At the "tea party" rally in Milwaukee last Sept. 19, Scott Walker tossed the crowd a chunk of red meat.
"Some people put their faith in the government," thundered the Milwaukee County executive and Republican candidate for governor, drawing a predictable chorus of boos and setting up his next line. "But we put our faith in the people and the employers who make this country great."
That drew a huge round of applause from the 10,000 or so people in attendance, many bearing signs expressing their disgust for the machinery of government.
Walker's rhetoric at this event, while forceful, was distinctly less harsh than that of other speakers, including hard-right columnist and Fox News commentator Michelle Malkin and the ubiquitous Republican spokesman best known as "Joe the Plumber."
But Walker, the GOP's leading candidate for the 2010 governor's race, may find his ties to the teabaggers heavy baggage as he seeks to win over the political center. His message to voters has a populist flavor aimed at reaching disaffected working people, yet with an unabashedly pro-business punch. This at a time when trust in the banks, corporations and insurers with whom Walker is aligned has plummeted.
Moreover, whoever succeeds Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle will inherit a state in deep trouble. The "green shoots" of recovery hailed by the Obama administration are barely visible here. Unemployment remains high, with jobless rates in factory towns like Racine (16.3% in September) and Beloit (17.4%) approaching levels rarely seen since the Great Depression. And Doyle did not solve the state's budget woes so much as postpone them, for the next guy to deal with.
As a prominent political player with a long track record, Walker faces a major paradox: persuading the public to select a candidate for governor whose anti-government views are central to his outlook. He's even recommended dissolving Milwaukee County government and spreading its duties to the city and other municipalities.
How can a person who sees government as a main part of the problem make it an integral part of the solution?
"It's like saying you want to run the Brewers, yet you hate baseball," quips former Milwaukee County Supv. Roger Quindel.
And, like governors Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Walker initially sought to reject stimulus funds available to Milwaukee County for job creation. He argued against taking the money because, under Doyle, "our state has borrowed vast sums of money and avoided making tough budget decisions while expanding government programs."
Walker, in an interview, sticks to his guns: "The more we're able to free up the private sector, individuals and companies, the better off we'll be. The best thing for the economy is for the government, in many cases, to get out of the way."
Even Scott Walker's critics admit he brings substantial assets to the gubernatorial race, where he faces opposition in the primary by the more dour fellow conservative and former congressman Mark Neumann of Janesville. Neumann plans to highlight his career as a private-sector businessman involved in construction and the promotion of voucher schools. (On the Democratic side, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has tossed his hat into the ring and is his party's presumed standardbearer.)
Walker, 42, has been highlighting his experience as a government executive forced to handle severe budgetary crises. He projects a genial, generally positive message, in contrast to the rejectionist style favored by much of the GOP leadership. Married with two children, Walker strikes even commentators on the left as an unusually thoughtful and authentic political figure.
"Despite our differences, I liked and respected Walker from the start," wrote John Nichols of The Capital Times in a recent column. "He's a quick study who loves politics and ideas. Unlike many conservatives (and liberals), he is not afraid of opinions that differ from his own."
The consistently friendly and respectful Walker maintained a positive working relationship with liberal groups like Citizen Action (where I first met him while working as a lobbyist and communications director), perhaps reflecting his upbringing as a minister's son and an Eagle Scout.
In the Assembly, Walker got along particularly well with left-wing Madison Democrat and openly lesbian Rep. Tammy Baldwin, the future congresswoman, working with her successfully on a campaign finance disclosure bill. (Despite his Christian Right voting base, Walker has shown a surprising degree of tolerance, appointing gay people to several top county positions. But he did just veto domestic partner benefits for Milwaukee County workers, purportedly as a budgetary move.)
Walker is the rare Republican who's been able to gain a following in Milwaukee County, where he's won three elections for county executive by overwhelming margins. Initially, he even enjoyed good relations with Milwaukee's black community. While this support seems to have waned due to the perceived detrimental impact of Republican policies on impoverished African Americans, there was never any racial tinge to his politics.
