Manitowoc, Wis.— Last year, thousands of people passed by the front doors of Madison’s Bartell community theater on their way to the Wisconsin capitol to protest the state’s government-employee-compensation reforms. More recently, the theater lowered the curtain on its latest sold-out hit — a play written in the “Fakespearean” style entitled “The Lamentable Tragedie of Scott Walker, Govnour of Wisconsin.”
The denouement of the play (which was originally titled “F*** You, Scott Walker”) occurs when Walker escapes the mob by climbing to the top of the capitol, only to be thrown to his death while the fool yells “Sic semper tyrannis!” The play’s author, Doug Reed, claims he is a “committed pacifist,” but says he had to stay true to the form; as he notes, “the title characters in Shakespeare’s tragedies never survive to the end of the play.”
On this late Monday morning in April, the real Governor Scott Walker, very much alive, is standing in front of a bright orange, $250,000 snowplow belonging to the Manitowoc County Highway Department. Walker is beginning a tour of the state in which he will tout the $1 billion that Wisconsin governments have saved as a result of his hard-won reforms. The governor, 44, is fighting for his political life, as he faces a June 5 recall election instigated by public-employee unions. The race is widely regarded as the second most important American election in 2012.
Yet you couldn’t grasp the magnitude of the election by observing the size of the crowd in the spacious garage that houses the snowplow. As Walker speaks at a small brown podium, there are about 14 people on hand, four of whom appear to be under the age of ten. Walker’s campaign team has to keep public attendance at press events extremely limited; in every corner of the state, protesters lurk, waiting for their chance to scream an obscenity, on camera, at the governor they have labeled a “dictator.”
Prior to Walker’s reforms, state and local-government employees paid nothing or very little toward their pensions and paid only slightly more than 6 percent of their health-care premiums. According to the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, the average Wisconsin government employee earned $71,000 in total compensation in 2011. That same year, average total compensation for employees of the state’s largest school district, Milwaukee Public Schools, reached $101,091. Walker helped close the state’s $3.6 billion deficit by requiring public employees to pay 5 percent of their salaries toward their pensions. He also required state employees to pay 12.6 percent of their health-insurance premiums — less than half the average both in the private sector and for federal-government employees.
But the most controversial part of Walker’s plan was its sharp curtailing of union power, and in particular collective bargaining. Prior to Walker’s law, all government workers were required to join unions and pay dues, and unions were able to negotiate all conditions of employment — wages, benefits, work rules. Walker made union membership optional, eliminated the automatic deduction of union dues, and ended collective bargaining for everything but wages. Today, the unions are still able to negotiate wages for all employees (including non-members), but governments may decide for themselves how to handle work rules and other forms of compensation, and employees may decide for themselves whether to give money to the unions.
President Barack Obama immediately jumped into the fray, calling Walker’s plan an “assault” on unions. Yet not only do the overwhelming majority of federal employees not bargain collectively, but Obama himself unilaterally imposed a pay freeze on civilian federal workers just months before he accused Walker of stripping workers of their collective-bargaining “rights.”
These reforms propelled the state into chaos for a good portion of 2011. The capitol was occupied by, to steal a term from Mark Twain, the “great hive” of public employees, who banged drums, blew vuvuzelas, and camped on the marble floors. Fourteen Democratic senators fled the state for weeks to block a vote on the bill; Walker was the victim of a prank call from someone pretending to be David Koch, one of the billionaire Koch brothers. (Walker’s willingness to take the call provided the Left with a prominent talking point: that Walker was beholden to corporate America and that the Koch brothers were secretly writing Walker’s legislation.) A government-employee union issued a press release comparing Walker to “Adolph Hilter.” No one batted an eye when a camel was seen walking around the frozen capitol square.
Throughout the mayhem, Walker stood firm.
Walker is often compared to Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan — the two are young stars of the national Republican party, and Walker just happened to grow up “right down the road” from Ryan. Yet their styles are very different.
