By Bob Secter, Chicago Tribune reporter
January 29, 2012
WAUWATOSA, Wis. — Staring down a million-signature petition drive to demand his recall, Republican Gov. Scott Walker says his high-profile beef with unions does not extend to those representing workers in the private sector, and he will not move to weaken their clout, as Indiana is on the verge of doing.
Walker’s moves against government employee unions have fed political chaos in Wisconsin. His disavowal of interest in so-called right-to-work legislation for nonpublic unions holds the potential to split organized labor and avoid creating more enemies ahead of a probable vote on his ouster later this year.
In a wide-ranging interview Friday at a campaign office in this Milwaukee suburb, Walker dangled the notion of an across-the-board income tax cut, another initiative likely to please voters at a critical moment when his grip on office is on the line.
Walker also sidestepped questions about a spreading corruption investigation that has led to the arrests of some of his former top aides from his tenure as Milwaukee County executive. The governor declined to say whether he had hired his own criminal attorney, saying his campaign was fully cooperating with prosecutors, who had asked him to refrain from such comments.
At the heart of the recall move against Walker is his battle with public unions, a fight that has left both sides bashing each other with abandon.
Labor officials complained they were blindsided last year when the governor and the Republican-controlled Legislature moved to strip them of collective bargaining rights. Walker said the move was needed to cut costs in the face of a deficit, but labor leaders portrayed it as a politically cynical maneuver to defang a deep-pocketed Democratic constituency.
To Walker, however, it is the union brass that is cynical and has grown fat at the expense of average voters.
“They have driven the expansion of government to such a level both in size and number and in benefit costs, that the people who get stuck paying for that overwhelmingly are the middle-class taxpayers of Wisconsin,” he charged, as supporters in an adjoining office pored over recall petitions, looking for flaws.
Such blunt talk has transformed Walker into a national face for one side of the sharp ideological divides gripping U.S. politics. And that is why the recall, which has yet to be officially sanctioned but almost surely will, is viewed as a bellwether of voter sentiment beyond Wisconsin in this presidential election year.
“Folks are looking at Wisconsin as a kind of barometer,” said Barry Burden, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “We are a swing state, a purple state, and this could be a pretty good indication of where things are heading nationally.”
The faceoff with public unions has taken center stage in the Wisconsin drama, but other issues have fed the tumult. Another flash point involves steep cuts in school funding at the same time Walker championed tax cuts for business, arguing that would stimulate hiring, restore prosperity and ultimately increase tax revenue.
The criminal investigation is the wild card in the mix. This month, two former Walker aides in Milwaukee County were charged with doing extensive political work on county time and two others were charged with stealing from a charity.
The sheer volume of petition signatures gathered by recall supporters — an amount equal to nearly half of all votes cast in the 2010 governor’s race — is powerful evidence of the breadth of frustration with Walker and his policies. No date for the recall has been set, but a summer vote is likely.
Better times typically are a powerful salve to voters, and that is precisely what Walker says his tough-love agenda is producing.
The numbers don’t bear that out. Economic indicators point to a state economy in a funk. Walker’s pro-business policies notwithstanding, the nonpartisan Tax Foundation last week put Wisconsin 43rd in its rankings of business-friendly state tax climates.
“Politicians always look for panaceas, silver bullets,” said University of Wisconsin at Madison economist Andrew Reschovsky. “If we’ve learned anything, it’s that the world is a complex place and economies are complex, and to think there was one thing that would solve all problems is naive.”
Nothing may illustrate that better than the pace of job growth during Walker’s first year in office, lagging behind the very modest growth logged in the last year of his Democratic predecessor, Jim Doyle — whose economic stewardship the new governor regularly ridicules.
That despite Walker’s 2010 election vow to add 250,000 jobs during his term. He acknowledges progress is slow but insists he will get there.
“I’ve taken over a team that was 1 and 15, and the goal is to get to the Super Bowl, but nobody’s going to expect you to do it next year,” Walker said. “They want to see progress.”
Walker’s vision of a tauter, less activist government mirrors the call of many Republican presidential hopefuls and as such has endeared him to deep-pocketed conservative donors. Money has flowed into his campaign from around the country, including $500,000 from Texas homebuilder Bob Perry, who in 2004 underwrote an effort to challenge the Vietnam War record of Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. A like amount came from the family of a Joplin, Mo.-based roofing products magnate.
More than half of the $5.7 million that Walker has raked in since the recall drive began in November is from out of state, Wisconsin election records show. Much of that has paid for an expensive television advertising blitz aimed at softening his image, featuring mothers talking about how his reforms have helped schools.
Walker says he needs the out-of-state donations to counter what he predicts will be an avalanche of big-labor money aimed at defeating him. But that labor money has not yet materialized, partly because Democrats are months away from choosing a candidate to oppose him.