MADISON, WIS. - The loud drumming and protests in the Capitol rotunda were blaring in their second week, and lawmakers had stayed up through the night speaking on the Assembly floor. Still, a weary Democratic state Rep. Mark Pocan couldn't help but temper his criticism of Gov. Scott Walker.
"To this day, I think he's still a very nice guy," said Pocan, before adding, "I think he was more open before to ideas and now it appears that he's drinking the governor Kool-Aid.''
As the battle here drags on, Wisconsin's new governor has become a national hero and villain for his efforts to cut state employee benefits and curb their union negotiating power. The audacious and divisive tack has sparked questions about whether Walker is a principled man keeping his word to tackle a $3.6 billion state budget deficit, or an ideologue determined to advance a union-busting agenda.
Debate over the measure ramped up last week when 14 Democratic senators left the state to prevent a vote. Union leaders have agreed to cuts that would address his budget demands, but Walker won't negotiate on keeping intact their ability to bargain.
Colleagues say he's not cooperating because he doesn't have to.
"He's a nice person," said state Rep. Elizabeth Coggs, a Democrat who served on the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors when Walker was the elected county executive there. "The things that maybe he's doing now is because he's got all this power. He's got both houses. ...This is just only the beginning."
Walker, 43, has finely honed people skills, according to those who know him. The son of a Baptist preacher, he still refers to himself as "PK''-- preacher's kid -- and grew up in the small town of Delavan, with life a little like a "fishbowl."
He was an Eagle Scout, played high school sports and was in the band. His career at Marquette University was abbreviated. He compiled a 2.5 GPA and left short of getting his undergraduate degree to take a job in marketing with the Red Cross.
"In the end, I figured I was in school to get a good job," Walker told the Wisconsin State Journal last October about his college days. "So once I had one, family became more important than getting a degree."
He met his wife, Tonette, and the two started a family in Wauwatosa, a Milwaukee suburb. In 1993, at 26, Walker won a state Assembly seat. Tonette knew early about her husband's political aspirations. "Did I have reservations? My parents were Democrats and they were union workers," she told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
In the Assembly, it quickly became evident that Walker had higher ambitions.
"I could tell, and I told people, ... 'this guy's gonna be a rising star,'" said Republican Rep. Dean Kaufert, who traveled the country with Walker in the 1990s on a project to look at prisons. Walker was articulate and thorough, Kaufert said. "You saw something that the guy had a plan."
When the Milwaukee County executive stepped down amid a pension scandal in 2002, Walker made the unusual move of running for the seat. He battled with the Board of Supervisors and pushed to privatize some county services. He laid off workers. He proposed budgets with no tax increases.
In a foreshadowing, union protesters marched at the county level in response to Walker's actions. Coggs argues that Walker left it up to the board to resolve some issues.
"We would have to do the heavy lifting," Coggs said, adding that the board prevented some of the layoffs Walker threatened. "We'd have to put it back together again."
In eight years on the board, Walker gave back more than $370,000 of his salary to the county. Board Chairman Lee Holloway, who argued with Walker often, said they managed to keep a respectful working relationship.
"Whether you agree with him or not, he is for real. He's stubborn as all hell. He's not gonna let anybody bully him," Holloway said.
'Brown bag' plan
While campaigning for governor, Walker boasted of his frugality. Commercials featured him driving his 1998 Saturn. He used the ham-and-cheese sandwiches he packed for lunch every day as the basis for a "brown bag" plan to limit government.
How much he telegraphed his willingness to put the state through its current situation is unclear.
Asked about what he would first cut from the state budget if he were elected, Walker told the Sheboygan Press: "The biggest things we need to do are get public employee wages and benefits under control. To me, we can no longer have a society where public employees are the haves, and the taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots."
Some Democrats say they didn't see the attack on collective bargaining coming.
Publicly, Walker hasn't wavered. Privately, in what turned out to be a prank phone call, Walker didn't object when the prankster described his opponents as "Democrat bastards.''
"If they think I'm caving, they've been asleep for the last eight years," Walker later told the caller.
Walker also discussed strategies with the man he thought was David Koch, who with his brother, Charles, owns Koch Industries Inc., one of the largest privately owned U.S. companies. When the caller suggested planting "troublemakers" among the protesters, Walker paused, then responded: "We thought about that."
At the end, Walker said: "We're doing the just and right thing for the right reasons."
Both sides agree Walker's pushing an agenda that he thinks is right.
As protesters' shouts echoed from the rotunda, Rep. Al Ott, a Republican serving his 13th term, said he thinks Walker is buoyed by his religious faith.
"I have no questions about his character," Ott said. "I know people are reading different things into his posture and his approach. But I think it truly is the time and the circumstance which we're dealing with."
Pocan believes he sees a change in Walker from the young legislator he knew. "He comes across like someone who you'd love to have as your neighbor because he'd probably, every now and then, shovel for you," Pocan said. "This rigidity kind of runs counter to my past actions with him. ... He's trying to deliver for the national movement rather than addressing concerns we have in Wisconsin."
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102