On the evening of June 5, 2012, after he had been declared the winner of a historic recall election, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker hugged his friend Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus and took a call from presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Amid sobbing supporters, Walker’s wife, Tonette, pulled him aside and suggested he begin his victory speech by saying, “This is what democracy looks like!”
That phrase had been the rallying cry of Walker’s political opponents for months, as they marched around the state capitol in Madison and stalked the governor at his home. Following Walker’s announcement of his bold plan to eliminate many collective-bargaining provisions for most state and local government employees, protesters began occupying the capitol building, chanting loudly, and occasionally spitting on Republican legislators. The nation watched as Walker stared down organized labor, while unions attempted, unsuccessfully, to remove him from office.
On election night, Walker smiled as he considered turning the taunt around on the unions. “After hearing tens of thousands of people chanting that very phrase outside my window for months, it would have been enormously satisfying to deliver it,” he says in his new book, Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge. But Walker decided not to twist the knife: “I wanted to use my speech as a chance to end the acrimony, and unite our state once again.”
(As Walker deliberated what to say, Rebecca Kleefisch, his irrepressible lieutenant governor, who had just survived a recall attempt herself, took the stage and immediately yelled, “This is what democracy looks like!”)
While he was waiting to speak, Walker says, he remembered a devotional reading on the “power of humility, the burden of pride.” But if, on election night, he had qualms about remaining humble, they seem to have subsided since then.
In Unintimidated (due out November 19 and co-written with Marc Thiessen), Walker strives for the delicate balance a rising politician must seek: He has to show readers he is genuine and down-to-earth, and at the same time explain that is was his preternatural personal strength that allowed him to do such extraordinary things.
Much of his fortitude he outsources to God, explaining that the collective-bargaining reform bill and the ensuing union attacks were part of the Lord’s plan. But unfortunately, God is not a Wisconsin voter (or at least we don’t know he is, as the state cannot yet compel its citizens to show a photo ID at the polling place), and Walker faced a steep hill in explaining his proposal to the electorate. Soon after the controversy began, his approval rating dipped to 37 percent. At one point, Time magazine declared him “Dead Man Walker.”
And this is why Walker deserves to have a sizable burden of pride. He pulled off a remarkable feat in a state that was both the first in the nation to allow public-sector collective bargaining and the birthplace of AFSCME. Unintimidated succeeds at summarizing the key challenges Walker faced, and he doesn’t hold back in criticizing his opponents. Rather than using tempered politician-talk, he rips the public-sector-union system as “corrupt,” characterizes the compulsory-dues framework as a “protection racket,” and bemoans the “lavish benefits” the unions have “extorted” from taxpayers over the years.
Walker’s attempt to correct these problems is what sent Wisconsin into a Hobbesian state of nature in early 2011, when hundreds of thousands of protesters descended on the state capitol in Madison, with thousands of them setting up shop in the statehouse and planning to stay for the duration. (“The place smelled like a Port-a-John,” Walker complains.) Walker provides harrowing details about the threats to him and his family and tells how SWAT teams had to be called in to retain control of the capitol building. (“It was like a scene out of Call of Duty,” Walker says, perhaps outing himself as a video-game enthusiast.) At one point, 14 Democratic state senators fled the state in order to block a vote on Walker’s plan.
But while he doesn’t pull his punches with organized labor, Walker saves his most stinging criticism for presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
After Walker’s big win on June 5, Romney tried to use the victory to bolster his own candidacy. President Obama, Romney said, “says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers.” He then asked: “Did he not get the message of Wisconsin?”