The Walker Effect
What has our new governor done to Wisconsin?
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Up north the pines stand straighter and thinner, as if God himself has reached down and given each one a gentle tug. It’s a cold, wet day, aging snow and mud bleeding out onto gray pavement, gray road fleeing the scene into gray sky. Statton’s General Store squats at the exit just off Highway 51 north of Tomahawk, a gatekeeper to the winding road to Rhinelander. Their sign reads GUNS & AMMO in print larger than the store name. It says you can get your hunting and fishing licenses here, along with live-enzyme fresh raw honey, cheese, sausage, antiques and gifts, before repeating its “guns & ammo” pledge in yellow down the right-hand side. This is not Madison, but it is so Wisconsin.
Fifteen miles east down US 8, one lane opens into two at the mouth of Rhinelander. It’s late afternoon on a Friday, which means one thing around these parts—fish fry—and the parking lot at Wolff’s Log Cabin Restaurant is already packed, the adjacent frontage road lined with cars. Thing is, very few are here for the fish.
From inside my car I hear the chants—“WHAT’S DISGUSTING? UNION BUSTING!” and “THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!”—from a crowd of 150 or so. They’re focused on a bus in the parking lot that bears a photo of recently elected Republican governor Scott Walker, author of the controversial new budget bill stripping collective bargaining privileges from public workers, among other things. The governor isn’t here, but the very sight of his picture has this crowd on fire, much like three hours south down in Madison, where record-breaking numbers of protesters have descended on the Capitol for weeks.
In response to the anti-Walker protests, Americans for Prosperity—a Virginia-based political advocacy group founded by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, with chapters in 32 states—has launched this “Stand With Walker” bus tour campaign to rally Walker supporters across Wisconsin, people AFP says are not being heard through the “chaos” in “liberal Madison.”
A handful of waitresses peek out from the windows of the faux log cabin, their faces tight with worry. I wade through the crowd and step inside where it’s remarkably quieter. A blonde woman approaches, doe-eyed, asks quietly if I’m with the tour bus. “No,” I tell her, “I’m a reporter up from Madison,” and she looks at me a moment before taking my hand—part handshake, part entreaty.
“Do you have a few minutes to get a business owner’s perspective?” she asks before leading me back out the door and across the parking lot, where her husband is pacing inside a second building, the catering shop that doubles as their office. “This is crazy,” he says as we walk in. I flip on my recorder.
For 12 years, Barb and Dave Wolff have owned the restaurant, where just about everybody in the community stops in to eat. Today, though, their customers are lighting up the phones, furious because Wolff’s Restaurant is listed on the Americans for Prosperity website as one of 10 bus tour stops across the state this weekend. (In every city all weekend long, anti-Walker protesters will easily outnumber the Walker supporters gathering inside—with the possible exception of, ironically, Madison.)
“The way it was worded on their website kind of did us a disservice,” says Barb.
“We are not hosting this,” says Dave, pushing his glasses up on the bridge of his nose. “We got a call saying these people would be coming through with a bus, and could they stop and have a place to use the restroom and get a quick bite to eat. Said they’d be here about an hour and then take off. We take tour buses all the time. I’ve been called every name in the book in the last 24 hours.”
I ask him how many angry phone calls he’s fielded since yesterday, and his cheeks puff as he blows out a guess. “I’d say it’s got to be a hundred by now.”
Dave is shuffling nervously between his computer, his cell phone, the large front window and back to the computer. The Wolffs have just released a statement on their Facebook page claiming nonpartisanship, and Dave is watching the responses roll in.
“This is awful,” says Barb. “We’re just little people trying to make a living. Times are tough. We are businesspeople and we will serve anybody. If you’ve got green dollars to spend, we’ll gladly take it. We hosted WEAC just last week!”
WEAC is the powerful Wisconsin Education Association Council, the statewide union protecting nearly 100,000 public teachers and education professionals. It is one of dozens of public sector unions that have banded together against Walker’s budget, including three that are exempt from the measures (police, firefighters and state troopers), forming an anti-Walker coalition that numbers in the hundreds of thousands—and that’s just the unions, both public and private. It’s not surprising that the Wolffs are feeling some pushback. Just last night, AFP’s Sheboygan stop was forced to reroute at the last minute because the restaurant owner there had gotten so much flack from patrons.
