When Scott Walker met 91-year-old Nancy Reagan in 2012, he told her he had a personal connection with her late husband: Walker’s recall election had fallen on the anniversary of President Reagan’s death.
Back home in Wisconsin, Walker would try to impress intimate gatherings of Republicans by telling them Nancy Reagan had arranged for Walker to be the first to touch the Reagan inauguration Bible since Reagan’s death. Writing in The Progressive, I debunked the story: it turned out Nancy Reagan never made any special arrangement for Walker, and the Bible in fact has been touched by a number of people since Reagan’s death.
While it is not uncommon for Republicans to have a cult-like infatuation with Reagan, Walker has been obsessed with him since starting the Jesus USA Club in elementary school, when his Baptist preacher father started saying his son had “the gift” for being a politician.
While all politicians are ambitious, you’ll rarely find someone who shifts his focus to the next rung on the political ladder as quickly as Governor Scott Walker.
Twelve hours after being declared the winner in the 2010 Wisconsin governor’s race, Walker sat down with his team to figure out how to start his first term with a big bang that would put his name on the tips of the tongues of the politicians and donors who define today’s Republican Party. Four months later, on the evening before Walker, in his own words, “dropped the bomb” on teachers, snow-plow drivers and other public-sector workers, he met with his cabinet and, holding up a photo of Reagan, told them this was his Ronald Reagan moment.
Just as Reagan had started his first term in office with a well-publicized fight with organized labor, so would he.
While Reagan used a labor dispute as an opportunity to bust a union, he didn’t manufacture the conflict with the striking air traffic controllers. Walker, on the other hand, poured hot grease on a sleeping cat, announcing a “budget repair bill” that would cut employment benefits and strip collective bargaining rights from 175,000 public-sector workers.
Now he’s among the frontrunners in the Republican presidential race, welcomed as a breath of fresh air. But if you listen to his catch-phrases, you find they’re almost always Reagan knock-offs.
“Democrats measure success by how many are dependent on the government, we should measure success based on the exact opposite” is an obvious rewording of the Reagan line, “We should measure welfare’s success by how many leave it, not by how many are added.” Or Walker’s favorite: “There’s a reason why we celebrate the Fourth of July and not April 15.” Which is pretty darn close to Reagan’s “Republicans believe every day is the Fourth of July, but the Democrats believe every day is April 15.”
Big Ambition, Slim Resume
At Marquette, Walker would be elected to the student government as a freshman and make a name for himself on campus by leading what critics called “McCarthyesque” impeachment hearings, targeting other student legislators for improper use of student fees to pay for hotel rooms. Walker tried to parlay the momentum of those hearings into getting elected student body president in his sophomore year, but failed, in large part because of charges that he broke campaign rules. He left student government, then left school, to challenge an African-American incumbent in the State Assembly (present-day Congresswoman Gwen Moore), losing 31 percent to 69 percent.
Walker did, however, quickly recognize the importance of the Republican Party of Wisconsin’s power brokers. He focused on climbing his way up to the party’s district chair position, which won him a seat on the state-level Executive Council.
His political stars aligned when Democratic Congressman Jim Moody left his U.S. House seat to run for the U.S. Senate in 1992. Tom Barrett, who would later become Walker’s two-time gubernatorial opponent, left the state Senate and was elected to Moody’s House Seat. Republican State Assemblywoman Peggy Rosenzweig won Barrett’s state Senate spot, creating an open assembly seat. Walker used his party connections to win the Republican nomination.
Then after only five months of dating, he proposed to Tonette Schleker, a widow 12 years his senior, and suggested they get married three months later—on February 6, 1993 (Ronald Reagan’s birthday). He would run for office with a wife as a political asset.
In June 1993, Walker won the special election for a seat in the Wisconsin State Assembly with 57 percent of the vote and the slenderest of resumes—at 25, he was a college dropout whose longest stint then (as now) in the private sector had been a job at McDonald’s during high school.
For nine years, he would be easily re-elected in his deep-red district, making a name for himself as a solid conservative vote as he drove back and forth from Wauwatosa to Madison, listening to Newt Gingrich’s (GOPAC) political-strategy audiotapes during the 90-minute drive.
In the State Assembly, Walker had an authoritarian streak, writing laws that ranged from banning smoking on the Capitol grounds to allowing school officials to search lockers, to increasing criminal penalties.
His legacy is legislation that resulted in an explosion of new and disproportionately black prison inmates. The “truth in sentencing bill” Walker passed was based on American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) model legislation. It ended the practice of reducing sentences as a reward for good behavior and benefited the Corrections Corporation of America, which operates private prisons in the state. (Walker and the CCA were ALEC members.) Today’s African-American prison population in Wisconsin is roughly three times what it was when Walker took office.
