Walker has been a political animal going back to the Bush 41 era. In 1990, he left Marquette with no degree and a middling grade-point average and ran for the state assembly. As an undergraduate, he had run for student government and lost, but in his early twenties, he was eager to leave the classroom and hit the campaign trail. So he took a job with the local American Red Cross in marketing, left school, and put all of his energy, as a young and ambitious single man, into winning the seat. You don’t hear much about this in his official biography.
“It was a race I wasn’t going to win,” Walker tells me. He thought that Democrat Gwen Moore, who now holds a U.S. House seat, should be opposed by a conservative with some fire in his belly. He hardly made a dent — Moore coasted to victory and Walker was now a political loser without a college degree. What he would do next, he did not know.
He soon met Tonette Tarantino, a widow eleven years his senior, at a barbecue restaurant in Wauwatosa. They hit it off immediately and soon began to date. He proposed in the summer of 1992 and they were married in February 1993. As a 25-year-old married man looking to reassert himself in the community, Walker decided to try politics once again. This time, he threw his energy into a special-election for the state assembly.
“There was an open seat and I had been talking about this for years,” Walker says. “I was married to Tonette and we were living in a little duplex. After all this time talking about it, I felt that I should do it. It was a five-way Republican primary — all were older, more established candidates than I. But I wore out a couple pairs of shoes and knocked on a ton of doors and won the primary, then the general against the son of the county executive.” Barely old enough to rent a car, his rise in Wisconsin politics had begun.
While Walker is proud of what he has accomplished over the past two decades, he tells me that his political career, for all of its ups and downs, has not been the defining part of his life. What matters to him are God and his family; that’s his backbone. Turning toward the protesters, he doesn’t have to say it — the message is clear: these yelpers and screamers don’t faze him.
Part of his plainspoken nature — he has none of the frank combativeness of Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey — developed far from Madison, in Colorado Springs, where he was born, and in Plainfield, Iowa, where he grew up before moving to Delavan, Wis., with his family. His father, Llewellyn Walker, led Baptist churches and his mother was an accountant for retail shops. His father, he says, had a major influence on him, and Walker proudly describes himself as a born-again Christian.
During high school in the early 1980s, Walker idolized Ronald Reagan. But he was not a political nut: He was an active athlete, active in church, and had a mullet. His experience as an Eagle Scout is what he is most fond of, and he often talks about those values in speeches and in exchanges with citizens. Same with his time at Badger Boys State, which he says fueled his interest in politics. He also had some fun: He played football for the Comets at Delavan-Darien High and his tongue-in-cheek nickname was “The Desperado.”
The fondness for Reagan is what sticks with him today as he battles the public-sector unions, much as the Gipper fought hard against the striking air-traffic controllers three decades ago. “Like for Paul Ryan, who grew up down the road from me in Janesville, Ronald Reagan was the inspiration,” Walker says. “In my family, any time there was a crisis, we were drawn to him.”
“How he led very much inspired how I lead in politics: Be realistic about your challenges but optimistic about your solutions,” Walker says, as the thumping drums start again. “That really summarizes what Reagan brought to the table. He knew who he was, knew where he was going, and knew how he was going to get there. He was straightforward. That’s what we are trying to do here in Madison. People respect honesty. We are broke and it’s time someone stood up and told the truth. But we are trying to fix it. And we are being bold.”
Reagan, he hopes, would have appreciated his tack. For conservatives across the country, there is no need to wonder.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.