A jingling of bells announces a customer, and Dave and Barb turn their attention to the tall man who has just entered. He’s got mustard yellow gloves stuffed in the right pocket of his cargo pants, and his clothes say Laborers International Union Local 4. He’s holding a green and gold sign that reads “Wisconsin Business Supports Workers’ Rights.”
“I stand with those people over there,” he says, pointing to the anti-Walker protesters, “and our organization AFSCME is going around talking to businesses and we don’t want boycotts. Essentially what we’re asking is businesses that will put this sign up, we will encourage our members and the people in this community to frequent these places and to remember.”
I want to ask what he means by “remember,” but I’m busy holding very still. Dave tells the man that he has a policy against putting up political signs for either side because he doesn’t want to upset any of his customers. For the next four minutes and 16 seconds, the union man argues his point and Dave and Barb repeat their position about remaining neutral, refusing to hang the sign. The union man pushes the front door open.
“I’ll give you a chance to think about it, but it would be prudent,” says the man. “This is not to make a threat, but I think that people will interpret the fact that because you didn’t put this up, that means that you side with Walker.”
“See, now it feels like you’re blackmailing us,” says Barb.
“Oh, I’m not trying to blackmail you,” he answers. “I’m just telling you the way it is.”
“But it is blackmail!” says Barb, visibly upset now. “That’s what’s frustrating! You want your rights but, by God, I want mine, too.”
“And we have the right to decide where we’re going to do business,” he says, the door closing behind him in a last-word vacuum.
There’s a long silence after he leaves. Things just got very personal in here. The Wolffs stare out the window, where the atmosphere is almost festive as the anti-Walker crowd builds and dozens of cars honk in solidarity from the highway. A woman in a black baseball cap holds a yellow piece of tagboard, the words “I give my students 100%” scrawled across it in black Sharpie. For her, it’s personal, too.
“I can’t put a sign out for anybody,” Dave repeats to himself, as if to make sure.
“They’re gonna end up putting us out of business,” Barb says quietly.
I clear my throat and tell Barb and Dave I’ll be back for some fried perch, then head out to the parking lot. There’s a screened-in pavilion where the Wolffs host large groups, and about 60 Walker supporters have gathered inside, waiting for the AFP rally to begin.
Scott Walker is not actually from Wisconsin. He was born in Colorado Springs in 1967 to a Baptist preacher father and his bookkeeper wife. The family relocated to Iowa before settling in Delavan, Wisconsin, a town of about 8,000, when Walker was 10 years old. Walker’s classmates describe him as personable, involved, friendly to everyone and not particularly remarkable in a negative or positive way. His dad was minister at the First Baptist Church, and his family was deeply involved there, typically modest, Protestant people in a typically modest, Protestant town.
During his junior year in 1985, Walker was one of two boys in all of Wisconsin chosen to represent the state as part of Boys Nation in Washington, D.C., where he met then-president Ronald Reagan. Walker told the Wisconsin State Journal in 2010 that this is when he really got the political bug, and that “there is no doubt that Reagan played a big role in inspiring me.”
In college at Marquette University, Walker ran for student body president but was cited with multiple accusations of campaign violations (he admitted to the Marquette Tribune in 2002 that he had regrets, saying, “I didn’t achieve office because I focused on personalities and egos”). The paper also says Walker ran on a platform of—wait for it—school budget reform. In 1990 he left college with a 2.59 GPA and without a diploma. That same year, he lost his first state assembly election. His decision to leave Marquette, he told the State Journal, was because “family became more important than getting a degree,” though he did not marry until 1993.
Walker wed Tonette Tarantino, and the couple had two sons, now in their teens. (In 2005 the State Journal reported that Walker “proposed to his wife, Tonette, on the night the first President George Bush gave his acceptance speech at the Republican convention—they married the next year on the late President Ronald Reagan’s birthday.”)
