Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s 45th governor, has been at the center of several high-profile battles almost from the start of his tenure in 2010. He announced his candidacy for president in late July 2015.
Walker rose to national prominence after pushing through reforms to Wisconsin’s budget and public sector unions that sparked a massive backlash by organized labor. At one point Democratic state legislators fled the state in an attempt to thwart his proposal, but eventually Walker prevailed. Organized labor and Democrats promptly launched a recall drive against Walker and several Republican legislators, but Walker prevailed in that battle as well.
At issue was his plan to limit collective bargaining by state employees, including ending the automatic deduction of union dues from state worker paychecks, requiring public employees to pay towards their health care and retirement benefits; ending mandatory union membership, and requiring annual certification for public employee unions. Walker has also promoted other conservative policy priorities, including deregulation, reforms to lower taxes, and reduced government spending.
Before entering the race Walker was consistently ranked in the top tier of candidates, but over the past month has faded somewhat in national polls as well as those in the leadoff states of Iowa and New Hampshire. In part that is due to a crowded field and media attention focused on other candidates, but Walker seems to have slipped from the first tier into the second. He is still likely to have the funding needed to mount a serious campaign for the Republican nomination, and his appeal to all of the key constituencies in the Republican Party remains. Walker is still among the favorites vying for the Republican nomination, although he has ground to make up between now and the first votes cast in February 2016.
Scott Walker was born in Colorado Springs, Colo., to a Baptist minister, Rev. Llewellyn Scott Walker, and Patricia Ann (née Fitch), a bookkeeper, on Nov. 2, 1967. His family moved to Delavan, Wis., when he was 10, and he has lived in the state ever since. Walker and his wife, Tonette (née Tarantino), have two sons, Matt and Alex.
He graduated from high school, becoming an Eagle Scout during that time. Walker then enrolled in Marquette University in 1986, and began his political career working as a volunteer for Tommy Thompson’s campaign for governor. Walker left Marquette in 1990 without completing a degree, eventually taking a marketing and fundraising position with the American Red Cross.
In 1990, Walker made his first bid for public office, running for Milwaukee’s 7th District state assembly seat. After losing that election (with less than a third of the vote), he won a special election in a Republican-leaning district in 1993 and was re-elected to that office four times.
As an assemblyman, Walker earned a reputation as a fiscal and social conservative keenly interested in criminal justice matters. He leveraged this reputation to defeat state Sen. Lena Taylor to become Milwaukee County Executive in a 2002 special election in the wake of a pension scandal involving the previous county executive, Tom Ament.
Walker made headlines by returning tens of thousands of dollars in salary as he made a push to cut the number of county employees and turn the county deficit into a surplus. In 2006, he made a brief push for the governor’s office, dropping out early due to lackluster fundraising. In 2010, he handily won the Republican nomination and rode the tea party wave to a six-point victory over Democratic incumbent Tom Barrett.
As governor, Walker introduced reforms to the collective bargaining process, sparking massive protests and a recall effort aimed at state legislators and the governor himself. Walker survived the recall effort, defeating (again) Tom Barrett by a slightly larger margin. He was re-elected governor in 2014.
Walker and his family attend Meadowbrook, a Pentecostal church. Walker has stated his faith is integral to his principled approach to leadership.
In terms of cutting the cost of government, Walker notably has a track record of putting his money where his mouth is – on a personal level. As Milwaukee County Executive, he returned $60,000 of his salary per year for several years before reducing that return to a more modest $10,000. This was in keeping with an oft-repeated criticism of outrageous pay for county employees.
While Walker has made notable gains in the area of reining in government, he has not been immune to the temptation to appoint allies and colleagues to key positions, often at substantial pay increases. In one instance, he hired one of his former staffers, Cynthia Archer, to an $113,000-per-year position for which she did not even apply.1
Meanwhile, Walker’s wife, Tonette, has made substantial renovations to the Governor’s Mansion, including a full kitchen remodel, in contrast to her husband’s austere fiscal leanings.
