Scott Walker’s ‘new direction’ polarizes Wisconsin

Protestors confront police at Wisconsin Capitol

When Scott Walker, Wisconsin‘s new Republican governor, kicked off his campaign for the job nearly two years ago, he vowed to take this state, with its long progressive history, in “a new direction.”

Eight weeks into his term, Walker has definitely kept his promise — though negative opinion polls and mass protests suggest many people do not like where he is headed.

Critics, especially in the labor movement, fear Walker’s policies are taking Wisconsin, whose official motto is “Forward,” — backward.

The most controversial of these policies is a plan to strip teachers, nurses, highway workers and other public employees of most of their collective bargaining rights.

In a state that produced two of America’s most famous crusading Republicans — Robert La Follette and Joseph McCarthy — Walker, who is obviously on a crusade of his own, has polarized public opinion.

His supporters insist he is a progressive in the mold of La Follette, who fought more than 100 years ago against corporate power and political corruption. The new threat to democracy, these backers say, is big government and the powerful unions that public workers have formed to protect themselves.

His detractors consider him a sinister McCarthy-like figure who is taking advantage of the state’s current financial problems to attack organized labor, as McCarthy attacked “Communist sympathizers” in the Senate hearings of the 1950s.

Whoever he is, Walker, 43, appears unwilling to reverse course despite the political firestorm his policies have ignited.

Late Wednesday, his allies in the state Senate rammed the most controversial aspect of his plan though their chamber, stripping out the sections that required the presence of their 14 absent Democratic colleagues and sending the measure back to the Assembly, where the Republican majority is expected to quickly pass the bill and send it to Walker for his signature.

In a Reuters interview last week, Walker said he has been reading John Maxwell’s “Leadership Promises for Every Day: A Daily Devotional” during the current crisis and was struck by how many of the readings were about “staying the course.”

It’s a trait longtime friends and foes say he has shown throughout his 20-year political career. Some consider the constancy principled, others doctrinaire.

All agree Walker, who was elected as part of a nationwide sweep by Republicans in the mid-term elections and has emerged as one of the conservative movement’s rising stars, is no pushover in a fight.

“He’s the calmest guy in the building,” said Scott Jensen, a fellow Republican and former Assembly speaker who served alongside Walker in the 1990s.

“And his determination isn’t fierce. It’s absolutely calm and easy-going. He thinks, ‘I’m doing the right thing, so why should I be worried?’ I’ve been with him in tense situations in the legislature — nothing like the situation he’s in now — and it was always great to be standing next to him because he was just calm as can be, lighthearted and sticking to the plan.”

UNION BLUES

This time, however, sticking to the plan has brought Wisconsin to the brink of one of the most dramatic political crises in its 163-year history, according to former Republican legislative aide Scott Becher.

Becher now runs a political consultancy outside Madison and spent the past few weeks bringing a steady stream of journalists pouring in from across the country and as far away as France and Japan up to speed on the dairy state’s fast curdling political culture.

Immediately upon being sworn in this January, Walker convened a special session of the legislature to pass what he called a budget repair bill. Buried inside were provisions that strip public employees of most of their union rights.

It’s a proposal Walker never mentioned on his official campaign website or debated during his two-year campaign, and one that reverses long-standing policy in Wisconsin, among the first states to give public employees union rights.

In response, 14 Democratic state Senators fled to neighboring Illinois to deny Walker’s 19 Republican allies in the chamber the quorum they need to enact the proposal. Or so they thought until Wednesday night.

People who know Walker best say anyone expecting him to change course was likely to be disappointed — and they were right. Walker, a Baptist pastor’s son who has shown an evangelist’s zeal for the causes he takes up, has rarely backed down in the past, they say.

“This is a man with an incredible faith, strong opinions, and a belief that when you’re doing the right thing, you stick with it,” said Jim Villa, who ran Walker’s successful campaigns to lead the Milwaukee County Board.

Rich Abelson, the executive director of AFSCME Council 48, which represents 10,000 public employee union members in Milwaukee and who locked horns with Walker repeatedly during his years as county executive, agrees.

“Compromise? No. That’s not Scott Walker’s nature,” Abelson said. “Scott Walker’s nature is to come up with one solution and then, if you don’t agree to it, to refuse to negotiate.”

REAGAN BABY

Walker was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado and raised there, as well as in Plainfield, Iowa, until the third grade, when his family moved to Delavan, a small town in southern Wisconsin where his father had been hired as a preacher.

