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.
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.
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.