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.
“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.”
In 2004, after two years on the job, Walker was elected to a full four-year term with 57 percent of the vote. People began to take notice in state political circles: Here was a thirtysomething Republican getting things done in lefty Milwaukee. His name began to be bandied about as a possible challenger to Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, who was up for reelection in 2006.
Meanwhile, Walker continued to roil the Left with his streamlined county budgets. “People would sit in the chambers when I presented my budgets, where the people could sit right there in the chamber of the county board. I’d have whole sections of the gallery filled with AFSCME leaders in green shirts holding up signs that read ‘Negotiate, don’t dictate.’ So I have great credibility when I talk about the need to change collective bargaining. I saw firsthand how the unions thumbed their noses at local elected officials.”
“We are not budging — that is the unions’ mindset,” Walker sighs. “Even if you wanted modest changes in health-care and pension contributions, you could not get it. One year, I even tried a 35-hour workweek for a couple weeks and they told me to forget it. ‘Go lay people off,’ they said, ‘you’ll be gone soon enough. We may not get our people back, but our benefits won’t be reduced.’ They had no interest in doing anything reasonable with local officials.”
By 2005, Walker’s profile was rising and he began to look seriously at a gubernatorial bid. “I saw my state falling apart,” he says. He saw Governor Doyle vulnerable on his signature issue: the budget. So he joined the year-long primary race, battling Mark Green, a U.S. congressman, for the Republican nomination. To Walker’s chagrin, his campaign never caught on. Maybe it was the low enthusiasm on the right, maybe it was just a Democratic year. But fundraising was a daily struggle and his fiscal-hawk message did not have its usual resonance. By March 2006, Walker had faced the looming truth and decided to drop out of the race. For an ambitious young pol, it was a painful experience — his first statewide campaign ended with a whimper.
“I had a ton of supporters all across this state and I did not want to let them down,” Walker says. “But in the end I told them that I prayed about it, thought about it a lot, and in the end realized it was the right thing to do. I thought God had called me to get in the race, but I thought God also called me to get out.”
By quitting the primary and avoiding an outright loss, Walker may have saved his political career. He quickly endorsed Green, whom he had been rough on for months, and established himself as more than a brash county leader: Scott Walker was also a team player. “Little did I know, years later, the wisdom in all of that,” he says. “As usual, God’s grace was much better than anything I could have planned. Sometimes if you do God’s will, it’s interesting how it opens doors you’d never imagine.”
Politically bruised but not broken, Walker returned to Milwaukee. In the Year of Obama, he soundly won reelection again with nearly 60 percent of the vote. In that race, he used many of the themes that he would employ in 2010. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel predicted on election night, “the issues he stressed in his county executive race — crime, as well as taxes and privatization — could easily dovetail with a GOP governor’s race template.”
With one aborted run under his belt, and many lessons learned, Walker decided to run for governor again in early 2009. He announced his campaign in April, just as the Tea Party movement was beginning to stir in pockets around Wisconsin. He also assembled a crack team of operatives to help build a path to the nomination, with more fundraising prowess and political savvy than his 2006 campaign. Keith Gilkes, a sharp state-senate hand, came on as campaign manager; R. J. Johnson, a former executive director for the state party, joined as a consultant; Mary Stitt and Dan Morse, two top money bundlers with ties to former governor Tommy Thompson, were enlisted. So was Brian Tringali, Thompson’s top pollster. This was a team that knew how to win.
At his announcement in Eau Claire, Walker outlined his message. As with his 2002 run for county executive, he railed against the incumbent liberal administration for mismanagement and fiscal incompetence. He also pledged, if elected, to enact meaningful reform. “I believe in a better Wisconsin,” he said. “I see a state that attracts hard-working people and new entrepreneurs. It’s not enough to tinker around the edges of failed public policies that drive jobs, qualified workers, and retirees from our state.”
“In 2010, not only in Wisconsin but across the country, austerity was in,” Walker says, smiling as if he is still a bit surprised to have seen his key issue catch fire. “When people talk about the [current labor fight] and say they never saw it coming, I get a kick out of it. They have not been paying attention. My entire career has been about reining in spending. I’ve always thought that government was too big.”
In September 2010, after a long primary campaign, Walker topped businessman Mark Neumann, a former congressman, with 58 percent of the vote. On election night, he wore his usual: light-blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a ruby-red tie. For the entire race, Walker was the frontrunner, raking in cash and building his support in ways he had not four years prior. Even Mark Green, his old rival, endorsed him.
Walker’s primary victory set up a Brew City street-fight for the general-election campaign. He faced off against Democrat Tom Barrett, Milwaukee’s mayor and a former congressman. Barrett, with his silver mane and admiration for John F. Kennedy, cut a sharp contrast to the youthful Reaganite with slick, ink-black hair. While Barrett was in the state assembly during the Reagan era, Walker was running unsuccessful campaigns for student government at Marquette.
Walker’s record in Milwaukee County came under the microscope. Barrett, who had dealt with Walker for years, hammered the Republican on issues big and small, from the county’s spending levels to how he handled the debt. “Look, the Left tried to attack me for little things we had done here and there,” Walker says. “But in the end, my argument across the state was, hey, if I could take on the political machine in Milwaukee, and win not just at the ballot box but win in how I governed, there was no doubt that I could take on the political machine in Madison.”
As the race began to boil, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who knows a thing or two about jousting with government workers, became one of his top mentors behind the scenes. They discussed policy and politics over long phone conversations. The Republican Governors Association, sensing a possible pick-up, poured cash into his coffers.
On Election Day, Walker turned 43. He also beat Barrett, taking 52 percent of the vote. Barrett’s support for the stimulus, the foul odor of Obamacare, and Walker’s ability to defend his record, all while championing what he calls “brown bag” conservatism, did him in. “It boiled down to getting Wisconsin working again,” Walker says. “The other part was explaining how I could fix our fiscal mess without hurting our economy and limiting the role of government.”
As we chat, Walker pauses for a second as the swirling, almost-muted roars from the window and the door grow louder. Someone is beating a massive bass drum, the kind used in a marching band. Thump, thump, thump — cheers —thump, thump, thump. Walker clasps his hands and grins, but does not comment on the noise. The chapel-quiet of his sanctuary has been disturbed, if only for a moment.
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.