The right finds its champion: Wisconsin Gov. Walker

  • Article by: JIM RAGSDALE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 1, 2012 - 10:45 AM

Wisconsin governor has tapped a rich vein of cash, clout in recall fight.

HARTLAND, WIS. - Organized labor and liberal activists may have begun the recall of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, but business leaders and conservative groups hope to finish it.

A governor whose campaign has centered on tours of computer clean rooms, factory floors and other centers of enterprise and whose unvarying message is that he has opened the state for business to thrive has proved to be a huge hit with business leaders, billionaire entrepreneurs and free-enterprise organizations.

Walker's battles with labor and his plight as a recall target have allowed him to tap into a rich vein of conservative power and money that stretches across the country, making him a top draw among business leaders looking for decisive leadership.

His foes look at his six-figure campaign contributions from Las Vegas and Houston and call him the "rock star of the far right." Perhaps, but he also is popular with leaders of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state's largest business organization, which is spending $3 million to help him survive.

"People recognize you've got to have bold and courageous people in politics to take on the status quo and say, 'This isn't working,'" said Kurt Bauer, president of the organization. "If we can't do it in Wisconsin -- if we recall Governor Walker for doing something that was difficult but necessary -- it's a bad omen for the rest of the nation."

Barry Burden, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, noted that Walker was elected in the 2010 Tea Party revolt, a powerful reaction against President Obama's stimulus legislation, health care overhaul and federal deficits. After proposing, fighting for and winning passage of Act 10, a budget repair bill that greatly restricted the organizing rights of public employee unions -- and facing demonstrations of up to 100,000 people -- Walker became "a poster child for that new face of the Republican Party," Burden said.

Supporters give big

Like the labor unions on the opposite side of the political divide, business leaders, fiscal conservatives and Republican activists see Tuesday's recall election as a watershed event. For them, it is a test of whether a leader who took necessary actions to resolve their government's fiscal crisis can long endure. Like the demonstrators in Madison who see their movement as kin to the uprisings of the Arab Spring, business leaders see a direct line from Wisconsin to the federal deficit and the European debt crisis.

To help Walker through his crucible, business is stepping up in a way never before seen in Wisconsin.

State law temporarily suspends campaign contribution limits for candidates facing recall, opening the door to donations in eye-popping amounts for a statewide race.

Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who almost singlehandedly bankrolled Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign, has given Walker $250,000. So has Amway founder Richard DeVos of Florida. Diane Hendricks, owner of ABC Supply Co. in Beloit, Wis., has donated $500,000, as has Bob Perry, a Houston home-builder and backer of the "Swift Boat" attacks on Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry in 2004. Checks for $100,000 have come in from donors as far away as Massachusetts and Arkansas.

The size of the individual contributions to Walker are unprecedented. So is the fact that three-fifths of all contributions reported thus far have come from outside the state, said Mike McCabe, head of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks fundraising and spending by state officials and outside groups.

McCabe reported Thursday that spending in the governor's race is at $62 million and counting -- $29 million by Walker, $4 million by all the Democratic candidates combined and another $29 million by outside interest groups on both sides. The previous high for a gubernatorial campaign was $37 million for the 2010 Walker-Barrett race, he said.

Dick Uihlein of Lake Forest, Ill., CEO of Uline, a shipping supplies distributor that is expanding in Wisconsin, said he views Walker as the kind of leader his own state needs to solve its deep, perennial budget woes. Uihlein gave Walker $25,000. He believes the changes the first-term governor proposed to restrain public unions are necessary, and Walker's persistence in the face of tumult only made Uihlein's admiration grow.

"If what is being done here is causing states and the country to go under, then something has to change," Uihlein said. "We're at a crossroads here."

At home with business

Walker, cool and confident, will go anywhere to extol what he considers his good news on the jobs front, as he did in a recent visit to a small but growing computer firm in Hartland, west of Milwaukee.

Speaking to a gathering of workers at EmbedTek, Walker rolled out the topic of the day -- revised jobs numbers that contradicted a series of negative federal jobs reports -- and told employees that their success at adding several jobs to their firm is a "great story" that fits in with Wisconsin's upward trend.

"Since I've been in office, the unemployment rate has consistently gone down, to 6.8 percent, which is two points lower than Illinois," he said. "Revenues are up, and the state has a surplus of $154 million."

The group applauded politely, Walker donned a coat and spent half an hour touring work stations and chatting with employees. It was a low-key event with few votes to be garnered for a man facing the possibility of political demise. But it underscored Walker's deep connection with the state's business community, a constituency that does not take to the streets but watches its balance sheets and likes a leader who can make tough calls and stick by them.

Bauer, of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, said that while former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle was supported by only 10 percent of members in the group's surveys, Walker's approval among state business owners runs in the mid-90s. His ability to deliver on a manufacturers' tax cut and regulatory and tort overhauls cemented that support, Bauer said.

Bauer sees progress at the local level from school districts freed from limits imposed by law or contract and believes Walker's strike hit unions where it hurt.

"It was like Delilah cutting off Sampson's hair," he said. "When you take away collective bargaining rights, you take away two things they hold dear -- money and power. That's what this recall is about -- money and power."

The governor's message, and the war chest he has amassed to deliver it, appear to be selling. Marquette University Law School's most recent poll, released on Wednesday, showed Walker with a 7-point lead over Democratic challenger Tom Barrett.

Butch Schultz of Hudson, Wis., retired from 3M in Maplewood, wore a Green Bay Packers sweatshirt while performing volunteer chores recently at Walker's offices in Hudson. He said he believes Walker won his support by taking decisive action in the midst of a budget crisis. "It may have been blunt, but it was what was needed," Schultz said. "Where did we quit teaching people to balance the budget, balance your checkbook?"

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042

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