Wisconsin governor determined to survive recall threat

MADISON, Wisc. — Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker told HUMAN EVENTS that an election to recall him is looming “because I made promises of reform and have kept them” and that any special election to determine his fate as chief executive of Wisconsin will be about the “future and not the past.”

HUMAN EVENTS talked to Walker in an exclusive interview late last month, as well as to other members of Walker’s administration last week. Walker has fast become a hero to conservatives in his first year in office because he has pressed ahead relentlessly to enact fiscally prudent reforms to reverse a state budget deficit. At the same time and in equal measure, his forceful initiatives have elevated the former Milwaukee County Executive to something of a national hate figure for the Left.

An early morning stroll on Pinckney Street near the state capitol building here gives even a casual visitor a clear picture of this political warzone. “RECALL WALKER” bumper stickers and yard signs dot the left-wing neighborhood. A poster in an office window features the embattled Republican governor Scott Walker superimposed on a promo ad for The Godfather blares: “Walker: Morally Bankrupt.”

Walker’s place in the governor’s mansion is imperiled. National public employee unions, eager to make Walker an example that will keep other reform-minded governors in line, are pouring resources into the recall movement. They understand that if Walker survives and prospers, budget-busting public employee unions around the nation will face the greatest challenge in their relatively brief, but fabulously expensive, existence. The Left in general invested so much time, money, and emotion against Walker during the “fleebagger” incident—when Democrat lawmakers literally fled the state to shut down democracy—that his continued survival in office is an open wound, upon which every Walker success is a sprinkle of salt. Liberals who howled at the nightmarish evil of “Koch Brothers money” supporting Walker are curiously silent about international leftist billionaire George Soros funding anti-Walker websites and organizations through his Open Society Institute. One of these Soros operations, the “Wisconsin Values Budget,” urged closing a $3.6 billion state budget deficit with a billion dollars in tax increases. (As it is in most states, there are no rules or limitations on fundraising in recall elections).

In the first anniversary month of his inauguration as governor, the former Milwaukee County Executive has drawn widespread ire from liberals for propelling through the legislature landmark measures that would require most public employees in the Badger State to pay a greater share of their retirement benefits and that cut back on collective bargaining in the public sector. For those same reasons, Walker has become a symbol of positive reform for Republicans and all who want to see government powers limited and government spending brought under controlled. That is why his success in any recall election should be so important to conservatives around the country. He will face not only the massed opposition of the state public employee unions and every liberal organization in Wisconsin, but also the almost limitless resources of Big Labor nationwide and the propaganda that will be poured out by the liberal media who view Walker’s defeat as a great run-up to the reelection of Barack Obama in November.

The vicious animosity toward Walker became even clearer to me outside the Hilton Hotel, when I encountered a group of young people collecting signatures for a petition requesting an election recalling Walker. One of them, Elena Thistle, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, told me she became politically involved “when I took part in the protests outside the Capitol last year [as the legislature was enacting Walker’s reforms].”

“Walker took away worker’s rights,” claimed Thistle, in giving the reason she wants the governor recalled. “This is bad for jobs and bad for the environment.” When I asked how it is bad for the environment, she explained that by bringing up an unrelated controversy: how the governor “refused federal funding for a high-speed railway. We needed it so people would drive their cars less frequently, and he’s making public transportation unsustainable.”

“Welcome to the People’s Republic of Madison,” was how State Atty. Gen. J.B. Van Hollen greeted me later in the day.

Cautiously optimistic

In back-to-back interviews, Van Hollen and State Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald agreed that the governor’s political enemies will most likely get the 540,208 signatures they need to submit by January 13 to put a recall election on the state ballot this year. Both, however, voiced confidence in the eventual triumph of fellow Republican Walker.

Van Hollen spoke to me on the same day that the state capital was rocked by news of the arrest of Tim Russell, a former aide to Walker, on two felony and one misdemeanor charges stemming from his service as Milwaukee County executive. Although the charges have nothing to do with Walker or the policies that have made him a target of the left, several Republican sources said that the Russell arrest would only charge up the drive to remove the governor. As one veteran GOP consultant told HUMAN EVENTS, “You’ve heard of Teflon governors? Scott Walker is a Velcro governor. When his enemies hear something bad about the governor, they try to make it stick.” Walker himself was out of town on January 5, the day of the arrest.

“Yeah, they’ll probably get the signatures for the recall,” said Speaker Fitzgerald. “When you are talking about nearly 9,000 activist operatives, the sky is the limit for them.” Referring to the recall elections last year against several GOP senators who backed Walker on the reform measures and which culminated in Republicans’ clinging to their majority in the senate by one seat, Fitzgerald noted that the unions are attempting to recall four GOP senators allied with Walker this year “and that includes my brother [Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald].”

But, he quickly added, “I don’t think it will succeed in the long run. [Republicans] are going to make the case that, instead of kicking the can down the road as has been done for years, we implemented real reform measures and turned around a $3.6 billion state deficit.” Fitzgerald also said that the record of the Republican-controlled legislature—which includes a balanced budget, a permanent property tax freeze, a photo ID requirement for voting, conceal-and-carry legislation and “the largest tort reform package in the U.S.”— would help Walker and the GOP survive the anticipated onslaught.

