By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
This was his second trip to the Land of Lincoln, who earlier in the week spoke to lobbyists, lawmakers and members of the business community at the President Abraham Lincoln Hotel and Conference Center in Springfield, Ill.
The Illinois Policy Institute, a leading independent research and education organization committed to free-market causes, brought in Walker to discuss what the group views as the governor’s political courage.
Walker, in a fight for his political life in a gubernatorial recall race in June, told the audience what he has told many gatherings and members of the media in recent months: He has led with his eye on the “next generation,” not “the next election.”
“We made the government work better for the people we were elected to serve,” he said.
That has been the governor’s rallying cry — reform and let the consequences be damned — as he negotiates the terrain of an unprecedented recall campaign.
Walker, only the third governor in U.S. history to be recalled, will face one of four Democratic challengers on June 5. It’s a bid for re-election less than a year and a half after Walker and Republicans swept into control of the governor’s mansion and the Legislature in November 2010.
Republican Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and four GOP state senators also face recall elections.
On the recall
In a primer on Wisconsin’s recall system, Walker said, “It’s a bizarre process.” Gubernatorial recalls require signatures from 25 percent of the state’s eligible voters, counted from voters who cast ballots in the previous election for governor. In the current election, recall campaigners needed more than 540,000 signatures; they collected a little more than 900,000.
“On the optimistic side — I may be the only governor in American history elected twice in the same term,” he joked.
But he sounded serious about the implications of the campaign, and what he sees as a battle beyond the Badger State’s borders. He struck a quizzical, if not, offended tone, at the question of recall.
“I avoided tax increases and layoffs. At any other time, in any other state, that would be worthy of re-election in 2014,” he said to applause from the conservative crowd.
Walker said when he campaigned for his job, he told voters what he would do to fix what turned into a $3.6 billion budget shortfall, while cutting taxes and avoiding massive layoffs in government.
A year and a half later, the budget gap is effectively filled, Wisconsin homeowners have seen the first decline in property taxes in 12 years, and changes to the budget and collective bargaining have staved off deeper cuts — although the public sector shed more than 10,000 jobs between December 2010 and last month, according to the state Department of Workforce Development.
Perspectives on courage
The complaint from many Democrats is that Walker was not forthright on the campaign trail in how he would solve the state’s budget problems.
“If he were to take a bold and courageous stand, he would be asking the really big corporations to step up and contribute a fair share to society,” said Paul Kruse, member of the La Crosse County Democratic Party executive board.
Walker stressed the reforms he and his party made to education, noting the expansion of the school voucher system, among others.
“I want to make sure that every kid in my state has access to a great education,” the governor said.
Kruse said the sentiment is nice, but Republican-led decisions to cut hundreds of millions of dollars out of the state education budget don’t square with reality.
“I think that’s a wonderful thing to say. I wish he hadn’t pulled all of the money out of the schools,” Kruse said. “It’s interesting how he’s so interested in helping our school children by hurting the public school system.”
Ultimately, Walker told the Illinois audience, Wisconsin’s recall elections are about a “bigger principle” that transcends the governor and a state that is nearly evenly divided in its support and opposition to him.
“It’s about courage,” he said.
Walker said surviving the recall would “send a powerful message to every politician … that you can stick out your neck, you can make tough choices and there will be voters to help you out along the way.”
Kruse countered that Walker’s choices have been tough on a lot of residents, the poor and organized labor in particular.
“Courage would be to stand up and ask those providing so much money to his campaign to give some of that money for the public good at large, put some of that into the state’s coffers,” the local Democratic Party official said.
Walker has made one of his campaign talking point pillars his fight against what he and his supporters see as “Big Unions” working to overturn the results of the 2010 elections. He said he is willing to fall for the right cause.
“If you do things for the right reason, you should never be afraid to lose,” the governor said.