Gov. Scott Walker: Uniter, Divider
Part three of a three-part series
By Bill Lueders
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
Throughout his life, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker seems to have had a sense of mission.
Patricia Walker, the governor's mother, tells the story of how when her son was around 8 years old and the family was living in Plainfield, Iowa, he noticed that the building where city meetings were held lacked an Iowa flag.
"He collected money and bought a flag," says Patricia Walker, a retired bookkeeper. "He went around carrying a mayonnaise jar."
When Scott was 10, the family moved to Delavan, Wis., where his father, a Baptist minister, was assigned. He became an Eagle Scout and was one of two young men chosen to go to Washington, D.C., to represent the state in an American Legion government program.
But Walker's sense of mission has often brought controversy, as when he ran for student body president as a sophomore at Marquette University in 1988. He was sanctioned for illegal campaigning and declared "unfit" by the student paper for engaging in "blatant mudslinging" against his opponent. Walker lost that election, which he later blamed on his having "focused on personalities and egos." He left Marquette without getting a degree.
In 2002 Walker, then a member of the state Assembly, ran for Milwaukee County executive, and won. He describes it as a bold move driven by a sense of obligation, in the wake of a scandal over county pensions: "I was so upset with what had happened in that county government … that I felt somebody needed to step up and do something."
Now Walker's moves to curb collective bargaining for most public employees and cut more than $800 million in state funding to public K-12 schools have spurred a recall campaign. If it succeeds, he'd be just the third governor in U.S. history to be recalled. Once again, his boldness has brought him into turbulent waters.
The 'Koch' call
Walker's critics uniformly cite his Feb. 22 phone conversation with a prankster pretending to be billionaire David Koch as key to understanding what drives him.
In that call, which was secretly recorded and posted on the Internet, Walker crowed about his national media appearances and the positive feedback he said he was getting from other Republican governors, who, like him, "got elected to do something big."
Walker also shared with his caller how, just before he "dropped the bomb" on the state's public employees, he met with his cabinet and pulled out a picture of Ronald Reagan, recalling how the former president had fired air traffic controllers in 1981 — an event he claimed sent a message of toughness that helped spur the collapse of the Soviet Union. Walker recalled telling his cabinet that what he was planning to do in Wisconsin would be comparably historic.
Usually reluctant to concede error, Walker now confesses to being embarrassed by the "Koch" call.
"It was stupid," he says. "Just the fact that I was duped … that I would go off and talk about stuff like that, yeah it was stupid." Walker laments that the call "diverted attention from a debate that needed to be focused on the facts" and instead put the focus on him — an explanation that echoes the one he gave about the election at Marquette.
Walker's Democratic critics accuse him of being drawn to conflict, saying he finds an "Us vs. Them" dichotomy clarifying and affirming.
"He has sort of a messiah complex," says state Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona. "The governor feels like he's on some sort of a divine mission."
And this, they say, has caused him to pursue policies that have poisoned the body politic. "Our state has never been more divided, never been more polarized," says Rep. Peter Barca, the Assembly minority leader, who could potentially face Walker in a recall election.
State Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, downplays the blowback, including the largest protests in Wisconsin history. "If I see 100,000 people in the Capitol, that's 2 percent of the state," he says. "I mean, am I going to allow what's clearly the best thing for the state to be influenced by 2 percent?"
Grothman thinks Walker's courage will pay off in the end. "There's some people who believe that in doing the right thing, eventually you will be rewarded," he says. "Scott is one of those people."
The harshest criticism of Walker comes from those who allege he fudges facts — not only in his public pronouncements, but in his own mind.
Walker has said the state is broke, that most of the protesters who besieged the Capitol last spring were from out of state, that most school districts in Wisconsin have seen a net gain in staff. These are among the 27 statements he's made that the collaborative journalism project PolitiFact Wisconsin has deemed "Mostly False," "False" or, worse, "Pants on Fire."
"What he says isn't true," says state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, who is also weighing a possible challenge against Walker. "I don't think he's intentionally lying. He just believes what is not true."
And Erpenbach says "I've never seen anybody in such denial" as is Walker on the division he's sown. "We're in a spot right now where family members can't talk to each other. Golf buddies can't talk to each other. The governor needs to recognize that we've got to pull things back, and he doesn't."
Walker, asked whether he bears some responsibility for the division in Wisconsin, challenges the question's premise.
"When I get around the state of Wisconsin, what I see is there are far fewer people who care about what happens under the dome of the Capitol, than do in this general vicinity," he says. "To me, I don't see a state divided, politically… . In Madison it's overwhelmingly that way, but around the state I don't see that."
Walker agrees there's heightened tension but says "I think that escalated when people with money came in from out of state. Not to say that people here don't disagree … but you saw the numbers (of protesters) and the divide escalate when bodies came in from outside of the state."
Grothman alleges that Democrats are creating a false sense of crisis over what he feels are reasonable reforms. All that's really happened, he contends, is that some public employees, himself included, have had to take a "mild cut in take-home pay."
Sure, some school district administrators are complaining. But Grothman can't remember a time when they weren't. What's new, he says, is that he's heard from a few superintendents who are optimistic about the future.
"I think Scott Walker's going to get re-elected," he says, conceding, as does Walker, that enough signatures will probably be gathered to force an election. "But if he isn't, the new governor will be secretly grateful that he's followed Scott Walker, who did so much to put our state back on track."
Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.
The nonprofit and nonpartisan Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.