Walker also was a good-government type. He chaired the Campaigns and Elections Committee in the State Assembly, and pushed (yet failed to pass) a “Good Government Package,” which would have required that at least half of the money raised by candidates come from within their districts; ended the “revolving door” of elected officials becoming lobbyists immediately after leaving office; and prohibited fund-raising during the state budget process.
Leaving the State Assembly
While almost all politicians are ambitious, you’ll rarely find someone who shifts his focus to the next rung on the political ladder as quickly as Scott Walker.
When George W. Bush appointed Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson to his cabinet in 2001, Walker—still a member of the State Assembly—campaigned for the lieutenant governor’s seat that opened up, but was passed over.
The opportunity he was awaiting arrived in 2002: a pension scandal that threatened the career of political boss and Milwaukee County Executive Tom Ament—a Democrat who had spent 34 years in county government. Although Walker had campaigned as an Ament supporter when he ran for State Assembly, he seized the moment and led a recall campaign that pressured the county executive to resign from office.
Walker then directed the momentum of the Ament recall campaign into his own campaign for county executive. He won by 10 points, as an “outsider” who had pursued good-government reforms in the State Assembly. It helped that in a low-turnout special election, Walker had a list of more than 100,000 people who had signed the Ament recall petition.
Walker would win two more elections in deep-blue Milwaukee County, focusing on the 30 percent of the registered voters who show up for low-turnout spring elections, promoting an austerity message and promising to hold the line on property taxes.
During his time as Milwaukee county executive, Walker’s budget proposals held the line on property taxes. However, during most of the years he was county executive, the liberal county board overrode his vetoes and passed budgets that increased property taxes by a cumulative 18 percent. Still, largely through administrative maneuvers, during his term in office Walker was able to impose austerity measures that closed swimming pools, eliminate programs he had promised to keep, reduce the county workforce by 20 percent and cut overall spending by $44 million.
In 2005, Walker began his first campaign for governor, with the presumption that he would have the backing of the Bush White House. He had worked with George W. Bush and Karl Rove on Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign in Wisconsin, and campaigned extensively with Bush in 2004, to the point that the president was playfully referring to him as “my cousin” and “Dubya.”
However, in a stinging rebuke, Rove (and Bush) went with Congressman Mark Green—because Green was locking up all the Republican donors—urging Walker to step aside, which he did.
He learned the lesson of 2006: Money talks and losers walk. He abandoned his commitment to good government, and because of his aggressive fundraising, he would end up at the center of two criminal investigations.
Bowing out of the primary was a good career move: 2006 was a bad year for Republicans nationally, as well as in Wisconsin. Plus, by running as a reformer, Walker attracted a bit of appreciation from many on the left, including the liberal Capital Times, which ran several editorials praising him as a “reformer looking for ways to clean up state government.”
As soon as the polls closed in 2006, Walker started laying the groundwork for 2010.
Walker learned the lesson of 2006: Money talks and losers walk. He readily abandoned his rhetorical commitment to good government, and because of his aggressive fundraising, he would end up at the center of two criminal investigations related to misuse of taxpayer dollars and other illegal campaign activity.
The first investigation focused on his 2010 governor’s race, when Walker turned his Milwaukee county executive office into a campaign headquarters, blurring the line between public employees and campaign staff. Emails would later surface that indicated Walker’s campaign manager, Keith Gilkes, was holding daily meetings with Walker’s government staff and directing their activities. Walker’s longtime aide, Tim Russell, set up a secret router system in the county executive’s office, where the county workers could access the internet and emails on their campaign laptops.
The political activity of civil servants in the county executive office was so flagrant that it caught the attention of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. After the newspaper published its first story, Walker sent an email to Russell stating: “No one can give them any reason to do another story. That means no laptops, no websites, no time away during the workday.” The reporting would lead to the first so-called “John Doe” investigation into Walker’s fundraising—conducted under Wisconsin’s John Doe Statute, which grants investigators extraordinary power to subpoena witnesses and maintain secrecy.
Walker maintained that he knew nothing of the secret router or the illegal campaign activity. He narrowly escaped criminal charges, as six former aides and associates shouldered the blame and pleaded guilty to a wide range of criminal charges.
Walker’s continuing indifference to campaign finance laws would lead to a second criminal investigation that is still underway, in which prosecutors have alleged that Walker is at the “center of a criminal scheme.”
The 2011 fight that Walker picked with public-sector unions led to a bitter and contentious 2012 recall election driven by organized labor and progressive organizations. Walker won by a seven-point spread.
During the recall campaign, prosecutors say Walker became the point man for a money-laundering scheme in which he asked big donors to make illegal, corporate, and over-the-limit individual contributions to third-party groups operating under his campaign umbrella.
Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws impose limits on individual donors and don’t allow donations from corporations. Prosecutors allege that Walker directed corporate and individual contributions that exceeded legal limits to the Club for Growth, which, because of its 501(c)4 nonprofit status, could accept such donations.