While Walker has generally been consistent on most issues, his history on immigration been less clear. As a county official, he favored a pathway to citizenship for many illegal aliens currently in the country, but he touted a much tougher position in the months before announcing his candidacy. Even after switching to a position thought more amenable to the conservative base, however, credible reports (denied by Walker) have emerged, suggesting his changed position may be more about politics than principle.2 He also appears to have changed his position on subsidies for the ethanol industry, again in a way likely to benefit him with Iowa caucus-goers.3
Walker is perhaps most notable, however, for remaining firm in the face of increasingly strident tactics in response to his collective bargaining reform efforts. In response to legislators fleeing the state to avoid a vote on his reforms, Walker evoked a parliamentary tactic and passed the bill without their assistance. He has also endured death threats, massive protests and recall efforts aimed at thwarting his agenda.4 Throughout all of this, Walker has remained steadfast in advancing the agenda he campaigned on.
Walker has made job growth a key plank of his reform-oriented platform. Indeed, Wisconsin has been a leader in job growth and has replaced many of the jobs lost during the recession. However, his state underperformed his goal of creating 250,000 jobs in his first term in office, having only added 134,000 as of September 2014.5
Walker’s most significant accomplishment to date has been the reforms of the health and pension benefits for state employee along with collective bargaining, which were fiercely opposed by organized labor and, once implemented, saved taxpayers close to $3 billion.6
While he has spent a large amount of political capital in his fight to reform state government, he has made savvy choices in preserving key alliances. His collective bargaining reforms exempted popular public safety employee groups, while he has steered subsidies toward Wisconsin’s crucial (and massively influential) dairy industry.
Walker is not nearly as electrifying a speaker as he is a politician. Like Midwesterners Tim Pawlenty and Paul Ryan before him, Walker has a difficult time inspiring with his words. He is a capable speaker though, and a noted retail politician who is very comfortable with crowds. His interviewing demeanor is relaxed and he is not known to be gaffe-prone7 although he has had to clarify a number of comments and occasionally stumbles in discussing policy details, leading some to accuse him of flip-flopping on issues when he’s simply done a poor job of explaining his position, such as happened when he responded to questions about “birthright citizenship”8 or building a wall on the Canadian border.9 He also had to walk back comments made at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference that seemed to compare the union protestors he faced in 2011 with ISIS.10
Fellow Republicans have recognized Walker’s status as a conservative leader. He was named chairman of the National Governors Association Health and Human Services Committee, was named to the National Governors Association Executive Committee, and was selected to be chairman of the Midwestern Governors Association.
Walker is best known for taking on the public sector union in his home state as governor, but his budgets have been somewhat more mixed in terms of fiscal discipline. His efforts to restrict collective bargaining and increase worker contributions for health and pension plans have saved the state money and will continue to do so. However, he has increased spending even more than the average governor during his tenure.
Following his 2012 recall victory, Walker set to work reforming Wisconsin’s tax code. He consolidated the state’s five income tax rates into four lower rates. Between those and other tax reductions, Wisconsin residents can expect to save $500 million annually, according to analysis by the Cato Institute.11
Walker has not specified any tax reforms he would seek as president, but he has said the Reagan-era tax rates would be “a pretty good role model” (tax rates were 15 and 28 percent following the 1986 tax reforms).12
Walker signed the Americans for Tax Reform’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge. He also signed the No Climate Tax Pledge created by Americans for Prosperity. During the so-called fiscal cliff debate at the end of 2012, Walker urged Congressional Republicans not to give in to the higher taxes being demanded by President Obama.13
As Milwaukee County Executive, he never introduced a budget that would increase property taxes over the prior year, though the county board would often approve hikes over his veto. He also refused to accept federal stimulus funds, stating that he was not asking the federal government for help with any new projects or endeavors. In this, he stood in stark contrast to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and then-Gov. Jim Doyle, who requested more than $4 billion between them.14
Also as county executive, Walker privatized county janitorial services and courthouse security, though these efforts were reversed by an arbitrator. He even proposed to privatize the Milwaukee County Zoo.15
In September 2015 Walker unveiled a labor agenda that he would pursue as president. Key elements of the plan include abolishing the National Labor Relations Board, making it illegal for federal employees to form unions, and making right-to-work the national standard while allowing individual states to opt out.16 He would also require periodic union recertification votes and end project labor agreements and wage controls on highway projects.17