Over the last several years, Walker has been scarred by a number of losing battles with the County Board and the widespread perception that Milwaukee's prized parks system has deteriorated under his leadership. Still, he stands a good chance of garnering a large share of the Milwaukee County vote. (Barrett's entry into the race may change the electoral calculus, making it harder for Walker to roll up Milwaukee-area votes.)
Finally, Walker, while strongly ideological, remains an independent thinker. For example, when I ask about the tension between citizens who want the government to do more about the economy and those who want it to do less, his response shows a subtlety far removed from the "us vs. them" rhetoric of the tea party rallies.
"There's a similarity in the two political impulses," he says, explaining that citizens across Wisconsin are worried about the economy. "People are especially worried about jobs their jobs, their spouse's jobs, their kids' jobs, neighbors' jobs. One group of people sees the government as a threat, but the sentiment in both places is coming from a similar concern."
Walker entered politics at age 24, after dropping out of Marquette short of getting a degree and serving a stint with the Red Cross. In 1993, he plunged into a crowded Republican primary for an Assembly seat in Wauwatosa, just west of Milwaukee. Walker won the primary and went on to serve nine years in the Legislature.
As a lawmaker, Walker was singularly focused on reducing the state's corporate tax burden. He earned poor ratings from labor for sponsoring a "right-to-work" law banning union shops and for opposing a measure to prevent nursing homes from using public funds to hire union-busting consultants.
In 2002, Walker became Milwaukee County executive in a special election held after an uproar over huge pension payouts for retiring county employees forced the resignation of his predecessor, Tom Ament. His candidacy was backed heavily by a group called Citizens for Responsive Government.
Walker maintains that he has shown at the county level how government can help lead the economic recovery, by accelerating capital spending while construction costs are low. "This saves us money in terms of borrowing," he says, adding that it's also created about 1,000 jobs.
In his current run for governor, Walker promises to bring a host of "free-market" policies that will attract new jobs and prevent the further erosion of the state's family-supporting jobs. He calls for greater reliance on volunteerism and freeing corporations from restraints and tax levels that discourage investment.
"Many if not all of my social services in the future will be more about community partners like Catholic and Lutheran social services, Goodwill, other community-based partners who don't carry the type of legacy costs that public-sector employee-based systems do," Walker declared on WHA's "Here and Now" program in late August.
Walker also advocates widespread privatization of state agencies, saying everything from the Department of Motor Vehicles to correctional institutions should be considered.
"The people who pay for government," he says, "shouldn't be paying considerably more for health care and other benefits than the people that are provided those salaries." In other words, Walker would rather attack the benefits of government employees than argue that all working people deserve good benefits.
Recently, after the county workers' union accepted a two-year wage freeze in exchange for no layoffs, Walker outlined a budget calling for 3% pay cuts, furloughs, pension and health-benefit cutbacks, and replacing 222 county housekeeping, security, social worker and computer technician workers with lower-paid private workers.
County Supv. Gerry Broderick says Walker has placed the county in a very vulnerable spot, by effectively backing out of the agreement.
At the heart of Walker's bid to become governor is his commitment to job creation by others besides the government.
Walker speaks with disdain of "taxpayer-subsidized jobs that are created through mandates and massive government spending." He would focus on cutting taxes and reducing the size of state government. He believes Wisconsin's taxes on corporations and the wealthy drive them out of the state, and he talks about luring retirees back from Florida and Arizona.
Walker's critics say his push to cut taxes, privatize whenever possible, and slash public employment has meant neglect of vital public institutions and fewer services for the poor. They say that outsourcing public-sector functions creates problems of accountability and that cutting back services creates more problems than it solves.
"It's hard to claim that [Walker is] pro-economic development," says Milwaukee County Supv. John Weishan. He's angered that Walker vetoed the County Board's move to create a $2 million economic development trust fund, an amount equal to a donation from the estate of a former county employee.
Instead, he says, "Scott Walker took a ride around the state bragging that the county has a surplus while the state has a deficit. The surplus actually came entirely from the donation."
Weishan also charges that Walker has drained funds that should have gone to maintaining the county's infrastructure to instead maintain his pledge never to raise property taxes. "He's looted our capital account," says Weishan. "There's no money for roads or sewers."