In 1993, Walker saw a second opportunity to run for state assembly, and moved to Wautatosa to run in a special election. He won. He was 25 years old.
Walker has maintained a consistent platform of conservatism, both fiscally and socially. His campaigns claimed he was 100-percent pro-life in all circumstances, a supporter of abstinence-only education and a seeker of welfare reform. He was lead sponsor of a 2001 bill protecting pharmacists who, on moral grounds, refused to fill emergency contraception prescriptions. Walker served until 2002, when another opportunity presented itself—this time the position of Milwaukee County executive, in the wake of Tom Ament’s pension scandal. Citizens were furious and ripe for change. Walker said he would give a major chunk of his salary back to the taxpayers, and he did—$370,000 over eight years. He became the first Republican to ever serve as Milwaukee County executive.
While Milwaukee County is very familiar with Scott Walker, for much of the rest of Wisconsin he came out of nowhere when he stepped into the governor’s seat. He got our attention when, in what felt like mere hours after the November gubernatorial election, he brought high-speed rail to a screeching halt in its proverbial half-built tracks. He acted as governor before he was actually governor, canceling existing contracts, returning $800 million in federal money and politically maiming exiting Democratic governor Jim Doyle in the remaining months of his eight-year tenure. Not long after, on February 11, Walker shocked pretty much everyone else when he released his plan to reduce the state’s deficit, the now-infamous budget repair bill. It pledged to erase existing laws and contracts, and was unveiled on a Friday with intended vote four business days later, almost as if the public would not notice. But, oh, did they.
All of this felt like astonishingly bold behavior on Walker’s part. Some hailed him as a rare politician who actually does what he said he was going to do, a brave patriot who was finally standing up for the taxpayer. Others were stunned by an instant strike down of 52 years of collective bargaining at the hands of one man, one who happens to be the first Wisconsin governor in 64 years to not hold a college degree.
Perhaps the most telling evidence comes out of Milwaukee itself. When Walker ran for governor against Tom Barrett in November 2010, Milwaukee County voted nearly 2-to-1 against him—casting 62 percent of its vote in favor of Barrett. Some may call it predictable, a mostly blue county voting in a mostly blue candidate. Others call it one hell of a report-card grade. We in the rest of Wisconsin may not have had a clue who this guy was, but Milwaukee County certainly did.
"A lot of people say to me, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe the things Walker is doing,’” says Marina Dimitrijevic, “but really it’s not that different from what he did in Milwaukee County.” Dimitrijevic has served since 2004 on the nonpartisan board of Milwaukee County Supervisors. She describes the relationship between Walker and the board as uncommonly adversarial, essentially an endless merry-go-round of vetoes. “We would have on average anywhere from 20 to 30 vetoes every budget season,” says Dimitrijevic. “In fact, one year he actually vetoed the entire budget.”
The catch, according to Dimitrijevic, was that Walker claimed to avoid raising taxes, but passed the buck on to the county board to do just that. She says Walker would present his budget with “ridiculous” cuts to basic services, “things we would never be able to cut.” After volleys back and forth, the board would override his vetoes, and then the next budget session Walker would present a budget that started out at the higher, original numbers the board had countered with the previous year. “So we’re the ones, the guilty people, that have to raise the taxes,” says Dimitrijevic. “That would happen often.”
Dimitrijevic claims Walker balanced the budget in the last two sessions by counting on reductions in pensions and increases in health care costs. “So if we weren’t able to get that,” she says, “there would be a hole in the budget. Even today we still don’t have a contract with our organized labor because he was never [willing] to sit down at the table and actually bargain and negotiate with them. This is a huge cost to Milwaukee County taxpayers.”
Another cost in the wake of Walker’s tenure is a privatizing emergency move he made in the name of balancing the budget, laying off the courthouse security guard force in 2009 and replacing them with a private team from the British firm Wackenhut. In January 2011 a court ruled the move unjust, forcing the county to rehire the guards—and pony up their back pay—and reportedly could cost taxpayers about $400,000.
“He basically uses the budget deficit as this total free-for-all of having unlimited power to just do what he wants,” says Dimitrijevic. “It’s really an abuse.”