Almost immediately upon taking office as governor, Walker introduced his “budget repair bill,” a transformation of the collective bargaining process for most public employees (excluding public safety). The bill also required public employees to contribute to their own health care and retirement benefits, ended the practice of automatically withdrawing union dues from employee paychecks and mandatory union membership, and required annual certification for unions.18
In 2015, Walker signed a right-to-work bill19 that he said he supported but hadn’t sought and asked the legislature not to pursue because he had other legislative priorities he thought it might interfere with.20 He has also said he favors eliminating the state’s prevailing wage law, which drives up the cost of public projects by requiring union pay scales be used,21 and has referred to the minimum wage as a “lame” idea.22 He has said that as president he would eliminate the automatic deductions of union dues from federal workers paychecks.23
Budget & Spending
Walker introduced budget reforms, including Act 10, estimated to have saved taxpayers $1 billion in its first year. The plan again restructured public employee benefits, though the Walker administration claimed the added benefit of avoiding employee layoffs and a reduction in services.24
He also established a Commission on Waste, Fraud and Abuse in January 2011, which identified more than $250 million in potential savings to the state.
During the 2011 debt limit fight, Walker suggested any increase in the limit needed to be accompanied by long-term structural reforms in order to avoid similar fights in the future.25 He did not support the sequestration cuts agreed to by Obama and Congress, and he urged the president to instead find alternative savings such as by cutting waste in government spending.26
Walker praised Paul Ryan for putting together a 2013 budget deal with Democrat Patty Murray, which traded $65 billion in immediate cuts for $85 billion in cuts over the next decade. Many conservatives criticized the deal, concerned the later cuts will never occur or be watered down.27
Walker favors repealing the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), and has proposed a plan to replace it that includes age-based tax credits for individuals who don’t get coverage through their jobs, expansion of health savings accounts, interstate sale of health insurance, and federal funding for high-risk pools.28
During the 2013 debate over defunding Obamacare and shutting down the government, Walker reiterated his opposition to the law but said he did not favor a shutdown as part of a strategy to defund it.29
With a goal of broadening Medicaid coverage without incurring increasing costs, Walker shifted current enrollees above the poverty level to the exchanges and used the savings at the state level take enrollees off the waiting list for Medicaid. The move was heavily criticized by Democrats who wanted a full Medicaid expansion under Obamacare, and generally met with approval by free-market advocates. He has supported giving states Medicaid funding as block grants, giving local elected officials more control over how to provide health care to the poor.30
Walker was one of five governors to write congressional leaders in opposition to the medical device tax.31 He also signed legislation reforming tort law and creating an individual income tax credit for health savings accounts that can be deducted from federal income taxes.32
In 2011, Walker signed Wisconsin Act 2, which helped to decrease the regulatory burden on businesses in Wisconsin. According to the National Law Review, the act “changes State agency authority to promulgate rules, provides for gubernatorial approval of proposed rules, makes revisions to the requirement of an economic impact analysis for proposed rules and changes venue in the process of judicial review of agency rules.”33
In 2012, Walker embarked on an effort to reform the Small Business Regulatory Review Board to eliminate or reduce needless, burdensome regulations. Relying on feedback from the business community, he identified more than 500 modifications and administrative codes he believed would spur business growth in his state.34
A professed advocate of free trade, Walker embarked on a 10-day trade mission trip to China in 2013, with a goal of improving dialogue and elevating the economic relationship with that country. 35
Walker’s immigration views have become considerably tougher over time. In 2006 Walker supported federal legislation that included a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants 36 and also supported a broader solution that facilitated legal immigration, saying that “if it wasn’t so difficult to get in, we wouldn’t have the problems that we have.” In 2013 Walker said he supported citizenship after illegal immigrants paid a penalty,37 but by March 2015 Walker announced his views had since shifted and he now opposed “amnesty,” meaning he would allow illegal immigrants to gain legal status but not citizenship.38 He has suggested that levels of legal immigration ought to be looked at and possibly reduced as well in light of what he believes the impact to be on U.S. workers and wages.39 He has also promised to sign legislation similar to that in Arizona which would prohibit illegal immigrants from receiving health benefits and in-state tuition.40
There have been at least two credible reports suggesting Walker may favor less stringent immigration measures than he touts on the campaign trail, including a pathway to citizenship for illegals.41 Walker has denied the reports, however.
