By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON, Wis. – The images of late winter 2011 are seared into Wisconsin’s collective consciousness.
The sea of humanity cluttering the state Capitol. The protests. The chanting. The screaming. The signs.
What the national cameras missed were the threats of violence directed at Gov. Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans in the Legislature as they moved to make history via reforms to Wisconsin’s political third rail – the public-sector collective bargaining system.
Walker brings home the hatred and the extremism by some on the labor-led left in his newly released book, “Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge,” a retrospective on the war that was the making of Wisconsin Act 10.
Things got terribly personal when first lady Tonette Walker received a death threat aimed at her family, according to an account in the book.
“Has Wisconsin ever had a governor assassinated? Scott’s heading that way,” the anonymous letter declared. “Or maybe your sons getting killed would hurt him more. I want him to feel the pain.”
The writer claims to have followed the Walkers’ two sons to their school in Wauwatosa, and noted the names of the first lady’s parents.
By this time, the governor had received several threats from some very hostile people, but this one hit home.
But instead of being knocked off his focus in pushing forward with Act 10, Walker said the letter ticked him off.
The threats were pointed at others as well, particularly Republican senators who were weighing the impacts of the proposed reform bill that would limit bargaining to wages, up to the rate of inflation, and require most public employees pick up more of the tab on their taxpayer-funded health insurance and pensions.
“In the end the ‘Unintimidated’ is not so much just about me. It’s about collectively all of us in Wisconsin who stood up against that intimidation and said, ‘You know what? We’re going to put the people back in charge. We’re going to put the hard-working taxpayers back in charge,’” Walker said.
And after all the screaming and beyond the state’s unprecedented recall elections of Walker, his lieutenant governor and several Wisconsin state senators, the governor says the success of Act 10 is indisputable.
While Democrats and union bosses demand Walker’s centerpiece legislation was aimed at busting organized labor in Wisconsin’s public sector, Act 10 has saved school districts, local government and the state hundreds of millions of dollars, by conservative estimates. That allowed Walker and the Republican-led Legislature to fill a $3.6 billion biennial budget hole with deep cuts in state aid to schools and local government, with those cuts offset in many cases by the “tools” in Act 10.
Walker said he never doubted the strength and importance of his signature reform package, but his confidence must have been shaken when his wife asked him, “Scott, why are you doing this?” It’s an understandable question in the heat of so much hostility and death threats aimed at your family.
The governor said that question made him realize he had not done a good job explaining to his partner, let alone the public, why he pushed such monumental change. As he notes in the book, the problem facing a debt-plagued state when he took office was not public employees, but the unions who represented them. Walker describes a circle of big unions driving negotiations, collecting union dues to back politicians to do their bidding, and demanding fiscally unsustainable contracts for their members – even at the peril of their members.
In early 2011, the Republican governor faced the very real prospect of laying off thousands of public-sector employees. In the book, Walker argues that the unions and Senate Democrats could have compromised early on, but they wanted to protect their power base. If that meant massive layoffs, so be it, Walker writes.
Act 10 was no easy sell for members of his own party. In the book, Walker voices some criticism for Republicans in the Senate who wavered on the legislation, allowing the protests and the stand-off with the 14 Democrats who fled the state to go on.
When he first met with the Senate Republican caucus about the legislation, the governor said, it was like he had told them “their puppy had died.” They got on board after coming to the conclusion there was no other viable option to get the state’s fiscal ship in order, Walker said.
“It was a challenge, no doubt.”
But the governor is effusive in his praise for Sen. Dan Kapanke. The La Crosse Republican’s support of Act 10 cost him his job when he joined six other GOP senators to be recalled in 2011. Kapanke, Walker points out, had much to lose in an increasingly liberal district, and suffered his share of professional and private threats.
“Dan was harassed almost daily at the capitol by the protesters,” Walker writes. “And his was the first name listed on a death threat sent to GOP senators that warned: Please put your things in order because you will be killed and your familes (Sic) … due to the actions of the last 8 weeks … I hope you have a good time in hell.”
After all the hatred, the hostility, in a deeply divided state, how does Walker govern voters who despise him?
“I use the lessons I learned from my parents: Be true to your principles but always be decent,” the governor said.
“I look at this and think, no matter if someone voted for me or against me, they love me or hate me or are anywhere in between, and there aren’t many in between these days, the reality is I have to govern for everyone in the state of Wisconsin.”
At the end of the day, Walker says, the reforms are benefiting people, including the people who came out and protested.
His critics have charged that the governor’s book is his application for higher office. Perhaps it will come as no surprise that Democratic Party of Wisconsin chairman Mike Tate characterizes Walker’s book as “unapologetic self-promotion about how his so-called ‘reforms’ worked in and Wisconsin and would work in D.C.”
Walker, up for re-election next year, asserts “Unintimidated” isn’t about a campaign for president in 2016.
“A lot of times politicians do books for exactly that purpose. It’s somehow the next campaign, the next election out there. I think people will be pleasantly surprised that this book is ultimately not about me,” he said. “This really is the story about reform in Wisconsin, how we did it, what we did and, most importantly, why we did what we did and how it can apply not only to continuing reform in Wisconsin, but how it can apply to other statehouses and ultimately some of the things that need to be done in Washington.”
Listen to Wisconsin Reporter’s entire interview with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker:
Contact M.D. Kittle at [email protected]