West Allis, Wis.
Scott Walker looked relaxed. Dressed in light blue Levi’s jeans, a navy polo shirt, and white and gray Nike sneakers, the Wisconsin governor had just finished speaking at a Sunday morning program honoring veterans, his fourth public event at this year’s Wisconsin State Fair. Walker lingered after the speech, shaking the hand of each active duty servicemember in attendance and snapping photos with well-wishers who had lined up to meet him. “I’ve had corn, and potatoes, and a cattleman’s sandwich, and a Saz’s sandwich, deep-fried chocolate chip cookie bites—just about everything out here,” he said, recounting all that he had indulged in over the past week.
During his last campaign, such simple acts of public politicking were nearly impossible. An angry mob hounded Walker wherever he went. “They shut things down so you couldn’t even hear us during the opening ceremony,” Walker recalled of the state fair in 2011, his first year as governor. These were the same protesters who occupied the capitol building in Madison for weeks. They picketed outside of his family’s home in the Milwaukee suburbs. They even interrupted Walker’s speech honoring the Special Olympics.
But now things are different. Since Walker decisively beat back a recall campaign in 2012, the protesters have retreated. The issue that riled them up—Walker’s battle with public employee unions—has faded almost entirely from public debate. Walker’s Democratic opponent Mary Burke describes herself as a “fiscal conservative” who approves Walker’s decision to require public teachers to pay more toward their pensions and health care in order to balance the state’s budget. When asked, she says she supports restoring collective bargaining rights to public employee unions, but she tries to avoid the issue, and it’s easy to see why.
When I caught up with Burke following her speech to the Manitowoc Chamber of Commerce on August 11, I asked if she could talk about public schools that were harmed by Walker’s collective bargaining reform, passed in 2011 as Act 10. Burke replied with an anecdote about a single school district. “I am concerned about whether we are going to be able to attract and retain and keep good people in our schools,” she said. “And I do see this. A man I talked to not too long ago, Jim from Neenah, was telling me about his daughter who graduated from UW-Eau Claire in education. She had two job offers: one in a school district in Minnesota, one in her hometown of Neenah. Guess which one she’s taking?”
Burke didn’t explain what was so bad about the schools in Neenah, a city of 25,000 people about 40 miles south of Green Bay, but the district certainly isn’t having a hard time finding good teachers in the Walker era. “We probably get a couple hundred applications for every opening,” John Lehman, vice president of the Neenah school board and a Republican, told me. “After Act 10, we increased our starting salary from $34,000 to $40,500.”
Because of Act 10, Lehman said, the district reopened two elementary schools that had been closed after earlier budget cuts. Budget constraints were forcing the district to lay off 10 to 12 teachers each year. How many teachers have been laid off since Walker’s Act 10? “None,” said Lehman. The middle school has even begun offering Chinese language courses.
Neenah’s story is typical of districts across the state: Walker’s reform gave administrators the freedom to make modest changes to benefits and work requirements—most of which Burke says she supports—so they could balance their budgets without firing teachers, raising taxes, or hurting students. It’s little wonder Burke has dropped the issue of Act 10: The law is working.
Despite the fact that Democrats have given up on attacking Walker’s signature legislation—or perhaps because they’ve given up—Walker is now facing the most challenging race of his life. In the absence of a big fight over his successful reform, the campaign has focused almost entirely on personalities and the past. And it seems to be working in Burke’s favor. At the end of August, the Real Clear Politics average of polls showed Walker and Burke dead even at 47.3 percent each.
Burke’s campaign has relentlessly attacked Walker for falling short of a 2010 pledge that Wisconsin would create 250,000 jobs during his first term. The unemployment rate has dropped to 5.8 percent, but only 100,000 new jobs have materialized. Walker countered by pointing out that when Burke was secretary of commerce under the previous Democratic governor, the state lost 133,000 jobs.