One smoking gun in the investigation is an email from Walker to Karl Rove, explicitly stating that Walker was raising money for a nonprofit while fighting for his political life. The Club for Growth, a national “limited government” PAC, was run by Walker’s chief campaign strategist and would run any campaign ads Walker wanted. Prosecutors say these “open and express” conversations that Walker repeatedly had with a wide range of donors were an egregious flouting of campaign finance laws that aim to prevent illegal coordination.
Running for president in 2015, the pattern continues. Walker has set up a dark money group that is again being run by a close aide, yet legally is not allowed to coordinate with Walker. The “Unintimidated” super PAC is directed by Keith Gilkes, who ran Walker’s successful, but scandal-plagued, 2012 recall campaign, and his 2010 campaign for governor.
The Most Electable Candidate?
Supporters describe Walker as an ideal national candidate because he won three elections in “deep blue” Wisconsin. A closer look is in order.
Since 1970, when Wisconsin began holding gubernatorial elections in off years, on 10 of 12 occasions, the state has elected governors from the party that was not in the White House. Such was the case for Walker’s narrow victories in 2010 and 2014.
Walker also had the perfect foil in his first statewide race in 2010: Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
Democrats couldn’t attack Milwaukee County’s dismal record without damaging their own candidate, who represented most of the same area. A year and a half later, when Democrats tried to recall Walker because of his “bait-and-switch” (saying that he would negotiate in good faith with public workers before the election and immediately turning on them after the election), Barrett was again Walker’s opponent. Walker outspent Barrett by more than two to one, while Barrett’s campaign never ran a single ad describing why Walker was being recalled.
Walker has never been a popular governor and his approval rating rarely has reached a point or two above 50. One recent poll has Walker’s disapproval rating at 58 percent.
All According to Plan
While Walker’s record in Wisconsin will work for him in the Republican primary, it might not work so well in a general election.
During his first term as governor, Walker took tort reform to a new level. One law he pushed through the State Assembly makes state inspection records of nursing homes inadmissible as evidence in court. If Grandma falls down a flight of stairs at the nursing home, you can’t use state inspection records documenting 12 previous incidents when residents have fallen down the same staircase to prove your point.
Patient abuse, malpractice and chronic unsafe conditions are now almost impossible to prove in Wisconsin’s courts.
Walker also presided over the capping of legal fees on more than 200 consumer laws, rates so low that most attorneys no longer represent such cases because it’s unlikely they can recover their costs.
If Walker prevails in the Republican primaries, he will be the first presidential candidate to come from a church whose members believe the Apocalypse is “imminent,” practice “speaking in tongues,” and do not believe someone is a real Christian unless he has been “born again.”
He worked to eliminate a class of consumer-protection laws—including the “Lemon Law”—that awarded successful plaintiffs double damages.
These consumer-protection laws, once among the most well-regarded in the nation, included a punitive element that encouraged the seller of the product in question to make things right with the buyer.
He’s made the biggest cut to public education in state history, while at the same time putting millions into a new statewide voucher program.
On abortion and “life issues,” there isn’t a more conservative elected statewide official in the country. Walker not only believes abortion should be banned even in cases of rape and incest, but that conventional birth control pills should be banned as well.
After Mark Green outflanked Walker with the religious right in the 2006 gubernatorial race, Walker left his neighborhood Baptist church, where he was a deacon and his retired Baptist preacher father was (and remains) a member, and moved to a church that bills itself as non-denominational but has beliefs that closely mirror those found in conservative Pentecostal congregations.
If Walker prevails in the Republican primaries, he will be the first presidential candidate to come from a church whose members believe the Apocalypse is “imminent,” do not allow women to serve on congregational boards of elders, practice “speaking in tongues,” and do not believe someone is a real Christian unless he has been “born again.”
Walker has also said, “there is no separation of church and state in the Constitution.” In social media, he has suggested that God works through him and literally speaks to him. For example, according to Walker, God spoke to him and instructed him to marry Tonette—after one date.
In 2011, Walker blamed teachers, snow-plow drivers and other public workers for the budgetary problems caused by the Great Recession, cutting their benefits to “repair” state finances.
Four years later, Wisconsin has an almost identical budget deficit. His response to the current budget crisis is to force public schools and the University of Wisconsin system to shoulder the brunt of the cost.
Yet there’s Scott Walker, leading the growing field of Republican presidential candidates. He’s the one that stuck it to public workers and took away their right to collectively bargain. And then he went after the private sector unions and made Wisconsin a right-to-work state—all the while making private school vouchers available to all, increasing gun rights, holding the line on gay marriage, making abortion difficult to get, shrinking the size of government, and, best of all, cutting (some) taxes.
He’s done everything he needs to do to get to the next step.
And that was his plan all along.
Jud Lounsbury is a reporter based in Madison, Wisconsin. Previously, he served as a press secretary for several politicians and organizations, including Russ Feingold and Tom Harkin.
This article appears in the June 2015 issue of The Washington Spectator.
Illustration by Edel Rodriguez.