Dimitrijevic steps back a bit when describing Walker personally, though, calling him a nice guy, “not at all a bad person or mean spirited.” Instead, she says, he’s a true believer—and his beliefs are too radical for Wisconsin. “The majority of people elected and reelected him, but I don’t think they were aware of the extreme nature of his politics,” she says. “The very fundamental things that we’ve held so dearly in this state, from education to labor rights to protecting our natural resources, cuts to Medicaid and health insurance for the poor, disabled and elderly … it’s just too extreme for us.”
Dimitrijevic says Walker ran for governor twice while in office as county executive, and though he is governor now, he’s quite possibly got his eye on the national stage. “Half the time he was here he was running for something else,” she says.
Dimitrijevic’s fellow board member, Luigi Schmitt of the 19th district, agrees that Walker is likely focused on a future in national politics. However, he sees Walker’s political behavior as far less than sinister. “He was elected by the majority, and there’s no hiding what he stood for,” says Schmitt. “He’s been very consistent—which people like, by the way—a very conservative Republican in a Ronald Reagan mold. You are never going to have a tax increase with him. You’re always going to cut back on spending. What you see is what you get.”
Former Democratic state assemblyman Sheldon Wasserman has known Walker for years and has no doubt the man has larger aspirations. “His eye is on the prize, and his prize is personal,” he says. “I see him running for president one day.” Wasserman, an OB/GYN in Milwaukee, served with Walker from 1995 until 2002. He says because he is a doctor, he often “worked both sides of the aisle,” feeling it was his mandate to provide both Republican and Democratic perspectives to health care bills.
“I actually got along with Scott very well,” says Wasserman. “We were both young, both from the Milwaukee area. He always made a point of being very nice to me, and we had a lot of talks.” They also worked together on several health care and criminal justice related bills, compared notes on districts and carpooled on one occasion—a joint speech on prison health care—between Madison and Milwaukee. “Scott Walker is one of the hardest working individuals I have ever met,” says Wasserman. “He’s very methodical. He identifies the prize and he goes after it. He’s a true ideologue, a true believer, and I think that’s what sets him apart from other politicians, let alone other people in general.”
Wasserman recalls a moment on the assembly floor in the late 1990s, when Republican governor Tommy Thompson wanted to raise gas taxes to support transportation. Republicans were in the majority in the assembly, led by then-Speaker David Prosser. It should have been a slam-dunk, but for Scott Walker—who Wasserman says was one of a group of 10 or so Republican reps who refused to go along with the governor, bucking their own leadership.
Wasserman describes the scene: “Prosser and the other Republicans were just flipping out, it was total chaos, and I remember turning around to look back at Scott. And he was just sitting there in that seat on one of the aisle rows, and he would not budge. He was impassive as stone. I just remember looking at him getting yelled at, and he was like, ‘Nope.’ You know how he makes that smirk? Shakes his head, kind of puts his lips together real tight and moves his eyes and shakes his head no? That’s what he did that day, and he’s still doing it.
“So that’s where I kind of caught on,” says Wasserman. “Like, holy smokes, this guy’s a believer.”
Wasserman confirms Dimitrijevic’s claim that Walker consistently vetoed county budgets when he was county executive, then returned it the next year at the higher starting point the board had finally approved. “He always let somebody else raise the taxes for him,” says Wasserman. “Then they would get the blame for it. He would get the benefits. It’s this politics of division, and this is where we fundamentally disagree. Politics is the art of compromise. You bring people together. He doesn’t do that. It’s his way or the highway.”
Wasserman also says Walker’s socially conservative values drive him at his core, a claim seemingly backed up by a March 2011 article by Matthew Rothschild of the left-wing The Progressive magazine titled “Scott Walker Believes He’s Following Orders From the Lord.” In it, Rothschild pulls quotes from a 2009 talk Walker gave at the Christian Businessmen’s Committee in Madison, in which Walker gives numerous examples of all the instances in his life when he followed God’s voice. This, says Wasserman, explains things like the provision in the budget bill that would strike down the law mandating insurance companies to cover birth control.