In August 2015 he made comments thought by some to suggest he favored ending “birthright citizenship,” the policy under which children of illegal immigrants are given U.S. citizenship if they are born here, although he later clarified his comments and said he thought addressing other immigration issues would solve the problem and that he did not support amending the Constitution to end birthright citizenship.42
Entitlements & Welfare
Walker has been a strong advocate for entitlement reform. In 2013, he signed a bill curbing the sale and exchange of food stamps for non-approved purposes. In 2014, he proposed time limits on public assistance for childless adults, as well as drug testing and mandatory work training for welfare recipients.43 He has said he is open to the idea of raising the age to start receiving Social Security benefits, while pledging that current retirees would see no changes.44
Energy & Environment
Walker supports the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, having written to Secretary of State John Kerry to that end. He is also a vocal supporter of fracking. In an interesting angle, Walker has couched his opposition to wind energy production in terms of property rights, having introduced legislation that would impose mandatory setbacks between wind turbines and the nearest property line.45
Critics noted this would put a $500 million investment on hold, disrupting manufacturing. This provision would have been the strictest in the nation.
Walker announced his opposition to Obama’s Clean Power Plan, saying it would raise electricity costs for consumers and devastate the economy of Wisconsin and other states.46 He favors giving states much more control over environmental protection and would like to limit the EPA’s role to interstate issues.47 He signed a bill exempting Brown County (home of Green Bay) from certain wetland restrictions and is known within the region for his support of mining, signing a bill streamlining the mining approval process.48 The latter effort is an attempt to fast-track a large iron mine in far northwestern Wisconsin.
As might be expected, Walker has a lengthy resume as it pertains to agriculture. In 2014, Walker introduced the Grow Wisconsin Dairy Processor Grant. This would direct funds to fuel demand for dairy, a staple industry of the state of Wisconsin.49
He also proposed a tax credit for agriculture producers, and has signed into law tax exemptions for fertilizer blending and other agricultural operations, while expanding available financing for farmers. These efforts, praised by farmers, have been criticized by free-market supporters for complicating the tax code and favoring certain industries.
Walker voiced qualified support for continued subsidies and preferences for ethanol at a March 2015 event in Iowa, saying he supported the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) based on his view that there is not a free and open market for renewable fuels.50 He did suggest he envisioned the mandate disappearing over time, however. In August 2015 he clarified his comments in an interview, saying he would like to see the RFS phased out over two years.51
Walker favors eliminating the Export-Import Bank,52 and he recently signed a bill giving nearly $400 million in taxpayer dollars (a mix of state and local funds) to build a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks.53
Walker helped create the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WECD) in 2011, which loaned taxpayer funds to businesses. As governor, Walker sat on the board, and in 2015 it was revealed the WECD gave $500,000 to the firm of a major donor to Walker. The firm later went bankrupt and it was discovered the firm’s owner had been taken to court for delinquent taxes before receiving the loan.54 A state audit discovered lax accountability at the WECD and that it failed to follow the law and its own policies, and Walker requested that he be removed from the board, which the legislature approved.
