‘They’re now talking $70 to $80 million total spent in this race, of which I’m sure the vast majority will be out-of-state union money,” says Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. “It’s their Waterloo.”
Last year, Walker provoked a firestorm when he signed a state budget that limited the collective-bargaining ability of public-employee unions. This year, the unions are exacting their revenge. They’ve collected enough signatures to force a recall election, scheduled for June, in which Walker will face off with a yet-to-be-determined Democratic opponent, who no doubt will be largely funded by Walker’s union enemies.
Walker predicts he’ll need to raise $25 million, almost double the $13 million he raised in 2010 — then an all-time record for a Wisconsin race. He’ll need every penny, considering that $44 million was spent in the nine state-senator recall elections last year Nonetheless, Walker notes that 75 percent of the donations he has received have been worth $50 or less. He believes his message has resonated with the grassroots.
But the unions aren’t just miffed about the restrictions on collective bargaining. The real problem for them, Walker argues, is the new ability of public employees to opt out of paying dues. “If workers keep their own money, they’re not giving it to the union,” Walker says. “They’re spending it on their health insurance or pension contribution.” Consider: A month after Walker’s budget went into effect, the largest union in the state, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, laid off 42 employees, or about 40 percent of its staff.
Even worse for the unions is the fact that Walker’s reforms are working. Last November, the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators released a report on the classroom-level effects of Walker’s policies. Net, 1,200 more teachers were hired than were laid off. And the bulk of the state’s layoffs occurred in large urban districts such as Kenosha and Janesville, which had written their contracts before the reforms took effect. “Just look at the difference between those school districts that took advantage of our reforms and those that didn’t,” Walker says.
And those results, he believes, will save him. “If I’d been up for reelection myself last March, I’d be dead,” he says. The lack of quick results is largely what doomed Ohio governor John Kasich’s reform efforts, he argues. After Kasich signed his collective-bargaining reforms into law, union activists gathered enough signatures to put the law up for a referendum vote. And thanks to Ohio’s quirky system, once a law is put on the ballot, it is prevented from going into effect. “The people didn’t know the benefits, and that’s what nailed Kasich.”
As for Wisconsin, Walker says if he could do it all over again, he would focus more time on “making the case” for his reforms, à la New Jersey governor Chris Christie. Of the three governors — Christie, Kasich, and Walker — the Wisconsinite admits, “I think Chris, from a long-term perspective, may have done it the best.”
Nonetheless, Walker is optimistic that he can win. Of his four potential Democratic opponents, only two are “legitimate candidates.” The first, Kathleen Falk, has promised to veto any state budget that doesn’t completely repeal Walker’s reforms. In other words, “She’s out there, lock-step, bought and paid for by the unions.” What’s more, she is the former executive of Dane County, home of the far-left enclave of Madison, which Walker, citing former governor Lee Dreyfus, sums up as “38 square miles surrounded by reality.”
Walker’s other serious opponent, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, has a problem: He used Walker’s reforms to save his city $25 million and thus balance the budget without raising property taxes. Should Barrett prove to be the nominee, Walker can’t wait to use that fact against him.
Despite the oncoming onslaught, Walker maintains his sunny disposition. He continues to take to the airwaves in defense of his platform, though he avoids all shows other than Morning Joe on MSNBC, “the network of my recall election,” he jokes.
He grounds his optimism in the belief that he’s doing the right thing. “I honestly believe that when we prevail, we’ll send a powerful message not only to our state house in Madison, we’ll send it to every state house in America,” Walker says. “We’ll send a message everywhere that if you do the right thing, if you stand up and take on the tough challenges, not only will you prevail, but there will be good fellow citizens there willing to stand with you.”
Once asked by a friend whether he wondered if he shouldn’t have so gone so far with his budget reforms, Walker replied, “If I hadn’t gone so far, I wouldn’t have fixed it. I’ve never been afraid to lose.” And given how important the example Wisconsin sets will be, he insists, “We can’t fail.”
— Brian Bolduc is an editorial associate for National Review.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article stated that unions spent $44 million in their bid to unseat six Republican Wisconsin state senators last year. That actually was the total amount spent in all nine recall elections.