Six months after he emerged triumphant from a recall election that drew nationwide attention and coverage from such international outlets as the BBC and France???s venerable Le Figaro, 45-year-old Scott Walker is clearly a conservative whose star is on the rise.
The Wisconsin governor???s policies of requiring many public employees to pay for a part of their health and pension benefits and curtailing collective bargaining, which caused labor unions and strongly pro-labor Democrats to launch the recall, are being studied and in some cases imitated by Republican governors in other states.
For all those reasons and more, Human Events, the nation???s oldest conservative weekly, named Gov. Scott Walker ???Conservative of the Year??? for 2012. He succeeds Rep. Paul Ryan of 2011, the House Budget Committee chairman who went on to become the Republican nominee for vice president on the 2012 Republican ticket.
When we told Scott Walker about the award a few days ago, he exclaimed: ???That???s awesome! All the way back to college, I have loved the insights of Human Events. So that???s quite an honor.???
In an extensive interview, the governor spoke of what he views as his most significant achievements, his current agenda and what he plans to do next.
First and foremost, Walker eagerly points to the results of his signature policy of pension and health care reform for public employees.
???We avoided massive tax increases, we actually cut our overall tax burden by lowering property taxes for the first time in 12 years and we avoided the massive layoffs experienced by other states,??? he said. ???The other thing was the change in collective bargaining so that we could ask a little bit more for pensions and a little bit more for healthcare from public employees???although still much less than what most of their friends and neighbors in the private sector were paying.???
???We exempted police and firefighters for public safety reasons. But the interesting thing is in many jurisdictions in because of the reforms we made, the fire and police representatives???have actually moved, albeit not entirely, toward benefit and payment packages that are similar to those of other public employees.???
Did his policies help turn his state???s deficit into a surplus?
???Absolutely,??? he replied, recalling he had inherited a $3.6 billion deficit from his predecessor upon taking office in 2011 and that Wisconsin now has in reserve in the state???s surplus and ???rainy day??? fund a half-million dollars. The public employee reform policy is ???by far the largest driving force as to why we have a surplus for the first time ever.???
Walker also noted that in December 2010, Wisconsin???s unemployment rate was fairly high, specifically, at a seasonally adjusted 7.8 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By October 2012 that seasonally adjusted rate had fallen to 6.9 percent, compared with 7.9 percent nationally and ranked Wisconsin as one of just 23 states to post a rate under 7 percent.
???I???d like to see it even lower,??? Walker said. ???The year I was elected, the state lost just under 150,000 jobs and since then, we???ve gained jobs.??? The state did lose about 143,000 jobs between 2008 and 2010, according to government reports, and its nonfarm payroll has been running at about 2.7 million people working.
Wisconsin, like the rest of the country, will have a ways to go to reach its recent lowest unemployment rate, which was 4.8 percent in August, 2008; its peak was January 2010, at 9.2 percent.
As examples of job gains, Walker cited Catalyst Exhibits, a company that was in Northern Illinois but then moved to Kenosha Country. In fact, the governor said, ???probably the biggest area [of businesses relocating to Wisconsin] are those coming out of Lake Forest and Northern Cook County in the northeast part of Illinois. Usually our prime suspects are businesses looking to grow out of their existing space anyway, and given a chance to acquire new space, they look at the business climate in Wisconsin and where we???re headed versus Illinois and where they’re headed. That???s been a driving force for a lot of them.???
Wisconsin ranks 42 on Forbes newly released list of ???Best States for Business,??? which gives the state, with a gross state product of $255 billion, a respectable 10 for ???Quality of Life??? and a 29 rank for economic climate. Cost of doing business is estimated at 0.7 percent above the national average. In 2009, Wisconsin was ranked 48.
The magazine noted the governor???s ???Open for Business??? campaign, and Walker provided more detail. ???We sent out letters to manufacturers,??? he told us, ???and pointed out that while our overall tax burden went down, Illinois??? went up 67 percent on individuals, 46 percent on businesses. Their budget problems only got worse.
???Their pension systems are under half funded, their bond rating is the worst in the country. Our bond rating is credit positive, our pensions systems went fully funded and we lowered our overall tax burden. We think we’ve got a pretty good public argument. That???s why we’ve gone up in a number of rankings from CNBC [ranked 17th in 2012, up from 25 in 2011] and Site Selection Magazine [ranked 13th overall in 2012]. Now [Gov.] Mark Dayton has got a [Democratic] legislature that will join him in raising taxes in Minnesota, which may induce some business to come from over there to Wisconsin. ???
What???s Next for Walker
In February, Walker will present to the legislature their state???s next biannual budget, which starts July 1 in 2013 and goes through June 30 of 2015. He offered a ???sneak preview??????which will show the maintenance and expansion of his low-tax, pro-growth policies.
???We???re working to provide property tax relief that would affect not just one but multiple categories there in terms of driving income taxes down,??? he said. In terms of the state income tax, the governor noted that ???it goes from about 4.5 percent at the lowest end to about 7.75 percent at the highest. In terms of the income tax, my goal would be to keep chipping away at it???not just to have it be a one-time income tax cut but to gradually eliminate it. If we get continued growth elsewhere, that would be good.???
