Madison, Wis. — His high-ceilinged, wood-paneled office is chapel-quiet. His navy jacket is off; his desk a sea of family photos and legislative memos. But below the east window, where icicles hang, bedlam sprawls across the capitol lawn. Hundreds of labor activists — graybeard professors, dreadlocked undergraduates, hulking Teamsters — tote bright banners. Through the thick marble, their chants soften, blurring with the hum of the desktop computer. More protesters assemble outside the door. A wild scene recycles beneath the rotunda: Bongos beat, skinny girls twirl, and schoolteachers bark into bullhorns. As we settle into chairs, the room feels eerily like an airport gate: a padded cocoon propped between lurking, nonstop rumble. Gov. Scott Walker, calm as a public-radio newsreader, shrugs off the cacophony.
Just seven weeks into office, the 43-year-old Republican is the most talked-about conservative in the country. His brawl with the public-sector unions in the Badger State has yielded headline after headline, each with the same message: Walker won’t blink. A week ago, he proposed a budget-repair bill that would break the grip of labor interests in a capital that has long been dominated by them. Facing a $3.6 billion budget shortfall over the next two years, he argues that public workers should contribute 5.8 percent of their salaries toward their pensions and pay 12.6 percent of their health-care premiums. Most controversial is his plan to eliminate collective bargaining for nearly all state employees.
Walker’s budget fix is more than state-level cold water; it is a national firecracker. Fourteen Democratic state senators have fled to Illinois, refusing to vote on it. In their absence, C-list stars of the Left, such as Jesse Jackson, rocker Tom Morello, and Richard Trumka, the national president of the AFL-CIO, have flocked to this college town, peddling left-wing tropes at makeshift rallies. MSNBC’s Ed Schultz set up shop, as did scores of bloggers and photographers. Even President Obama has weighed in, calling Walker’s effort an “assault on unions.” Organizing for America, an outgrowth of the Obama presidential campaign, went so far as to coordinate anti-Walker forces. As Rep. Paul Ryan, a GOP congressman from nearby Janesville, joked, it is “like Cairo moved to Madison.”
Yet over the past eight days, Walker has not broken a sweat. That should come as no surprise. His ideas and frank approach did not fall out of the cold Wisconsin air. Indeed, as he gazes around his still-sparse office, his trademark red tie falling loosely upon a light-blue shirt, Walker points out that he has spent his career grappling with thorny fiscal issues. The national spotlight may be sudden, but his commitment to austerity is not. As for the kicking and screaming around us, well, he chuckles, he has seen it all before.
Most recently, Walker tangled with unions as chief executive of Milwaukee County, a blue-tinted region with nearly 1 million residents. He was first elected to the post in 2002 after nine years in the state assembly. At the time, Milwaukee politics was in chaos: Tom Ament, the former county executive, had resigned after the county’s lucrative pension scheme for public workers drew heated scrutiny. The unfolding scandal led to a special election to fill the remainder of Ament’s term. Walker, then a respected though little-known state legislator from the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa, threw his hat into the ring. To political observers, it was not a clear step up the ladder: A red-meat Republican gunning to run a county known for its progressive politics? Risky.