Walker Weighs in on a Tumultuous 2011

Dec 12, 2011

Today we begin Project Milwaukee: State of Upheaval. All week, we’ll explore the intersection of Wisconsin’s volatile political and economic climates in 2011.

The central figure in the drama has been Republican Gov. Scott Walker, now approaching his first anniversary in office.

Later this morning, we'll talk with people who've observed the politician over the years.

This hour, Walker reflects on his first year as governor, and his ideological formation. He chatted with WUWM’s Ann-Elise Henzl.

Gov. Scott Walker
Credit Alex Wong/Getty Images

Gov. Walker proposed striking changes this year, that fellow Republicans love and liberals despise.

They include restricting public union rights, and deeply cutting aid to public schools.

Walker says his proposals are rooted in his core conservative values. He says he developed them growing up, the son of a pastor, in Delavan, WI.

“Growing up in a small town I think there’s sort of a sense of self-reliance, not only from my parents but from others in that small town. The idea that as a community we should look out for those in need, but that the government didn’t need to do everything for us. That you basically took care of the poorest of the poor, and the best approach thereafter was based on the individual and the family, not based on government,” Walker says.

So when Walker took office, he quickly pushed through a few items to assist businesses, and then turned his attention to cutting government spending.

In February, he held a news conference outlining his plan to give governments and school districts control over most conditions for public workers.

“Making fundamental reform changes in our wage and benefit structure, in our entitlement structure, and ultimately in our relationship with local governments,” Walker said.

The announcement stunned many public employees and Democrats. But Walker says anyone who watched him over the years could have seen he was leery of the hold public unions had on government budgets.

And, he had in fact become Milwaukee County executive in 2002, after the public threatened to oust his predecessor for approving lavish pension benefits for top county officials.

“I think my ideas are pretty straightforward. They come out of eight years of being county executive. I haven’t been bashful. Years ago, I started what was called a 'reality tour' at the time, where I talked about legacy costs. In particular, retirement and benefits were at a path where they’re eating up more and more of the county’s budget like a virus. And we needed to get a handle on that if we were going to protect core services. So the things that I did came specifically from that experience more than anything else,” Walker says.

When Walker announced his tough stance on public unions, protesters descended on the Capitol, for weeks.

His ideas – and the reaction -- became international news. Walker took to talk shows, including those on the Fox News Channel, to defend his position.

The governor also became fodder for comedy programs such as The Daily Show. Throughout relentless attacks Walker appeared unflappable. He shared his methods for keeping his cool.

“From a faith standpoint, pray a lot -- beginning and end of the day, and quite a bit. Not just on this, but just in general for guidance, for courage, for comfort. For others, not only for myself. And I get reinforced from my wife, from my two boys. They do a good job of firmly planting me in reality. I often in the Capitol remind folks when they’re all worked up about things that are happening under the dome, that if you get out and talk to people outside of government, most people are more worried about where their kid’s going to school next year for college or how they’re paying for Christmas gifts, or whether or not the Packers are going to go undefeated. So it’s a good reality check to get out of the Capitol,” Walker says.

Whether you agree or disagree with Walker's agenda, you can’t argue he accomplished a lot in a short time – with the help of the Republican-controlled Legislature.

He also created enemies, and some are attempting to recall him. They have about five weeks left, to turn in more than 540,000 valid signatures needed to force a recall election.

Facing that possibility, the governor still gives himself an A for balancing the state budget without laying off workers.

“The reason I don’t give myself an overall A, is I was so focused when I came in on fixing the problem that I didn’t spend a lot of time making the case for the reforms that we were putting in play, so I think communications is probably about a C,” Walker says.

Walker says he'll work on communicating better with Democrats in the months ahead. He says he already reached out to many, after two Republican senators lost their seats in recall elections last summer. But Walker claims extending the olive branch is not always easy.

“You just keep going back and trying. The irony was every time I bring this up, you have the same people who continuously speak out wanting more bipartisanship, then complain when you do that it's not good enough, that it’s too late, or that it’s not real,” Walker says.

Walker says he tries not to get hung up on who has opposed him in the past, because one day, they may be willing to work with him.