Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker smiles during an event to announce the expansion of Family Care, a state-administered program that provides long-term care to disabled and elderly residents under Medicaid during an event at Options for Independent Living in Green Bay Monday, April 21, 2014. (AP Photo/Press-Gazette Media, Jim Matthews)

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Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker looks ahead, afar

  • Article by: Monica Davey
  • New York Times
  • April 26, 2014 - 11:15 PM



Scott Walker is nothing if not consistent. From his time as a local official in Milwaukee a decade ago to his explosive first year as governor of Wisconsin in 2011, Walker, a Republican, has deviated little from a platform to spend less, tax less and rein in the power of public sector unions.

Again and again, Walker has shown a rare aptitude for recognizing and seizing on ripe political opportunities, and he has advanced himself in ways that have him being mentioned with Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Gov. John R. Kasich of Ohio and former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida as possible Republican contenders for the presidency in 2016.

Walker flew to Las Vegas in March to appear beside potential rivals to woo wealthy conservative donors. He recently published a memoir, “Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge” — more how someone builds a national name than seeks reelection.

Bucking history in a state known for the early-20th-century progressivism of Robert M. La Follette Sr., Walker appeared in the capital, Madison, three years ago as a blunt advocate of smaller government. Storms of protest greeted his move to roll back collective bargaining rights for most public-sector unions. That he survived a 2012 recall election over those union policies only solidified his power and enhanced his credentials across Wisconsin and beyond.

At 46, the fresh-faced Walker suddenly is on the national stage, an achievement that actually took more than 20 years. His advocates credit him for an improved business climate, a tuition freeze in the state university system and a jobless rate that has fallen to 5.9 percent from 7.8 percent. Emboldened by his recent successes — including passage of a more than $500 million tax cut in March, the third cut in just the past year — Walker this month announced his 2014 campaign for reelection.

But with the prospect of an even higher office on the horizon, Walker finds his earlier track record under increasing scrutiny, not only for how closely it hews to conservative principles but also for the criminal convictions of some staff members and the release of staff e-mails that included racial and ethnic slurs.

These date to his time as Milwaukee County executive, a post he held from 2002 to 2010, and raise questions about the people he chose as confidants. Three of Walker’s former aides and several other associates have been convicted of crimes in an investigation into whether campaign work was being done on county time.

Walker has distanced himself from the conduct and was not charged.

If anything has defined Walker’s political life over the past decade, it was his drive to limit unions just six weeks into his tenure as governor in 2011, a move foretold in his years as Milwaukee County executive. Although Walker had made it clear as a candidate for governor that unions could expect to see change, his critics say he never made clear the extent of his intentions until he was elected.

But as county executive, he also clashed with public-sector unions, calling for 35-hour workweeks instead of 40, with corresponding reductions in compensation. At one point, he suggested that the county government itself — the one he led — might be abolished as a way to spare waste.

“Any time I had a reasonable option, I’d get shot down by the public-employee union leaders who would rather lay off hundreds of people before they would take even a 35-hour workweek,” he said in a recent interview. “So I had just grown so frustrated with them throughout the process that I said, ‘Something’s got to change.’ ”

After winning a special election for a state Assembly seat in 1993 and holding it for a decade, Walker looked to the Milwaukee County executive’s office, which was engulfed in a scandal over pension payouts in 2002. He ran in a special election to finish the resigning incumbent’s term — an opportune moment for his message of transparency and waste cutting.

“Honestly, I can’t remember a time other than maybe that first year where we weren’t in a fight with him,” said David Eisner, who helped lead a union of county workers at the time. “He seemed like a guy on a mission.”

By 2009, Walker said, frustrations led him to run for governor. “I just had had it with where the economy was,” he said. “I thought the state was headed in the wrong direction.”

Walker’s message matched the moment of financial crisis in a state that Barack Obama had carried in 2008 and would again in 2012.

Conservative Wisconsin radio commentator Jerry Bader, a supporter, said the governor must “become more selective” about who is around him.

“Whatever his future plans are,” Bader said, “I think they are limited if he doesn’t fix this weakness.”

An investigation into spending by conservative groups during the 2012 recall election continues.

“We probably have faced more scrutiny than anyone in elected office anywhere in the country, at least anyone at the state or federal level,” Walker said. “It’s a little surreal. But it is what it is. I just keep my head up and chin forward and keep moving the pathway forward.”


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