“More importantly,” Fitzgerald said, “folks are now seeing that the sky hasn’t fallen in. The reforms we passed are working.”

Two-term Atty. Gen. Van Hollen agreed. Noting that “my office is in the middle of this, because the tumult over this recall idea requires a lot of legal work,” Van Hollen said that “the prognosis is that chances of a recall election by this summer are high, but the chances of the governor’s surviving and moving on are also high.”

As Van Hollen sees it “Gov. Walker’s eventual opponents will say he’s failed and the governor can say, ‘So you want us to go back to the status quo?’ The governor has offered refreshing change and that’s why he should prevail.”

The attorney general agreed that “the reforms have negatively impacted [public sector] unions and that’s the single most organized entity in Wisconsin.” However, he also pointed out that, so far at least, Democrats have not been able to come up with a fresh candidate to carry their banner against Walker. At this point, the most often mentioned names are those of former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk (whom Van Hollen defeated to become attorney general in 2006) and State Sen. Tim Cullen.

Opponents likely to get signatures

Like his allies Van Hollen and Fitzgerald, Walker told HUMAN EVENTS he agreed his enemies will most likely secure the signatures to place his continued tenure on the statewide ballot. In the governor’s words, “When they have 9,000 to 10,000 activists throughout the state, they are most likely going to get the required signatures.” And don’t forget that here in Wisconsin, you don’t need a reason to recall someone from office,” Walker said, noting that in the last two recall elections of governors—North Dakota’s Lynn Frazier in 1921 and Gray Davis in California in 2003—the former was for malfeasance in office and the latter for clearly breaking campaign promises he had made the year before. The recall facing Walker, said, “is because I made promises of reform and have kept them.”

Walker also noted that while state law requires 25% of registered voters to have signed petitions, it is not required that they be voters in the last election, just that they are eligible to vote. This means that college students who are just turning 18 and becoming eligible to vote may sign petitions to force a recall election.

Have Walker’s reforms worked?

Have Walker’s reforms—officially known as Act 10—been working since they took effect on June 29, 2011? I spoke to Bob Lang, head of the state’s non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau (Wisconsin’s equivalent of the Congressional Budget Office) since 1977. Lang pointed out that Wisconsin’s constitution requires a balanced budget. According to Lang, it is currently estimated that there will be a net balance of $4,164,600 in the state’s general fund at the close of the 2011-13 biennium.

“The irony of it is that I did what I said I would do [in the 2010 campaign]—balance the budget with no new taxes,” said Walker, “For us to overcome the deficit and get a surplus, we had five options: to raise taxes, which I promised I wouldn’t do; to lay off state employees, and there have been no layoffs; cut core services, which we haven’t done; float bonds, and I said I would not pass on debts to our kids and to make fundamental reforms to the bureaucracy, which we have done.”

Opinions vary sharply about whether Walker’s reforms are working. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, originally opposed to the Governor’s agenda, conceded that not only did he balance the budget, “he did reduce the structural deficit significantly; he did put a lid on property tax increases; he did give schools and municipalities more control over their budgets than they’ve had in years.” The Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators published a year-end report that found nearly 1,800 more teachers were hired than laid off during the current school year. Most of the layoffs came from Milwaukee, where the unions pushed through costly contract extensions before the Walker collective bargaining reforms came into effect. On the other hand, Walker critics and Wisconsin editorial boards have held him to account for failing to stay on track for the 250,000 jobs he promised would be created in his first term. Unions are keen on spicing their anti-Walker efforts with calculated figures for what Wisconsin job growth should have been, given national trends, and declaring his actual performance falls well short of these projections. Of course, they also view reduced income and increased benefit contributions for union employees as evidence that Walker’s reforms are a failure.

The governor freely acknowledged that he will be outspent by his enemies, recalling how in the recall elections against Republican state senators earlier in the year, the union-backed opposition spent nearly $40 million, or twice as much as the GOP and its allies.

Walker would not discuss any of the Democrats mentioned as candidates in a primary for governor —to be held March 27 or, at the latest April 24, depending on whether there is a court order extending the Government Accountability Board’s deadline of February 17 for certification of the petition signatures for 31 more days, as state election law provides.

But Walker did indicate that he considers all of the Democratic possibilities figures from the past, remarking that a special election for governor in ’12 “will be about the future and not about the past.” As to how he would campaign, Walker said: “What I have done and what I will do as governor—that’s how I will campaign. The more government gets out of the way, the more we can get more businesses to come here and create jobs, and reach our goal of 250,000 new jobs in Wisconsin in five years.”

Veteran Wisconsin GOP consultant Scott Becher may have put it best when he said: “This is a race that, since it will be held after Republicans have settled on their nominee against Barack Obama, will be a dress rehearsal for the fall campaign for the White House. I suggest national reporters buy their plane tickets and make hotel reservations now.”

This story originally appeared in the January 16, 2012 issue of Human Events newspaper.