Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker knows how to attract crowds -- especially shouting, fist-shaking ones waving recall placards and clamoring for his political scalp.
Twenty-six new governors took office in January, and none has incited a stronger backlash than Republican Walker, 43, the Harley-riding preacher’s son who, barely six weeks in office, provoked tens of thousands of protesters to converge on the Capitol in Madison.
Voters often say they want decisive action from their leaders, and that’s what they got in Wisconsin. One result is six recall elections tomorrow against Republican state senators who supported Walker’s bill curbing collective bargaining rights for most public employees.
“He’s the hated real deal for the Democrats and the adored real deal for the Republicans,” Charles Franklin, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in a telephone interview. “That’s the dilemma he faces. He’s a genuinely polarizing figure.”
While Walker’s name is not on any of the ballots, his agenda provoked the record number of recall elections, and they are seen as a referendum on his policies, Franklin said. If Republicans suffer a net loss of three seats, Democrats will control the state Senate, blunting Walker’s agenda.
The nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign predicts $30 million will be spent by pro- and anti-recall forces on tomorrow’s elections, most from outside interest groups eager to influence a fight that embodies national political divisions. Two of 14 Democrats who left the state to try to block a vote on Walker’s collective bargaining bill face separate recall votes on Aug. 16.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, also a Republican, drew national attention by challenging teacher unions in his state. In Wisconsin, Walker has been battling public employee unions and their compensation packages for almost a decade, starting with his election as Milwaukee County executive in 2002.
“He believes unions are the biggest problem government has,” said Milwaukee County Supervisor Lynne DeBruin, who worked with Walker for eight years and considers herself a fiscally conservative Democrat. “I was not surprised to see him go after them, big-time.”
Most public employee unions supported Walker’s Democratic opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, in the 2010 election. Walker mobilized Republican majorities in the Wisconsin Legislature to eliminate a two-year, $3.6 billion budget deficit by cutting spending and not raising taxes. The signature move was his unexpected plan to curb collective bargaining for public employee unions other than those representing police and firefighters.
“We went in to solve our problems in Wisconsin and we did,” Walker said in a July 16 interview on Bloomberg TV in Salt Lake City. “Anytime you have a crisis you can either let it overcome you or you can take it head-on.”
The governor was unavailable to comment for this article, said his press secretary, Cullen Werwie.
“Recall Walker” bumper stickers are a common sight on automobiles, even though, under state law, the governor cannot be removed until he’s been in office for one year. As Walker spoke at Devil’s Lake State Park on June 27, a sailboat floated behind him with “RECALL WALKER” emblazoned on the mainsail. Booing protesters confronted him at the reopening of a highway rest stop in Beloit on July 19, also demanding his recall.
The Colorado-born Walker represents a voting bloc that believes government is too big and intrusive, taxes are too high and entitlement and social service costs are unsustainable. These forces helped elect Republican governor candidates Rick Scott in Florida, Nikki Haley in South Carolina, John Kasich in Ohio and Rick Snyder in Michigan in elections in November.
Walker is “very personable, very intelligent and very articulate, and he rarely tells you what he’s thinking,” DeBruin said in a telephone interview from Milwaukee. “He’s not someone who needs the adulation of 30 people around him. He’d rather go down with the sinking ship than moderate.”
This is a departure for Wisconsin, a state with a moderate political legacy defined by former governor and U.S. Senator Robert M. La Follette, a Republican who ran for president in 1924 on the Progressive Party ticket.
While New York’s Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo negotiated concessions from his state public employee unions, Walker pushed the changes through the Legislature. He signed the bill March 11, and the state Supreme Court overruled a lower court decision June 15 that had blocked the measure.
‘Warm and Fuzzy’
“Compromise is nice. It’s warm and fuzzy but in politics it’s not always achievable,” said Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, a Walker supporter. “He’s willing to upset people who voted for him in the last election. The recall elections are indicative of the anger he created, not just from the left but the middle as well.”
Wisconsin’s borrowing costs have dropped since Walker took office in January. The extra yield demanded to hold the state’s AA rated debt due in 2019 narrowed to 0.11 percentage point Aug. 3 above an index of AA+ rated general obligation 7-year debt, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That compares with 0.37 point above the index Dec. 27.
Joseph Rice, a Milwaukee County supervisor, said Walker has “deeply held” views on the role of government and a sensitivity to what taxpayers can afford. He said Walker went after “decades-old problems” to fix state government.
“Sometimes reforms are not easy to swallow,” Rice said.
A University of Wisconsin Survey Center poll released July 13 reported 59 percent of state residents disapprove of Walker’s job performance. Sixty-two percent of Independents said they disapprove.
“His objective seems to be to flatten the middle class and teachers and funnel the money to big business on the foolish thought that they’ll create jobs,” said Robert Rienzi, an accountant who lives in the Milwaukee suburb of Shorewood and has two recall signs in his front yard -- one for Walker and one for his state senator, Republican Alberta Darling.
Walker ran on an anti-tax, pro-business platform and a pledge to make government employees pay more for their pensions and health care and won with 52 percent of the vote. He didn’t make collective bargaining curbs an issue.
“Here in Wisconsin, we don’t need a seating chart to bring Republicans and Democrats together -- all we need are the Green Bay Packers,” Walker said in a conciliatory Feb. 1 state of the state message, referring to the National Football League team’s Super Bowl appearance that month.
‘Dropped the Bomb’
Six days later Walker “dropped the bomb,” as he said, on his cabinet, unveiling the collective bargaining proposal.
In a February taped conversation Walker had with a liberal blogger posing as businessman and conservative activist David Koch, the governor compared his proposal to then President Ronald Reagan’s firing of air traffic controllers in 1981.
“This is our moment,” Walker said to blogger Ian Murphy, who goes by the name Buffalo Beast. “If they think I’m caving they’ve been asleep for the last eight years because I’ve taken on every major battle in Milwaukee County and won, even in a county where I’m overwhelmingly overpowered, and because I don’t budge.”
Walker has collected $2.5 million this year in his political war chest, in anticipation of a recall vote next year, which would occur if opponents collect 540,000 valid signatures within 60 days. Walker said July 16 if the debate is whether his changes have worked, “I think we win,” he said.
The outcome of tomorrow’s vote will hinge on turnout and will put Walker’s agenda and his certitude to test, said Joe Heim, a professor of political science and public administration at the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse.
“He was the right person at the right time last November,” Heim said. “But he’s divided the state in a manner that no previous governor has done.”