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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He was joking, of course, but he usually speaks directly, not fretting too much about the political impact of his words.

Graeme Zielinski, a former political reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel who left his job earlier this year to become the spokesman for the Wisconsin Democratic party, wants me to know that Walker’s candidacy is based on lies and half-truths. “Generally, it’s our position that Scott Walker isn’t truthful about his record on just about anything.”

“When Scott Walker was in the legislature, he voted several times for budgets that included studies on high speed rail,” Zielinski explained. “If he was such an opponent of high speed rail, he wouldn’t have been in a tough election fight before he brought it up. He’s been a Johnny-come-lately to this.” 

As it happens, I’d just read the transcript of an editorial board meeting with the Journal Sentinel from 2002 featuring Walker and his first opponent for the county executive seat, Jim Ryan. The two men agreed on many of the urgent issues facing the county, but one major area of disagreement concerned infrastructure. Ryan favored funding for a rail-based system in Milwaukee County. Walker did not. 

He made two arguments against it—priorities and costs. “There are an incredibly large number of other infrastructure-based projects on the table that directly tie in the economic development that far outweighs the seriousness of just this rail-based system.” Walker was worried that federal subsidies would not cover the entire cost of the project and would, in any case, leave the county responsible for operating costs it could not afford. He makes exactly the same arguments today about high-speed rail.

So I pressed Zielinski about Walker’s supposed votes for high-speed rail. 

“Was that one of those situations where he cast the vote for a huge budget so you can’t separate it out?”

“Yeah,” he acknowledged. “Absolutely.” 

“So is it your view that the principled thing to do would have been to vote ‘no’ on the overall budget because it included studies on high-speed rail?”

“Well, he—he took some affirmative votes in committee that allowed—procedurally allowed those studies to go forward.”

That didn’t sound like a big deal to me, but if the spokesman for the Democratic party thought enough of it to make it his leading critique of Walker, I wanted to know more. Zielinski said he would send me details about those votes and then shifted to a broader critique, attacking Walker from the right. 

“On spending, he’s increased spending by $380 million—more than any candidate in this race. On taxes, he raised taxes by 40 million bucks while he’s been here.”

I asked him about that number. “He raised taxes by 40 million bucks. The tax levy has gone up by $40 million.”

Of course, those are two different claims. The first one is false; the second one is true. The tax levy has indeed increased, but only because the county board repeatedly raised taxes over Walker’s veto. I pointed that out to Zielinski. 

“He signed those budgets. He signed those budgets.” 

“But they were passed over his veto.”

A four-second pause and then: 

Spending went up by 380 million bucks. And if his argument is “I couldn’t do anything,” then how can he do something about high-speed rail? “Well, I was helpless about increasing spending by 35 percent but I’m not helpless on high-speed rail.” That doesn’t square.

Zielinski then warmed to the theme of making Milwaukee County sound something like Rome, or at least Detroit. “The parks are in ruins. The county buildings are in ruins. Services are in ruins.” 

This continued for several minutes before I had a chance to ask him about Tom Barrett and President Obama’s visit to Milwaukee. “Why would Barrett not show up to see the president?” I asked. “Did he have something better to do?”

“I, I, I’ve not—he’s the mayor. I have no idea what the calculation was behind that.”

“But that’s weird, isn’t it? The mayor of Milwaukee is running for governor, and he’s not going to show up to greet the president?”

“There’s plenty of footage of Tom Barrett and Barack Obama. Tom Barrett was one of the first people to support Barack Obama’s run for president. There’s no shortage—if Republicans need little sound bites or clips of Tom Barrett—he’s not running away from the president.”

“He’s not? Why wouldn’t he show up if he’s not running away from the president?”

“I have no idea. I was working on something—when Sarah Palin comes in—Scott Walker was at a rally with Sarah Palin a year ago at the State Fair Park. When Sarah Palin comes in he runs around the state holding hands with her. But I don’t know the answer. I didn’t handle the schedule this morning. I was meeting with the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] on something, so if you want an actual, factual answer to that, I can try to get one for you.”

I emailed Zielinski to follow up, and he responded: “There is no official statement on Tom’s schedule Monday.” I also never got anything supporting his claims about the committee votes Walker cast in favor of high-speed rail projects. 

Beyond the difficulty Democrats are having attacking Walker, his message is clearly resonating with Wisconsin voters. 

Before the Hoan Bridge rally, I was talking to Steve Butler, an exterminator who showed up wearing a blue work shirt that featured a patch for his employer, “AAA Pest Management.” When I asked Butler how he found the time to attend a rally in the middle of a workday, he told me he was “between jobs.” I thought he meant unemployed, but he explained that he was literally taking a break between two extermination jobs that afternoon.

When we finished, a man in a red shirt and jeans approached tentatively. “I’m one of those guys you thought he was,” he said as the first speaker started. We agreed to talk afterwards.

When the rally ended, he approached again. “Let’s talk over there,” he said, motioning away from the crowd. When we were alone, he explained that he had been let go in May as a sales rep for a local manufacturing company. 

The first thing I did was get rid of my cable, my newspapers, my landline. We can’t afford to go out and eat. We started doing our shopping at Aldi’s [a local discount grocery store]. We had to really think about how we were spending our money. That’s what Scott does. So it makes sense to me when Scott talks about bringing a lunch in a brown bag. You would think that it wouldn’t because I lost my job. But it appeals to me even more since I lost my job.

We chatted for several minutes. When we were done, I asked him if I could use his name and explained that it’s much better to be able to attach a name to quotations. He was hesitant, and so I told him that it wasn’t necessary if he wasn’t comfortable. He thought about it again before replying. 

“Yeah,” he said. “This is important. It’s Curt Yorkey.”

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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