The lack of infrastructure investment is a consistent complaint against Walker, especially his perceived failure to maintain Milwaukee's famed park system. This legacy of Milwaukee's Socialist mayors was meant to provide "lungs" to the city's working-class population cooped up in dusty factories during the day and tiny apartments at night. Park designers included Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of New York's Central Park.
Today, Milwaukee County residents commonly complain about overgrown grass and weeds, locked or unusable bathrooms, shoddily maintained softball fields, the elimination of water fountains, and a shortage of staff to deter gang activity and keep the parks safe and family-friendly.
"All you have to do is walk through the parks and see the damage," says County Supv. Chris Larson.
A September 2006 report by county parks director Sue Black estimated that the county must spend at least $300 million to restore the parks system. This includes needed repairs to pavilions, playing fields, basketball courts, hiking trails and other park features.
Walker argues that this report did not stress the need for immediate repairs. "It's not like things are falling apart," he insists. "It's that the report was saying a couple years down the road, you'll have to paint that railing or resurface that trail."
Despite widespread complaints, the Milwaukee County Parks Department won the prestigious 2009 National Gold Medal for Excellence as the nation's best park system. While critics like Weishan insist this reflects Sue Black's innovations and leadership rather than actual park conditions, Walker proclaims this prize "a pretty good testament to our parks."
Veteran County Supv. Joseph Rice adds that the decline of Milwaukee's parks has been a long-term problem: "The blame can't be laid at [Walker's] feet. This was an issue long before he was in office." Parks spending is considered discretionary, and other core services are not. Hence, in tight budget times, they've gotten short shrift.
Rice, elected in 2004, calls Walker "an exemplary county executive" who's often criticized unfairly. "Any time you try to make changes in the status quo, you will stir things up. In my observation, he's always acted in a very professional manner and communicated well with the taxpayers. The fact that he's been reelected three times in an overwhelmingly Democratic county like Milwaukee speaks to his communications and administrative skills, to run the county in a more business-like fashion."
Perhaps no issue illustrates the controversy over Walker's relationship with government than his initial opposition to having his county partake in stimulus funds. It was seen by some as political grandstanding, especially given Milwaukee County's precarious financial state.
In a Wall Street Journal column, Walker explained his rationale: "True economic stimulus creates sustainable private-sector jobs. The fastest, most effective way to create them is to reduce taxes and implement regulatory and fiscal policies that encourage job growth and economic investment. ...Too many politicians confuse more government spending with economic recovery."
The obvious problem with Walker's logic is that no amount of tax cuts will encourage employers to hire workers to make products when already-produced inventory is sitting on shelves in stores and warehouses. The problem is lack of spending power among ordinary Americans. And the solution, some economists say, requires government intervention to put people back to work, restore spending power and get the economy rolling again.
Walker tried placing a variety of conditions on federal stimulus money, but the County Board voted 16-2 to accept it. Walker's stance contrasted sharply with those of Republican county executives in Racine (David McReynolds) and Waukesha (Daniel Vrakas).
"You've got two prominent Republicans running those counties, and they've been overjoyed to get the stimulus money," says Weishan. "This is not a partisan battle; it's a matter of what makes good fiscal sense for your county."
Walker's rival in the Republican primary, Mark Neumann, has stronger name recognition but carries the baggage of much higher negatives among Democrats and independents, polls show. Neumann does have an edge, though, among religious conservatives, who will likely turn out in force.
In recent months, Walker has been busily burnishing his right-wing credentials. In August, for instance, he staunchly defended the right-wing "town hall" protesters who showed up to shout down health care reform, in the name of "free speech." And last Saturday, he sponsored a rally in conjunction with Citizens for Responsive Government - which backs his election and the recall of numerous County Board members - to support a zero-tax-increase budget that would mean extensive privatization.
But Walker's most serious hurdle will be in promoting his pro-corporate vision to Wisconsin voters two years after an economic earthquake hit Wall Street and provoked an urgent cry for government action to restrain corporate failures and rapaciousness. That and selling his fundamentally anti-government message as he seeks the state's highest office.