Ryan unceasingly warns of a coming fiscal apocalypse, making his listeners want to grab a flashlight and canned goods and ride out the federal-debt Armageddon in their basements. Walker, on the other hand, speaks with subdued precision. He has spent a full year explaining how his reforms are working for Wisconsin; for instance, property taxes have declined for the first time in twelve years. School districts whose contracts previously forced them to buy expensive health insurance from the unions’ own health-care company are saving tens of millions of dollars, because Walker’s law opened up their contracts to competitive bidding. Large-scale teacher layoffs are occurring only in the few districts that chose not to implement Walker’s plan requiring increased health-care and pension contributions.
Wisconsin’s history created a substantial headwind against Walker. It is the state that birthed “Fighting Bob” La Follette and the Progressive movement at the turn of the 20th century. It is where the union AFSCME was first incorporated, and in 1959 it became the first state to allow collective bargaining by government employees. Madison’s infamous Vietnam-era protests included the bombing of a University of Wisconsin building, an attack that killed a young researcher.
More recently, on the other hand, Wisconsin has been a laboratory for conservative reforms; Milwaukee boasts the nation’s oldest private-school voucher program, and in the early 1990s Republican governor Tommy Thompson implemented a welfare-reform program that became the model for national welfare reform a few years later. But when Walker was elected, it had been twelve years since the state had elected a Republican governor and 26 years since it voted for a Republican presidential candidate. (George W. Bush lost by a scant 0.22 percentage points in 2000 and 0.48 percentage points in 2004.)
Walker’s opponent in the recall election is Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, whom he defeated in the 2010 gubernatorial race by six percentage points. In the months leading up to the May 8 Democratic primary, Barrett and former Dane County executive Kathleen Falk were locked in an internecine struggle to demonstrate their obeisance to organized labor. Falk, who has now lost three statewide races, was the first to announce she was challenging Walker. While meeting with the state’s largest public-employee unions in January, Falk pledged to veto any future budget that didn’t fully restore the unions’ collective-bargaining power. She was quickly endorsed by all the major unions, which ended up spending an estimated $5 million in television ads on her behalf.
Walker says he “always thought she would be bought and paid for by the unions,” and that Falk’s pledge “just proved it.” Falk’s union deal appeared to be too much for Democratic voters to stomach, and Barrett pulled away in the final weeks of the primary.
Barrett, unlike Falk, had trouble connecting with the unions, a failure that forced him to lurch leftward in an attempt to earn their imprimatur. As mayor of Milwaukee, Barrett actually used many of Walker’s reforms to balance his own budget; the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the city came out $10 million ahead thanks to the governor’s plan. A Web video sent out to AFSCME supporters early in the campaign blasted Barrett for supporting passage of Walker’s bill, and a number of his early campaign appearances were picketed by union workers.
Yet according to Walker, Barrett’s tangles with public unions shouldn’t lull voters into thinking he’s a moderate on labor issues. “I don’t think anybody should mistakenly think that means that Tom Barrett is any less extreme on this,” Walker says, adding, “He was just more politically prudent to not let it get out publicly. To me, it’s pretty clear that while he had enough political sense not to publicly let out that he was doing this private pledge, the reality is that he’ll be just as bought and paid for.”
Increasingly, it looks like Walker is winning the argument over the proper role of public-union power. A Marquette University poll conducted the week before the June 5 election showed Walker with a 52 percent to 45 percent lead over Barrett. Since the beginning of April, 16 public polls have been conducted; Walker has led in every one. In the Marquette poll, independents favored Walker by 14 percentage points — the same margin by which respondents favored Walker’s plan to scale back public-union collective bargaining.
On the hour drive south from Manitowoc to the Milwaukee suburb of Brown Deer, Walker tilts his head back and nods off for ten minutes. He claims his hectic schedule demands such catnaps; he usually sets the alarm on his BlackBerry for ten minutes, and always wakes up 30 seconds before the alarm goes off. It is clear that he considers this a kind of skill.
When Walker reaches Brown Deer, he receives a brief tour of Dean Elementary School before he sits down to read to a class of fourth-graders. After finishing the book, he takes a few questions from the students before moving on to a press event in the library. (Sample question: “How tall are you?” Answer: Six feet.)
