For a preacher’s kid and an Eagle Scout, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has no difficulty finding trouble, some of his own making.
In 3 1/2 years as the state’s chief executive, preceded by eight years as Milwaukee County’s top elected official, the 46-year-old Republican clashed with public-employee unions and provoked an unprecedented number of recall attempts against lawmakers who supported him in 2011 and 2012 -- and fended off one himself. Six former associates or aides have been convicted of charges ranging from doing political work on government time to stealing public funds.
A group of county prosecutors have said Walker was involved in an effort to bypass election laws while fighting the 2012 ouster attempt, according to court documents. The probe was blocked by a federal court order, now under appeal. A spokesman for the inquiry’s head said yesterday that the governor wasn’t a target when it was halted. Still, the affair underscores the turmoil that defines Walker and that rallies supporters who see him as fighting overreach and cronyism.
“This is a prime example of what happens when you take on the big-government special interests,” Walker said June 20 in an interview on “Fox & Friends,” the day after documents involving the so-called John Doe investigation were released.
John Doe investigations are secret inquiries overseen by a judge in response to a complaint from the district attorney or other person, according to the Marquette Law Journal and are unique to Wisconsin. If it appears a crime has been committed, the magistrate issues a warrant.
No one, including Walker, has been charged in the probe that grew out of the 2012 recall campaign, in which more than $80 million was spent, according to financial documents compiled by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, an independent government watchdog group. The special prosecutor overseeing the case, Francis Schmitz, said through spokesman Randall Crocker yesterday that he has reached no conclusions on whether campaign finance laws were violated.
Alleigh Marre, a Walker campaign spokeswoman, didn’t respond to e-mail messages seeking comment on the case.
“The election’s done,” Walker said the day after the 2012 recall vote that he won by 7 percentage points over Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat. “We don’t have opponents anymore.”
Walker was among a group of Republican governors elected in 2010 that included Florida’s Rick Scott, Ohio’s John Kasich and Michigan’s Rick Snyder. His confrontations over collective bargaining, abortion clinics, voting regulations and taxes endeared him to conservatives who mention him among the top tier of 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls. He’s also earned the enmity of Democrats.
“He had a singular program -- cut taxes,” said Milwaukee County Supervisor Gerry Broderick, a Democrat who served on the board while Walker was county executive. “Everything was attached to reducing taxes.”
“And he had a visceral dislike of unions, and he used cost-cutting as a way to get at unions,” Broderick said. “They went hand-in-hand.”
In 10 years as county executive, 56 labor disputes with Walker went to arbitration, said Boyd McCamish, executive director of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 48, which represents 10,000 workers in Milwaukee County. One suit challenging Walker’s 2009 removal of 25 janitors at the courthouse is to be argued in U.S. District Court in Milwaukee on June 30.
Fights with public-employee unions in Milwaukee County were a prelude to curbs on collective bargaining for most state employees, except for police and firefighters, that Walker won from the Republican-dominated legislature in 2011. That provoked weeks of large and noisy protest at the capitol in Madison and more than a year of campaigns to recall state senators and unseat the governor. All this burnished his reputation among small-government advocates.
“There’s no question that a lot of people are cheering him on,” said Charles Franklin, a political scientist who runs the Marquette Law School Poll at Milwaukee-based Marquette University. “His conservative base firmly supports him.”
Walker has attracted controversy since his freshman year at Marquette in 1986. As a student senator, Walker led an investigation of “Pfister-gate,” a homecoming dinner for campus leaders at the Pfister Hotel where expenses, including flowers and a limousine, were charged to student government accounts, according to PolitiFact, a nonpartisan fact-checking organization.
The student government president and vice-president resigned, and dinner-goers repaid the bill, the New Republic reported. Walker sought the impeachment of several of them, and a full trial in the student senate followed, with the accused eventually acquitted, according to the report.
As a sophomore, Walker ran for student-government president in a race where both sides violated campaign rules, PolitiFact reported. Walker stressed his support for the administration and touted his anti-abortion views. He lost the race in 1988 and withdrew from the school in 1990 without graduating, according to PolitiFact.
More than a quarter of a century later, Glen Barry, who attended the student dinner that Walker investigated, calls Walker’s handling of the incident “ridiculous.”
“Scott has thrived by creating chaos,” said Barry, 48, now an environmental activist who lives in Madison. Walker’s “grandstanding” and the way he ran his student-government campaign “clearly shows the man that he is today,” Barry said in a telephone interview. “He will do whatever it takes to gain power.”
The intervening years haven’t tempered Walker’s ambition.
While not declaring himself a presidential candidate, Walker wrote of his value to America in a 2013 autobiography, “Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge.”
“The lessons we learned in Wisconsin can help conservatives win the fight for fiscal reform in Washington, D.C., and lead the way to greater prosperity for people all across America,” Walker wrote.
The lessons continue and presidential moves will have to take a back seat to Walker’s bid for re-election in November. There is no mushy middle ground of opinion on the governor. Wisconsin voters are as sharply divided over him and the direction of the state as they were during the recall campaigns. A Marquette poll in May showed Walker was rated favorably by 47 percent and unfavorably by 48 percent.
In the past four years, voters have elected Walker -- twice -- along with U.S. Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican. Yet five months after choosing Walker over Barrett, Wisconsin re-elected Democratic President Barack Obama by 7 percentage points and sent Democratic U.S. Representative Tammy Baldwin to the U.S. Senate, by 5 points.
The Marquette poll showed Walker in a dead heat with his Democratic challenger, Mary Burke, a former executive of closely held Trek Bicycle Corp., of Waterloo, Wisconsin. Each received the support of 46 percent of registered voters.
Franklin said Walker’s speaking manner has enabled him to avoid some of the sharper conflicts engaged in by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, also mentioned as a Republican presidential candidate.
“He emphasizes the things about unions that a lot of people beyond unions might identify with,” Franklin said of Walker. “He talks about cushy pensions that you don’t have and health care that you pay an arm and a leg for.”
“He talks about it in a way that has broader appeal, to reach out to more moderate voters.”
In the meantime, Walker faces the likelihood of two opponents in November -- Mary Burke and John Doe.