In the Colosseum

Scott Walker: Running Toward Reform

An interview with the Wisconsin gov.

By From the March 2014 issue

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As Scott Walker prepared to give his State of the State speech on January 22, protesters gathered, as they have every year—indeed, nearly every day—under the granite dome of the Wisconsin capitol building. They chanted “Shame!” and sang and held signs with such enlightening messages as “labor built america, greed will destroy it” and “up your but-get walker.” In other words, some things in Wisconsin haven’t changed.

Then again, some things have: “The crowd numbers less than one hundred,” wrote one protester who posted photos online. “The numbers may be small but the resounding voices are reassuring that hope is still alive and the fight will continue…Occupy Everything in 2014!”

If this is the state of the opposition today in historically progressive Wisconsin, it becomes hard to escape one conclusion: Scott Walker has won, and not just in the legislative chamber and at the ballot box, but also in the minds of citizens. In 2011, just months after he was sworn into office, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Madison, stormed the capitol, and camped there for weeks in protest of Act 10, the reform bill that curbed collective bargaining and eliminated automatic, mandatory dues collection for public-sector unions. The governor’s new book, Unintimidated (Sentinel, $28.95), captures the full frothy insanity of those days: Democratic senators absconded from the state to deny the chamber quorum; Republican legislators were told by police that their safety from the crowds could not be guaranteed; death threats poured in and .22 caliber shells were scattered on the capitol grounds.

“In some ways the left is a victim of its own hysteria,” Walker tells me in a D.C. hotel lounge a few days after his recent address. “They sold this as Armageddon, and then when things not only weren’t Armageddon, but they actually got better, voters in our state said, ‘Wow, these reforms are working.’” Fifty-four percent of Wisconsinites now think the state is moving in the right direction, compared with 40 percent who think it is going in the wrong direction, according to a Marquette University Law School poll. The same survey gives Walker, who is up for re-election in November, a 47-41 lead over his only announced Democratic challenger, Mary Burke, a member of the Madison school board and former state secretary of commerce.

For her part, Burke actually supports some portions of Act 10, such as the requirement that government workers contribute 5.8 percent of their salaries toward their pensions and pay 12.6 percent of their health care premiums. But she wants to reverse the collective bargaining reforms and says she will put up a fight to do so—which is just fine with Walker. “If she wants to make this about repealing Act 10, I’d love to have that debate,” he says. “Do you want to go back to when schools couldn’t hire and fire based on merit? It goes far beyond the money. When schools had to buy their health insurance from just one company and it cost them tens of millions of dollars more? Do you want to go back to when schools had to lay off their best teachers because seniority forced them to do so? Do you want to go back to those days when—not only the schools—but when the city of Madison had to pay bus drivers $150,000 or more because of seniority and overtime abuse? I’d love to have that debate. Because it’s indefensible.”

To outside observers, the high-profile fight over Act 10—the initial protests, the attempted recall of Walker, the court rulings upholding the law—eclipses everything else in Badger State politics. But Walker’s other accomplishments have not been insubstantial. In the spring of 2011, he signed a voter ID bill into law (the Wisconsin Supreme Court will hear arguments this month in two cases challenging it). Last summer, he signed a bill that requires women seeking an abortion to receive an ultrasound first. He led the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents to freeze tuition for all its schools, for all students, for two years. He cut income taxes, reduced the number of brackets from five to four, and recently proposed another $504 million in income and property tax cuts.

Now he has publicly begun to float the idea of altogether eliminating Wisconsin’s income tax, which accounts for roughly half the state’s tax revenue. The sales tax rate could then be raised or exemptions eliminated to make up some of the money lost. “The sales tax is one of the lower ones in the country, particularly in the Midwest, 5 percent,” Walker says. “If we raised it a little bit and made up the rest in reductions in spending, could that be the answer?”

Selling such a proposal to the public and ushering it through the legislature would be a major undertaking, and Walker is quick to say that his team is still exploring the idea. His goal, he says, is to reduce the tax burden every year he is in office, and he is open to other means, including simply continuing to chip away at marginal rates.

That said, the governor has clearly spent time considering the political challenge and learning from the governors of Louisiana and Nebraska, whose own income tax elimination proposals failed to pick up steam.

“Bobby Jindal and Dave Heineman in particular put out proposals to get rid of the income tax, but didn’t, I believe, looking at it in hindsight, do enough groundwork to make the case, to anticipate the problems, and so it was kind of dead on arrival in the legislature,” Walker says. “We’re going to spend the next year really listening to people to make sure that the public is engaged and understands this.”

The parallels between the tax reform process and the one that led to Act 10 are striking. In Unintimidated, Walker and co-author Marc Thiessen write that the governor conferred extensively with fellow Republican governor Mitch Daniels about his experience eliminating collective bargaining for state workers in Indiana. And even after Walker began to be convinced that similar reform was a necessary course of action, he directed his staff to spend weeks examining alternatives and exhausting other options.

But in his book Walker gives readers not just an inside peek at how he approaches such decisions; he gives them a piece of his mind, too. In one section of the book, he provides a friendly critique of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign; in another section, he suggests lessons from the Act 10 fight that are applicable elsewhere, including “Austerity Is Not the Answer,” “Champion the Vulnerable,” and “Win the Fairness Fight.”

With Democrats pushing the political narratives of income inequality and the minimum wage, I ask him about the last piece of advice: How can conservatives win the fairness fight? “We need to make the fairness argument on our own terms,” Walker says. For instance, during the debate over Act 10, Walker said that he told the stories of a young, award-winning teacher laid off under last-in-first-out union rules because she didn’t have seniority, and of the correctional officers who took advantage of their contract rules to earn thousands of dollars in extra overtime pay. “People would say, ‘That’s not fair—you need to fix it,’” he says. “We should win the fairness battle.”

In addition, Walker mentions his reform of Wisconsin’s food stamps program. “In our state, we’re one of the few in America now that says if you’re an adult without kids and you want food stamps, you’re not going to get it unless you’re either working part time or you’re enrolled in one of my employment training programs. The left’s reaction was, ‘The governor hates poor people—there he goes again, he’s making it harder to get government assistance,’” he says. “I got right back in their face and said, I love the people of my state so much, I’m not making it harder to get government assistance; I’m making it easier to get a job.”

Walker also writes openly about his Christianity in Unintimidated, even citing passages of Scripture that brought him comfort in his most trying days as governor (Matthew 6:34, Luke 12:25-26, and 2 Corinthians 12:9, for readers following along at home). He is the son of a Baptist minister, so this might not be particularly notable except for one thing: While other Republican politicians (think Rick Santorum or Mike Huckabee) let their religion shine through their public personas, Scott Walker’s faith is generally a private one. When he stands in the national limelight at the Conservative Political Action Conference or the National Review Summit, God is not part of his schitck, or else he mentions his father’s profession only in passing. “Part of the reason why it may not be as apparent is I think the best testimony I can give to my faith is how I live,” Walker says. “I don’t want anybody ever to think that my references to my faith are done for political reasons.”

But the governor becomes pensive when he explains how powerfully he was moved when, at the height of political acrimony in 2011, everyday Wisconsinites would tell him that they kept him in their prayers. “I was doing an interview in Green Bay, and I’m on the set in the morning, and this woman leans down to put on my mic on, and she says, ‘I just want you to know, every night, my kids and I get on our knees and pray for you—you’re at the top of our list,” Walker says. “It was those moments when we were sustained just by, you know, God reaching out.” 

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About the Author
Kyle Peterson is managing editor of The American Spectator. Email him at petersonk@spectator.org, or follow him on Twitter at @kyleopeterson.