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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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Walker is not like Michael Bloomberg serving as New York’s mayor for $1 a year. He’s not wealthy, and with two teenage boys headed to college in the next five years family finances are tight. He drives a gray 1998 Saturn with 105,313 miles on it. Though cost is only part of the reason he hasn’t sprung for a new car. “I drive it because it works,” he says of his Saturn.

Walker is running for governor hoping to galvanize what he calls a “Brown Bag Movement.” He visits workplaces around the state during lunch hour and after a short speech takes questions from the workers who show up to hear him. Every seat has a brown paper lunch bag with a short saying. “I have to brown bag it so I can pay Wisconsin’s taxes” or “I’d be eating out if government wasn’t gobbling up all of my money” or “Wisconsin is Tax Hell!”

It’s cheesy, but, like the salary ad, it seems to be working. When I mentioned to a Washington-based political reporter that I was headed to Wisconsin to profile Walker, he said: “Oh, the Brown Bag guy.”

Walker’s speech at Worzella Publishing in Stevens Point is brief and straightforward. It is well summarized by the three-sentence “Brown Bag Guide to Government.” “Don’t spend more money than you have. Smaller government is better government. People create jobs, not government.”

In rat-a-tat-tat fashion, Walker promises to eliminate obstacles to economic growth by cutting taxes, cutting red tape, and cutting the cost of “frivolous and out-of-control lawsuits.” And he offers three other priorities: improving Wisconsin’s “world-class education system,” improving health care “but not the way they promise to in Washington,” and improving the state’s infrastructure.

Walker says the first thing he’d do as governor is sign a letter authorizing Wisconsin’s attorney general to challenge the individual mandate in the new federal health care law.

Although he was not raised in a political family, Walker, 42, has been a conservative as long as he can remember. “I came of age in the 1980s, so there’s no doubt President Reagan had an influence.” When I asked him why he is a conservative, he responded, not surprisingly, with a simple answer: “Because I think that government’s not the best place to get things done.” 

Walker has top Republicans around the country buzzing. The Republican Governor’s Association has already spent heavily in Wisconsin and views the race as a top priority. Haley Barbour visited the state to raise money, and Tom Ridge and Jeb Bush have done events for the Walker campaign. Walker exchanges emails regularly with Newt Gingrich, who provides advice on both politics and policy. Walker says they struck up a relationship after he read Gingrich’s book “last deer season.”

This is how Scott Walker thinks. His is a common sense, back-to-basics conservatism that has served him well over the past eight years as county executive. Walker won reelection twice—in 2004 and 2008—in a county with a long history of progressive politics. Eight months before Barack Obama defeated John McCain in Milwaukee County with 67.5 percent of the vote, Walker defeated his opponent with 59 percent.

He was reelected because he has largely accomplished what he set out to accomplish. Milwaukee County today is running a surplus, even though the state government is running a record deficit. Walker has kept spending increases below the rate of inflation—his campaign calls this a de facto spending reduction. He has cut the county workforce by 20 percent. He privatized courthouse food services, housekeeping, and perimeter security. And for eight consecutive years he submitted budgets that did not raise property taxes.  

“Scott’s popularity has less to do with what he’s saying and more to do with what he’s done,” says one national Republican strategist.

His opponents in previous elections have charged that Walker’s spending cuts have diminished the quality of life in Milwaukee County. There have been emergency public pool closings. Some bus routes have been shortened, -others eliminated. But Walker is not an easy villain. He almost never stops smiling, and he is preternaturally optimistic. 

He’s a less brash Chris Christie or a slightly goofier Mitch Daniels. But he shares with them a willingness to be blunt, even at the risk of angering his colleagues or constituents. 

Walker and I discussed the Milwaukee County supervisor who became an overnight YouTube sensation after claiming that Arizona was not on the United States-Mexico border. 

“She’s not even the dumbest one,” he said. 

Later, at the Wisconsin State Fair, moments before he bit into a Krispy Kreme cheeseburger, Walker was asked how many of the county supervisors were dumber. 

“About half,” he quipped.

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