The day after the Saturday showdown, the governor and I met in his capitol office. He implored the on-the-run legislators to “come home.” For the first time, I saw a flash of disdain from Walker, whose calm usually reminds me of a placid public-radio newsreader. This battle was dragging on with no conclusion in sight. But Walker would not budge and insisted that he could outlast the Democrats, even if protests swamped the capitol for months.
“They have no endgame,” he said with a hint of exasperation. “They don’t know what they are doing. They got caught up in the hysteria and decided to run, but that’s not how this works. You have got to be in the arena.”
Walker had seen this movie before. From 2002 to 2010, he served as chief executive of Milwaukee County, a blue community of nearly a million. He was elected to the post after county executives had lavished extensive pension perks upon themselves, inspiring an outbreak of flinty fiscal conservatism even in liberal voters — at least for a time. After nearly a decade as a state legislator, during which time he was a popular guest on Wisconsin’s talk-radio circuit and was viewed as a rising Republican star, he found himself managing an out-of-control budget in a major Midwestern city. It was an abrupt change of pace.
From the outset, Walker led as an unapologetic conservative and began to make immediate, deep cuts. Budgets were slashed and public workers laid off. The local unions 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 solid gut instincts, even donated thousands in salary back to the taxpayers. For a middle-class father of two teenage sons, that was more than a gimmick.
“We were dealing with many of the same fights I’m fighting right now: pension reform and health-care benefits,” Walker recalled. “We were challenging the status quo. We reined in spending, reined in the size of government, and reduced the size of the work force.”
Year after year, he roiled big-government Democrats with his streamlined county budgets. “People would sit in the chambers when I presented my budgets. 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 sighed as the protesters rumbled beyond his door. “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.”