At his press event in the library, Walker moderates a roundtable of local-government officials, who take turns praising his reforms. Racine County executive Jim Ladwig explains how unions had for years blocked the use of prisoners to mow the county’s medians, so mowing occurred only once a year; now the grass stays cut. Brown Deer schools superintendent Deb Kerr says that her district is now able to build a new $22 million school, 68 percent of which will be funded by savings realized through Walker’s reforms. Brown Deer’s finance director, Emily Koczela, follows up by saying Walker’s law “turned us loose in terms of talking about every dollar with regard to children.”
Following the school event, Walker retreats briefly to his campaign’s “victory center” in Wauwatosa, a city just west of Milwaukee, where volunteers are making nonstop phone calls on his behalf. In a corner office, Walker discusses why he, of all the governors in the nation making changes to government-worker benefits, is the one facing a recall election. He mentions Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, and California as states in which Democrats are actually encouraging substantial changes to government benefits, leaving Wisconsin Democrats out of touch with the national party.
In criticizing Walker’s plan, Wisconsin Democrats have targeted the rollback of collective bargaining, saying their opposition to the plan “isn’t about the money.” Of course, it is about little else. Walker believes it was the end of compulsory union membership and automatic dues deductions more than the end of collective bargaining in itself that prompted the unions’ crusade against him.
“I think in the end . . . they would have sold their members out in a heartbeat for double the pension contributions or anything else if they only could have gotten their hands on those automatic dues deductions,” says Walker. “That’s what makes a difference for them, because that’s what they care about. They don’t care about the workers, they don’t care about collective bargaining, or pensions. . . . I mean, they do, but I don’t think it was really about those things — it was about the raw power and money they felt was at risk here because we gave people freedom to choose.”
Walker shifts topics, ripping his opponents for their lack of a plan to balance the state budget. During the primary, both Barrett and Falk refused to say how they would have balanced the budget, and failed to offer any hints as to how they would fund the repeal of Walker’s collective-bargaining law, something they both vowed to do. Walker boasts that he was able to increase funding for Medicaid by $1.2 billion without raising taxes, thanks to his benefit changes.
“Either they don’t have a plan, or the real answer is, they would raise taxes,” Walker says. “Two people who are part of a movement that claims that they want to undo what we did in this past year can’t tell us what they would do instead.” One of the primary critiques of Walker is that he didn’t campaign on rolling back collective bargaining in 2010; ironically, it appears the people trying to replace him are just as unwilling to reveal the details of their biggest reform plans before voters put them in power.
Walker asserts that his opponents want to take Wisconsin down the disastrous path that Illinois has traveled over the past year. In January of 2011, Illinois governor Pat Quinn raised taxes in the state by $7 billion; yet, according to City Journal’s Steven Malanga, Illinois’s lavish government-employee benefits sucked $5.7 billion from the state budget, a number that was only $2.7 billion as recently as 2008. Even with the tax hikes, the state was left with a $9 billion deficit. Consequently, Quinn has proposed to reduce Medicaid eligibility and coverage and drop the rates Medicaid pays to physicians.
“[In Illinois] they’re now shutting down state facilities, laying off tons of public employees, and cutting Medicaid, while we added money to Medicaid and avoided massive layoffs,” Walker says. He points out that Illinois’s credit rating was recently lowered, and is now the worst in the country; that Wisconsin’s pension system is fully funded, while Illinois’s is less than half funded; and that Illinois’s unemployment rate is 8.8 percent, while Wisconsin’s is 6.8 percent.
Sipping from a plastic water bottle, Walker says the entire recall effort is “intellectually dishonest.” He notes a recent interview given to Mother Jones by Graeme Zielinski, spokesman for the Democratic party in Wisconsin, in which Zielinski admitted that “collective bargaining is not moving people”; he urged Democrats instead to focus on Walker’s “war on women” and an ongoing investigation of Walker’s former county-executive office.
The investigation, which began in May of 2010, has netted several criminal charges against former Walker aides. Walker’s former deputy chief of staff, Timothy Russell, has been charged with stealing $21,000 in contributions meant for Operation Freedom, a picnic that honors veterans. Russell’s domestic partner, Brian Pierick, has been charged with two felony counts of child enticement. Two former Walker aides have been charged with doing campaign work on government time. The investigation is ongoing, and Democrats are hoping a charge comes down before the election that ties Walker to criminal wrongdoing.