“He doesn’t believe in compromises of what he views as religiously held deep value issues,” says Wasserman, weeks before the Rothschild piece ran. “So, why compromise when God is on your side?”
It’s this art of non-compromise that many Walker supporters praise, and Orv Seymer is among them. “You can tell by his stance here in the last weeks that he is a strong believer in what he’s doing,” says Seymer, field operations director for the fiscally conservative political group Citizens for Responsible Government. CRG is credited with bringing down Ament’s administration in Milwaukee County, and is now assisting the groups working to recall four of the Democratic senators who left for Illinois. “It’s pretty clear that there is no compromise with him. And that can be a negative thing or not, but he strongly believes in what he’s doing.”
Seymer says he’s supported Walker since his assembly days, and he says people on the left don’t understand that “people are just as angry on the right. Maybe they’re not as vocal, not as out there. They’re not gonna go up and sleep at the Capitol all night long for three straight weeks. But they’re just as angry, maybe even more.” Seymer was a union member in the late 1970s, “a very large union supporter,” but feels that public sector unions have since overreached. He says people are starting to realize that’s why their taxes are so high, and that Walker is fighting for those people today.
“I think he’s the real deal,” says Seymer. “I mean, let’s face it, he’s a politician—but he’s the best politician that I’ve ever seen.”
I’m looking at a 1985 Delavan-Darien High School black-and-white yearbook picture of a group of boys, with a caption that tells me they’ve just returned from leadership camp. Third from the left, sporting a dark mop of a mullet, is Scott Walker. To his left is a guy named Bill Huisheere. It turns out Huisheere lives in Madison today and, like Walker, says he has “a lot less hair.” He remembers Walker as being very average, not extreme in any way. “He wasn’t Bible thumping,” he says. “He was a nice guy. We were in band together. We went to his dad’s church. He was just your average kid in school.”
Huisheere, a lifelong Democrat, is a Dane County Human Services social worker. Though he declined to voice his political views on the record, he admits he did send Walker an email this year, just after Walker moved to the governor’s mansion on Madison’s north side, where Huisheere resides. “I said, ‘Hi, Scott, it’s Bill from high school,’ and I congratulated him on becoming governor. I said, ‘I completely disagree with what you’re doing, but welcome to the north side of Madison. If you’re looking for a good pizza joint, Café La Bellitalia is where you should go.’ But I haven’t heard back from him yet.” Huisheere and I talk for a good long while, but in the end I can’t get his email out of my head. It’s just so … Wisconsin.
Later that night, on Huisheere’s recommendation, I give LeAnn Williams-Ely a call. She’s another classmate of Walker’s and, being a Williams, her locker was alphabetically close to his. They also shared the same homeroom for four years. She now lives in Iowa. Like Huisheere, Williams-Ely has only positive things to say about her memory of Walker way back then. “He was always friendly,” she says. “He was pretty outgoing, everybody knew who he was. He was just an involved person. A positive person.”
Williams-Ely’s husband’s military career took them out of Wisconsin and all over the country, but she and Walker became Facebook friends and caught up at class reunions. She followed his career from afar like any small-town classmate might and was happy for his success. Plus, she’s an independent voter and tends toward fiscal conservatism—so most of the time, his politics sounded pretty good to her. “But when he was suddenly eliminating collective bargaining,” says Williams-Ely, “well, I’m troubled by that.”
She grew even more troubled by the growing protests and says people outside of Wisconsin don’t realize how unusual all this tumult is. “I mean, these are farmers, people whose parents have been in unions or who’ve worked in factories or as teachers. It takes a lot to ruffle their feathers, and to have them, week after week, protesting at the Capitol, it just speaks volumes. It really breaks my heart. This just doesn’t happen in Wisconsin.”
She says politics aside, if this many Wisconsinites are so deeply affected, it would have been in Walker’s best interest to listen to them and to “try to appear to have met in the middle.
“The kind of people we’re talking about here are the kind of people we grew up with in Delavan,” says Williams-Ely. “It makes me sad. I almost wonder if he forgot where he came from.”