing mining regulations, an important victory for Walker.
The first award, which benefitted a small nonprofit called United Sportsmen of Wisconsin (USW), later became the subject of a scandal in which former state Rep. Scott Suder (R-Abbotsford) shepherded a taxpayer-funded grant for the group to administer hunter training, something it had little experience doing. (Walker later killed the grant.) The second Citizens payment, of about $78,000, went to the Wisconsin chapter of the Safari Club International, an organization of “big game” hunting enthusiasts that subsequently registered in support of the mining bill and appeared to join in what one Republican serving on the USW board, Luke Hilgemann, described as an effort to bolster the conservative right’s credibility on the environment. “If we weren’t on to something here that threatens the left’s stranglehold on the environment and conservation,” he wrote in an email responding to coverage on prwatch.org, “these types of stories wouldn’t be printed.”
Walker and other leaders are more than happy to leave a large share of the dirty work of politics to an echelon of shadowy nonprofit organizations with forgettable names. “Today, most groups that are responsible for political ads tend to be more unknown to voters,” says Amber Wichowsky, an assistant professor of political science at Marquette who has studied the effects of these commercials churned out by the semi-anonymous. “We’re not finding much evidence that these groups are seen as more or less credible than candidates,” she says. “Voters just aren’t connecting the dots.”
Post-recall, Walker found that the majority of his first term had yet to be served, and he faced a Legislature nearly pickled with discord. First Lady Tonette Walker proposed hosting a bipartisan cookout at the lakeside Executive Residence, and her husband sprang to bring about such a fete. Take no prisoners, his style dictated, but do take orders for brats. Ground rules called for excluding politics from conversation but not families and spouses – who were invited – the Packers, the weather, the kids, the kids’ college plans, hobbies, anything innocuous.
Walker sported an apron and served up the brats, plus hamburgers and cold drinks. The occasion endured for about three hours, with weather suitable for basking and only a few protestors chanting at the mansion’s iron gates. “It was very festive,” says Miller, and the ground rules held “to the large extent.” Sprecher Brewing had printed bottles of “Moving Wisconsin Forward Root Beer,” and Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca joked with Walker, a habitual enemy, about his sausage grilling skills. All was well.
Carpenter exchanged his own pleasantries with the governor but, like other Democrats, hadn’t drunk enough Sprecher to wash the taste of the past 18 months out of his mouth. “We still have a public friendship, so things on the surface are very good,” he says, but behind the scenes, there’s little to see. “I talked to Scott Walker more during one day in the Assembly than during the past three years.”
It’s the burden of every gubernatorial term to pass two state budgets, and Walker’s second, signed in 2013, included some $2 billion in borrowing and allowed him to glide into 2014 on a message of righting the state’s fiscal ship and cutting taxes. The Republican dug in early to shift the foundation on which the state budget was built. However, “now that we’re in a surplus, the pre-election behavior of Doyle and Thompson is becoming more common,” says Todd Berry, president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance. With 2014 on its way, cool austerity would have to wait.
Most notably, Walker’s plan to eliminate $1 billion in taxes – by adjusting income tax withholding and displacing the property tax burden for technical colleges – probably squandered any chance for broader changes to state tax policies. The state could have entertained a fresh conversation on how it funds local governments, long the losers in a lopsided tug-of-war, or debated the balance of income and sales taxes in Wisconsin. Then again, for tax reform, “You need money to grease the skids,” Berry says. “You don’t want losers.”
Ellis, the Senate president, and other conservative Republicans in the chamber held up approval of Walker’s tax plan until Fitzgerald helped to broker a deal that directed more money to the general fund. Other critics cropped up in unexpected places. Abele, a fiscal conservative who claims to be “allergic to debt,” says the second budget “felt like we were stepping back a bit,” and he would rather the state had used a portion of Walker’s $1 billion “surplus” to reduce state debt. A supporter of Democrats and a friend of Tom Barrett, Abele doesn’t always back the governor, but neither does he swear off Act 10.
“I support collective bargaining,” he says. However, “I think you should have concessions [on benefits], and I think that should apply to all unions, including public safety.” Act 10 exempted police and fire unions, Unintimidated claims, over fears of strikes; some have been reliable endorsers of the governor.
Mary Burke has already begun to attack Walker on his jobs record, and as of April, the governor had not yet reached the halfway point in his campaign pledge to create 250,000 private sector jobs, a shortcoming the governor is working hard to bandage. “That’s exhibit A of what a great politician he is,” says Mordecai Lee. “One would have thought that would’ve been the end of the race.” Instead, Walker has recast the pledge as a “goal” and said the state could reach it midway through 2015, if not by Jan. 1. Lee says that a more traditional politician would have avoided the issue and attempted to induce “political amnesia.”
The Walker campaign has few weaknesses going into this summer, but they’re profound. To Mike McCabe, director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, “Scott Walker is vulnerable to a very aggressive, populist message,” as his tax policies and opposition to raising the minimum wage have favored the wealthy. Whether Burke can make Walker look out of touch with the needs of the common man and woman, as the Obama campaign did to Mitt Romney, isn’t yet clear. “So far, she hasn’t shown much inclination to running a populist campaign,” McCabe says.
A second John Doe investigation, looking into possible illegal coordination between the Walker campaign and groups like Club for Growth Wisconsin, could shake the many nonprofits that bankroll conservative causes in the state and pay for attack ads. As a minister’s son, Walker has won over the support of social conservatives, both here and around the country, with little lip service paid. Lee notes that part of Walker’s trusty formula is to “never, ever talk about social issues,” which have a way of dividing voters along losing lines.
Local pundits also question if Walker’s aggressive agenda, although gangbusters for fundraising, has forced him onto a tight-rope of electability. Lee refers to the situation as the freezing of Wisconsin’s political body, with rigid blocs of lovers and haters on either side. And Franklin notes that polls have consistently found that about 90 percent of Republicans approve of the governor, versus the 85 percent of Democrats who disapprove of him.
“He could pull a Toronto mayor and still get 48 percent of the vote,” says McCabe – and yet topping 54 percent seems far-fetched.
If Walker has decided to run for president in 2016, he’s not telling many other Republicans, at least not in Wisconsin. Fitzgerald says he’s never spoken with the governor about the question and couldn’t say who would have. GOP members here could end up in a bind, caught between backing U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan in the primary, or Walker, if he doesn’t sit out a cycle. “I don’t think he’d be over the hill in 2020,” says John McAdams, an associate professor of political science at Marquette.
In the meantime, Walker may be looking to his faith for guidance. In Unintimidated, he’s often cracking open a book of devotions that mix Bible verses with management theory, and he describes how, if he was unemployed, the voice of his father would ring in his head, instructing him to search for work on six days and pray for a job offer on the seventh.
His mind may be undecided, and may remain that way for many months to come, but Walker-in-the-flesh is already at work. To not notice that the governor has busied himself with doing “certain things you’d be doing if you were considering a run for president,” Fitzgerald says, “you’d have to be blind.”