Walker says he doesn’t “think they know anything” about what’s being investigated. He notes that it was his office that initially asked for the probe.
When asked about the vituperative attacks by union activists he has endured over the past year, Walker shrugs. He is disappointed that his two high-school-aged sons have been targeted on Facebook; he said someone began screaming at his septuagenarian mother in a grocery store last year. “There’s gotta be more wrong with your life than whether you agree with me or not” to do something like that, he says. (Early in his campaign, his sons appeared in one of his television ads; they looked as if they had been forced to participate via court order.)
One Sunday last November, Walker and his sons were raking leaves in their front yard when a car on the street honked at them. Walker looked over to see the car’s window roll down, a hand jut out, and a middle finger extend. Three minutes later, Walker heard another honk, and saw two different cars on his street. This time, two arms emerged from the cars’ windows, and both flashed him a thumbs-up signal before driving off. While he says that should have comforted him, he adds, “I think it just means I should start raking at night.”
Walker isn’t alone; for more than a year, it has been open season on Republican legislators in Wisconsin. E-mails threatening death and physical harm poured into legislative offices faster than the police could investigate them. GOP representative Robin Vos had a beer dumped on his head. For much of the period of the demonstrations, legislators had to escape the capitol through an underground tunnel, then get on a bus that took them to their cars. One night the bus was spotted and protesters rocked it back and forth as the legislators held on inside.
But it is Walker’s young lieutenant governor, Rebecca Kleefisch, who has drawn the worst of the Left’s vulgarisms. The comely redhead is like catnip to angry protesters; they simply can’t help themselves. One liberal Madison radio talk-show host ridiculed Kleefisch’s recent bout with colon cancer and suggested she got her job by performing sex acts. Following a recent Walker speech, a protester turned to Kleefisch’s husband and screamed, “Your wife is a f***ing whore!”
Despite all the vitriol, the Wisconsin imbroglio is earning Walker new fans around the country. When the Republican presidential candidates campaigned in Wisconsin in early April, each one tried to top the others in gushing support for the governor. At an April speech before the Illinois Policy Institute, a woman invoked a recent movie on education reform in asking Walker whether he was the “Superman” she was waiting for. Walker demurred, saying that he was partial to Batman.
Walker says he handles the pressure of newfound fame by hopping on his 2003 Harley-Davidson Road King and hitting the open road. He says the bike gives him “freedom”; his Harley dealer is trying to get him to install a cell-phone communications system, but he bristles at the notion. “Why would I want that?” he says. “The whole reason I ride my motorcycle is for people to not be able to get me on my phone.”
He also enjoys the egalitarianism of the Harley culture. He says that when he rides, he might have the CEO of a major company on one side and a janitor on the other, “and nobody knows, nor do they care.”
Walker says he learned political fortitude by studying the travails of Ronald Reagan. He has read numerous Reagan biographies, and lists Dinesh D’Souza’s Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader as his favorite. “[Reagan] is a guy who was obviously well liked, but who, early on, faced tremendous challenges, major pushback, had a lot of people, including people in his own party, telling him to back off,” he says. “But he knew who he was, he knew where he wanted to go, and he knew how he was going to get there, and he didn’t back off.”
Walker says that if he wins on June 5, the state will begin to come together. He doesn’t believe a recall victory will give him a new mandate; it will merely reaffirm the mandate he believes he was given on the day he was elected in 2010.
“If Tom Barrett wins, it doesn’t end the ‘civil war,’ it just opens it all up again,” he says. Barrett, he argues, is “going to go to extreme lengths to try to repeal the reforms we have passed, which means you’re going to have this debate all over again. If people just want to move on, the easiest way to do that is to see me elected.”
When I hand the Lamentable Tragedie playbill to Walker, he chuckles. When informed of his gruesome theatrical demise, he rolls his eyes. “How pleasant,” he says. But he does not minimize the national implications of the recall election — the serious effects it could have on states that are attempting to rein in excessive employee pay and benefits. To those states, a Walker loss on June 5 would be the unkindest cut of all.
— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. A version of this article initially appeared in the May 28, 2012, issue of National Review.