Gov. Walker spoke with us two days after Michigan???s Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law his state???s historic right-to-work law. We recalled to Walker that the last time we spoke???at a Christian Science Monitor press breakfast shortly after the recall election???he had told us flatly he was ruling out pursuing right-to-work in Wisconsin. Is that still his opinion, we asked, even in light of the recent developments in Michigan?
???Yes, it is,??? he replied without hesitation, ???As you know, I was a supporter of right-to-work legislation when I was in the state legislature. But after what we went through in 2011, I just think that sort of debate at this time and place in this state would create that same sort of environment again???
Referring to conversations he had with business leaders during the recall controversy, Walker said that they told him ???they love what we were doing, but, for many of them, they waited throughout all that time before they invested in new jobs because they were concerned about the uncertainty of what would happen next.???
???My advice to Republicans I know in Congress is just make sure whatever you do, don???t do anything that???s going to further slow this slow recovery.???
Who is Scott Walker?
At 45, Scott Walker has become one of America???s best-known (and most controversial) conservative politicians. Working part-time selling warranties for IBM while at Marquette University, the young Walker never graduated but instead took a full-time fund-raising job with the American Red Cross.
Beaten in a bid for state assembly at age 22, he won on his second try, compiled a good-as-Goldwater conservative record and was twice elected Milwaukee county executive.
In 2010, Walker was elected and last year survived a nationally watched recall election, in both cases beating Milwaukee???s Democratic Mayor Tom Barrett by solid margins. A solid conservative, onetime Eagle Scout Walker met Ronald Reagan in Washington in the 1980s and has long cited the 40th president as his role model.
Republican Party???s Future
Looking back a month at the election that was a heartbreaker for Republicans in Wisconsin as well as nationwide, Walker quickly pointed to the ???silver lining??? in his state???where dark clouds included the loss of Wisconsin???s electoral votes despite favorite son Paul Ryan???s being the GOP vice presidential nominee and the defeat of former Gov. Tommy Thompson for the Senate.
???On the day when these other things happened,??? he said, ???Republicans in the state assembly were in the majority and gained a seat. We???re up to 60 out of 99 seats. In our state senate, where we were temporarily in the minority, we gained two seats and are now in the majority there as well. And in the recall earlier this year I not only won, I won by a bigger margin than I did in 2010. It wasn???t just by a bigger percentage but the turnout was bigger. We feel that the policies we???ve enacted at the local level and the state level resonate. People like them. They see the agenda of limited government, more freedom and more prosperity is one that works and they asked us to continue.???
So why didn???t Mitt Romney and Tommy Thompson win? ???It???s simple in both cases, Walker says. ???I think the message that we carry at the state level did not resonate in either of those two campaigns.
???I???m not trying to pick on Gov. Romney. The problem was the campaign focused almost exclusively on the idea they could win if they just made it a referendum on Barack Obama???that if people just were asked if they???re better off than they were four years ago, they would say no and he would win. What I believe happened here and nationally is the Obama campaign countered with: ???You know what? Things aren???t necessarily better, but they???re getting better. And the guy we???re running against is a rich guy who cares only about rich guys. Unfortunately, I don???t think they saw Gov. Romney as someone who was willing to fight for them, so they listened to the argument from the President???s campaign.
Regarding Ryan, whom Walker endorsed for vice president long before Romney turned to him. The governor said: ???I think in the end Paul was strong. I think people still have a high level of respect for him, so he didn???t hurt himself on the campaign to look out for guys like me.???
As for Thompson???s losing the Senate race to liberal Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin, Walker said that ???he had a primary that he spent all his money on, and he didn???t have a lot to begin with. ???So I think the lesson learned in both cases is, you have to come out and say, ???Here???s how I am working for you.??? people are in their lives, and in their communities, ???Ours is a vision that can win. We just haven???t been going to the places that we need to.???
Walker also believes Romney was particularly hurt by the primaries because ???in the primaries, because almost every Republican shares similar views, so what typically happens in debates???and there were I think too many debates???is that the moderators, in order to try to make them interesting, try to generate division and make a contrast. So they focus on things unrelated to our meat and potatoes, economic and fiscal issues, and instead get off on a whole series of things that are not the best definition of us, but also are not necessarily the issues that most voters care about. ???
GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum had days earlier told a conservative group that faith and family issues are equally important as economic and fiscal issues. Was Walker disagreeing with Santorum?
???I???m a social conservative hands down and I support most of the same issues that he does,??? the governor said. ??? But if you ask the average voter, especially a swing voter, why do you vote for Scott Walker, they???ll say it???s because he had the guts to make some major decisions that helped turn our economy around. That???s just where voters are. There are some who say if we want to get younger voters or get single women, we have to change all the positions we have. I don???t buy that. I believe we can be firm on principles.”
As we concluded, I said that veteran Wisconsin GOP consultant Scott Becher had suggested to me that I whisper to the governor the word ???Iowa.”
???I lived in Iowa from 1971-77 when I was a kid,??? he replied, ???It???s a great state. And I love [Republican] Gov. Terry Branstad.
Does that mean he???s not going to run for President in 2016?
???I didn???t say that,??? Walker said with a laugh, clearly avoiding the question.