The Magazine

Cheapskating to Victory

Scott Walker is poised to cash in on his frugality in the Wisconsin governor’s race.

Aug 30, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 47 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Milwaukee

Cheapskating to Victory

Scott Walker downs a Krispy Kreme cheeseburger.

When Barack Obama visited here on August 16, the state’s top Democrats greeted him at the airport. Representative Gwen Moore was there. So was Governor Jim Doyle. Senator Russ Feingold was there and said he had no concerns about appearing with the increasingly unpopular president. “Absolutely none,” he said. “I’m pleased to stand with this president any time and anywhere and defend what we’ve done and what we’re doing.”

But there was one conspicuous absence at General Mitchell International Airport that morning: Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, who is running for governor.

Odd. The White House worked hard to recruit Barrett to run to succeed Doyle, and one of the two events Obama was in Wisconsin to attend was a fundraiser for Barrett. The other was a speech at ZBB Energy that Barrett had helped set up.

But not only was Barrett not at the airport, he skipped the event at ZBB Energy. Obama didn’t even mention Barrett’s name at the beginning of his 11-minute speech when he acknowledged everyone else including “Eric,” ZBB’s CEO who gave him a tour. Barrett apparently did find time to make the fundraiser Obama held in his honor, which raised a reported $325,000, but that event was not open to the press.

Barrett was an early supporter of Obama’s $862 billion stimulus plan. “I do think it can help stem the downward spiral, and when we reach bottom we’ll be able to climb out more easily,” he told the Business Journal of Milwaukee shortly after the stimulus was passed in 2009. But the climb out has been anything but easy in Wisconsin or the rest of the country. Voters overwhelmingly believe the stimulus was ineffective and with this fall’s midterm elections shaping up to be a referendum on the size and scope of government, few elected Democrats are defending it.

Republicans, on the other hand, are eager to talk about the stimulus. As Obama spoke at the fundraiser, Barrett’s likely Republican opponent for governor, Scott Walker, was across town discussing the spending with supporters at a rally in a parking lot under the Hoan Bridge near Lake Michigan. 

The Obama administration has given Wisconsin stimulus money to fund a high-speed train between Milwaukee and Madison. Barrett and Governor Doyle embraced the project when it was announced, but in the months since, it has become incredibly unpopular. Walker believes that the state has higher priorities—chief among them repairing the Hoan Bridge, which connects the south side to downtown Milwaukee. Driving over the bridge is like going across a mile of rumble strips. Not long ago the city had to put netting on the underside of the bridge in order to catch debris as it falls from the structure. 

Walker wants to stop the train and fix the bridge: 

We know that the massive government spending project that they’re talking about—the one that Tom Barrett bases as the centerpiece of his economic development plan—will only create a mere 55 permanent jobs. That’s more than $14.5 million per job. I think we can do a little better than that.  

Not surprisingly, there was ample agreement among the 400 people who made time to attend a rally at 2:30 p.m. on a Monday.

“I think it’s a stupid idea,” says Yash Wadhwa, a civil engineer from Milwaukee. “It’s a complete waste of money. If we can get five people to ride that train we’ll be lucky. Nobody wants it except Jim Doyle and Tom Barrett.” 

Walker is one of the most compelling candidates running this election cycle. The son of a minister, he was elected Milwaukee County executive in the spring of 2002, in what the local newspaper called “the grand finale of a taxpayer uprising.” The revolt came after a pension scandal in which county officials voted themselves millions of dollars in retirement payments. The compensation would have included a lump sum payout for Tom Ament, -Walker’s predecessor, as high as $2.3 million and annual payments of some $136,000 for life.

Walker ran promising to overhaul county government. He promised to balance the budget, at the time some $3.5 million in the red. He promised to cut government spending. He promised to change the way the county does business. He started with his own salary. Since 2002, he has forgone more than $370,000. 

Walker ran ads about his salary to kick off his campaign for governor. After telling viewers how much he’d given up, Walker laughs a bit. “My wife was like: What? But we believe that government spends too much money. And that included my salary.”

Is it a gimmick? Of course. But talk to Wisconsin voters about the governor’s race and Walker’s decision to give back part of his salary is one of the first things they mention. The ad worked for two reasons: It is consistent with the way Walker has governed, and it’s about real money. 

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