Walker has until recently been fairly silent on foreign policy issues. According to Politico, Walker “conceded that foreign policy is ‘not an area that governors typically look at.’” He was involved in overseeing the deployment of National Guard troops from Wisconsin and has broadly declared his support for Israel as an ally but for a long while remained relatively quiet on international affairs.55
More recently he has begun to offer substantive views on foreign policy, including saying he supports arming the Ukrainian government in its fight against Russian-backed separatists and even Russian troops fighting alongside them.56 He has also called the Obama administration’s decision to normalize ties with Cuba “a bad idea.”57
He has also called into question Obama’s rhetoric about ending war and focusing on nation-building domestically, asserting that such a pose demonstrates weakness.58
Walker said Obama should cancel his upcoming meeting with China’s president, citing that nation’s economic policies, human rights abuses, and recent cyberattacks against the U.S. thought to have originated in China.59 He has also said the U.S. should maintain a close relationship with China in order to help address the situation in North Korea and preserve trade.60
In response to a question from Philip Klein of the Washington Examiner about foreign policy, Walker responded, “I believe in a strong America and not just from a military standpoint, but overall.”61
War on Terror
Walker criticized Obama for failing to enforce the red line in Syria, proposed imposing a “no fly” zone in Syria,62 and has said he wouldn’t rule out anything regarding dealing with ISIS, including sending U.S. troops.”63 He has said the U.S. should not accept any more Syrian refugees, noting that the U.S. has already accepted 70,000 refugees in the past year,64 and said the solution to the refugee crisis is defeating ISIS.65
Closer to home, he has advocated beefing up domestic surveillance and counterterrorism capabilities.66
Asked whether he would consider a full-scale invasion of Iraq, Walker explained that he didn’t think the U.S. should telegraph to foes what was or was not an option, and followed by stating that if the interests of the country were at stake, whether at home or abroad, “that’s to me the standard of what we do for military engagement.”67
Closer to home, he has advocated beefing up domestic surveillance and counter-terrorism capabilities.68
Walker has said that on his first day in office, he would terminate the nuclear program deal negotiated with Iran by the Obama administration and impose tough new sanctions on the regime.69
Military Preparedness & Budget
Walker has said the sequester budget cuts for defense spending should be reversed70 and more recently called for an increase in defense spending.
Speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference about the Founding Fathers, Walker said, “These were ordinary people. Ordinary people who did something quite … extraordinary. They didn’t just risk their political careers, their business ventures but people who literally risked their lives for the freedoms we hold dear today. … What makes America great, what makes us exceptional, what makes us arguably the greatest country in the history of the world is that in moments of crisis, be it economic or fiscal, be it military or spiritual, there have been men and women throughout our history who have stood up and made about decisions that think more about the future of their children and their grandchildren than they did about their own political futures.”71
Walker also explained to an Arizona audience that American exceptionalism was not an assertion of American superiority. “America is an exceptional country. And I think, unfortunately, sometimes there are many in Washington who think those of us who believe we are exceptional means we are superior, that we’re better than others in the world. … Being an exceptional country means we have a higher responsibility than others, not just to care for ourselves and our own interests, but to lead in the world. To [ensure] that all freedom loving people who have the capacity to yearn for that freedom, have that freedom.”72
Walker has criticized “judicial activism,” particularly in the context of the Court’s Obergefell (same-sex marriage) decision,73 calling it a “grave mistake” and stating that “five unelected judges have taken it upon themselves to redefine the institution of marriage, an institution that the author of this decision acknowledges ‘has been with us for millennia.’”74
Judiciary & Crime
Speaking at the 2013 National Lawyers Convention of the conservative Federalist Society, Walker praised federal appeals court judge Diana Sykes,75 who previously sat on the Wisconsin’s Supreme Court and has been mentioned in the past by many conservatives as a potential U.S. Supreme Court nominee.76 Walker also explained that he looked for appointees to the state’s lower courts who have “an understanding of the proper role of the judiciary”77 (judges are elected in Wisconsin, but the governor makes temporary appointments when a vacancy occurs due to death, resignation, or other cause).
