“When Tom Ament pushed through that plan in 2000, the media was asleep,” Walker recalls. “Then, in early 2002, more details came out about how he and his cronies would get these massive, lump-sum payments, which the county is still paying out.”
Once people dug into the details, they were outraged. “People were angry; they were talking about a recall. But the media, the pundits, they mostly brushed it off. I was carpooling back and forth to Madison at the time,” cruising down Interstate 94 and listening to talk radio. As Walker listened to reports of the pension kerfuffle, he grew irate. “I thought, okay,” he says, shaking his head. “I was upset, my wife was upset, my parents and my in-laws were upset. But that’s it. We were angry.” In other words, he hints, he was not angling for a new gig.
“There was nothing calculated,” Walker says, flatly. “People at the time thought I was nuts. They said it was a dead end; that Republicans had never won a countywide race there. They said, ‘What are you doing?’ I was getting on all of the Sunday-morning shows in the state and pushing bills, so they wondered why I wanted to blow it all. Not only could I not win, but if I did, they said, God help you, you won’t want it. It’s an awful mess: there is a huge pension scandal, the labor unions are entrenched, and the county board is liberal.”
But opportunity soon crystallized. As he would see eight years later with the Tea Party movement, Walker witnessed a grassroots coalition rise up. “It was really amazing,” he says. “You had tens of thousands of ordinary people — without a political party, without outside help — create their own organic group called Citizens for Responsible Government.” As they gathered petitions against the county board, Walker paid close attention. Their flinty fire, and effectiveness, stirred his political spirit.
“It was at that time that I realized that I was looking at things all wrong,” Walker explains. “Sure, people were angry like me. But if it had just been about anger, people would have checked out and moved on. What they were doing was really about hope, hope that if you stood shoulder to shoulder, people could take their government back. It dawned on me — and I never had any interest in county government, never even dreamed about that — that somebody needed to help lead that movement. So I ran.” And, on a reform platform, he won.
At age 34, Walker became the youngest Milwaukee County executive since the non-partisan position was created in 1960. From the outset, he led as an unapologetic conservative. After nearly a decade legislating, where he was a popular guest on Wisconsin’s talk-radio circuit and viewed as a rising star in Madison, Walker found himself managing an out-of-control budget in a major Midwestern city. It was an abrupt change of pace, to say the least.
Walker began to make immediate, deep cuts. Budgets were slashed and public workers were laid off. The local unions, of course, were apoplectic. Walker soldiered on and never once raised property taxes. The county’s bond rating improved and its debt was reduced. Walker, a low-key speaker but a pol with smart gut-level instincts, even donated thousands in salary back to the taxpayers. For a middle-class father of two teenage sons, it was more than a cheap gimmick. “We were dealing with many of the same fights I’m fighting right now, pension reform and health-care benefits,” he says. “We were challenging the status quo. We reined in spending, reined in the size of government, and reduced the size of the workforce.”