He reached voting age during President Ronald Reagan‘s second term and was attending Marquette University in Milwaukee when Jensen, then chief of staff to Republican Governor Tommy Thompson, first met him.

“He was a young guy, fired up — a Reagan baby in every way: philosophy, style, understanding of the importance of communication, the determination to stick to principle, the affable and personal nature,” Jensen recalled.

Walker left Marquette without earning a degree and went to work in the marketing department of the local Red Cross. But his interest in politics continued. In 1990, when he was still just 22, he ran as a Republican for state Assembly representing the area around Marquette, a rock-solid Democratic stronghold.

“He lost,” said McWilliams, who ran the campaign. “But not for lack of trying. I think he knocked on every door in that neighborhood.”

Three years later, Walker ran for the Assembly again, this time for a seat representing Wauwatosa, a conservative bedroom community outside Milwaukee where he had moved with his new wife, Tonette, and continues to live today.

He won and joined Jensen, who had been elected to the Assembly in a special election in 1992, in Madison. A year later, when the Republicans took control of the chamber for the first time in nearly a generation, Walker’s star quickly rose.

“It was widely believed that we would only last one term. So we put forward a very aggressive agenda with the thought that if we’re only going to be here for a little while, let’s get some stuff done,” Jensen said.

In fact, the Republicans retained control of the chamber for more than a decade and Walker won re-election four times. He became the party’s point man on number of key issues, including crime, and helped pass a law through that eliminated the practice of reducing prison sentences for good behavior.

He also became the voice of the Assembly’s new Young Turks, filling in for Jensen for TV appearances and on Charlie Sykes’ popular conservative talk show on AM radio in Milwaukee.

“It was clear the first few times he was on TV and radio that he was just telegenic,” Jensen said. “That he was really good at shaping the message to the needs of the media.”

MILWAUKEE CRUCIBLE

In 2002, Walker ran in a special election to be the top official in deeply Democratic Milwaukee County, mired in a pension scandal that had forced a number of officials to resign.

Once again, he won. His experience there, battling municipal unions and their allies on the board to keep a lid on taxes and fees, was a constant struggle. But it was, friends say, a challenge he relished and that proved formative.

Anyone trying to understand Walker’s animus toward organized labor and no-compromise political style needs to focus on the time he spent here, developing his executive skills and learning the lessons he draws on today.

“Nine years of frustration as the Milwaukee County Executive convinced him that if he was going to bring true reform to Wisconsin and be able to make government efficient, make it smarter and smaller, that he had to overcome extraordinary work rules and practices that are built into the collective bargaining agreements,” Jensen said.

Walker insists the proposed crackdown on collective bargaining that now seems sure to become law is needed to help municipalities offset the sharp cuts in state aid he’s proposed to help close a $3.6 billion budget deficit.

In the interview with Reuters, he said he tried “many a time” in Milwaukee to get the unions to make modest changes in pension and healthcare contributions to help the county address its budget woes without layoffs or furloughs — to no avail.

“I even, one year, tried to do — for a couple of weeks — do 35 hour work weeks to try to avoid layoffs and furloughs.”

“And each of those times, the public employee unions in the county, emboldened by collective bargaining contracts, said, ‘No. We’re not going to do it. Go ahead and lay 400 or 500 people off.’ And that very much shaped my beliefs,” he said.

But opponents of his effort to slash collective bargaining say public workers had already agreed to steep benefit cuts and that Walker’s proposal is simple union-busting, designed to strip them of their union rights and to throw organized labor into a crisis ahead of the 2012 presidential race.

“This is exactly the script that Walker followed in Milwaukee County,” said Abelson of AFSCME Council 48.

“He would create crises and then claim that he had to react to those crises in the most draconian ways — by cutting services, cutting benefits, deferring maintenance.”

Jensen said the unions should not be surprised that Walker has targeted them as governor — or that he has shown little appetite for compromise in the face of massive public protests.

“They taught him this lesson for nine years in Milwaukee County, where they made it nearly impossible for him to make reforms in a country government that was bloated and headed toward bankruptcy,” Jensen said.

“They wouldn’t budge an inch. So they taught him exactly what he needed to do when he became governor. Stand firm, make the changes that are necessary, and don’t budge an inch.”

Copyright © 2011 Reuters

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