Of the possibility of changing or overturning Roe v. Wade, Walker says “that’s not a change you can make,” but asserted he believes there are other ways a president could advance a pro-life agenda without overturning the decision.78
Walker opposes the No Child Left Behind Act on states’ rights grounds. This seems to reflect a general position in favor of strict federalism. Walker has said, “You can move if you don’t like the people who are elected to run the state or the commonwealth. You can move. It’s awfully hard to move out of the country that you love, and we shouldn’t have to!”79
Walker has said that among his priorities would be moving more funding and responsibility from the federal government to states in the areas of education, transportation, health care, workforce development, and environmental protection, largely as a way to boost effectiveness and save money.80
A one-time supporter of Common Core educational standards, Walker has since changed his tune. He has made efforts to change the way Common Core is implemented in Wisconsin. A firm supporter of school choice and charter schools, Walker signed into law an expansion of a statewide voucher program for low-income families. The law also tethers charter pupil funding to the increases allowed to public school revenue limits. Walker supports merit pay for teachers, and he authorized the use of standardized test scores to evaluate teacher performance. 81
On higher education, Walker pushed for and signed a budget bill that included significant reforms to the state’s university system, including giving institutions the authority to set professor tenure policies instead of having them spelled out in state law.82 The budget also included $250 million in cuts over two years and gave universities more flexibility in their policies.83
Free Speech & Religious Liberty
As a state legislator in the 1990s, Walker supported disclosure efforts regarding campaign spending, and he suggested more recently he would favor a cap on campaign contributions connected to recall elections if it were paired with a higher threshold for recalls.84 But he generally seems skeptical of campaign finance laws today, calling for the elimination and replacement of the state’s Government Accountability Board,85 which is responsible for enforcing the state’s election laws, and which has been accused of using its authority to stifle conservative political speech and harass Republicans.
He has indicated his support for the religious liberty rights for a Kentucky county clerk refusing to issue marriage licenses following the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, although he hasn’t specifically said what if anything he might do to resolve the situation,86 and said that as president he would focus on defending religious liberties.87
Walker has supported individual gun rights and opposes most gun control measures. He has criticized Obama for backing tougher gun control laws,88 and as governor signed legislation allowing Wisconsin residents to obtain concealed-carry permits.89 As a state legislator he had generally supported concealed-carry legislation but voted against it twice, both apparently for procedural reasons and not because of opposition to the underlying proposal.90 He recently signed legislation eliminating the state’s 48-hour waiting period,91 and in 2011 signed a “Castle Doctrine” bill giving greater legal protections to citizens who shoot intruders in their homes.92
Walker opposes all abortions, including those sought in the cases of rape, incest, or if the life of the mother is jeopardized.93 As governor he signed legislation banning abortion after 20 weeks in his state 94 and eliminating state funding for Planned Parenthood,95 and as a state legislator he helped pass a ban on the late-term procedure known as partial-birth abortion.96
Walker is an opponent of same-sex marriage and favors a constitutional amendment allowing each state to decide the matter for itself, although he’s also said it’s not a priority for him and he would instead as president focus on defending religious liberties.97
Walker has been plagued by a series of small scandals throughout his terms as governor. During his gubernatorial campaign, Walker used his campaign email to correspond with his inner circle, often using their private email accounts, which are not subject to public scrutiny. Anecdotal evidence suggests this was commonplace, though it is not clear that there was any intent to escape public accountability.
Walker has also been associated with, or implicated in, two different investigations. He was not charged or alleged to have committed a crime in either case. The first investigation involved misconduct by staff in his Milwaukee County Executive office, and Walker encouraged the person who initially uncovered the misconduct to report it to the district attorney’s office. The second investigation, which is ongoing, appears to be a politically motivated and baseless investigation alleging campaign finance violations of independent groups in Wisconsin.
Some may raise questions regarding Walker’s decision to drop out of Marquette University his senior year and the occasionally inconsistent explanations he has given regarding the circumstances. But contrary to allegations by the Wisconsin Democratic Party, there is no evidence he left due to misconduct of any sort, and substantial evidence indicates he left in good standing.
While Walker is well-versed in domestic policy, he has until recently had very little to say regarding national security and foreign policy, and some are likely to question his knowledge of international affairs and readiness to step into the commander-in-chief role.
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