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Project Milwaukee: In-depth reporting on vital issues in the region.

Observers Analyze Gov. Walker's Ideology and Impact

John Gunther

Earlier this morning we talked with Scott Walker about his first year as governor.

He has been the driver of the sweeping and controversial changes in Wisconsin.

They include restricting public union rights and deeply cutting money for education.

As a result, critics are attempting to recall him, while supporters praise him for being bold.

In this segment of our series, Project Milwaukee: State of Upheaval, WUWM’s Ann-Elise Henzl shares insights from people who have observed Walker become the politician he is today.

It’s an understatement to say Scott Walker is a divisive figure.

There are those, such as Milwaukee resident Chris Christie, who signed a recall petition in the middle of the night, moments after the countdown began.

“I come from a union family, going back two generations. And so for us, the right to bargain collectively is sacred. When he messed with that, it became a personal vendetta for me,” Christie says.

“Hey hey, ho ho, Scott Walker has got to go.” Those were people gathered outside the governor’s Wauwatosa home for a recall rally.

Meanwhile others express admiration.

“If Scott Walker quit tomorrow, he would be the best governor in the state of Wisconsin in my lifetime,” says Republican Sen. Glenn Grothman.

He backed Walker’s limits to union rights and other conservative proposals.

The two have a history. They were freshmen in the Assembly in the early 1990s, when Walker was in his twenties.

“I thought he had a very good work ethic. I remember him being out in front fighting for privacy rights for patients. I also remember he was a real champion of truth in sentencing,” Grothman says.

Grothman says he was not surprised when Walker went on to become Milwaukee County executive and now, governor.

“Somebody who gets to the Legislature at such a young age, you have to anticipate they will be moving up. He was clearly very hardworking and ambitious,” Grothman says.

Grothman credits Walker for taking on public unions, despite the power they have traditionally wielded -- and the massive support they received.

Tens of thousands of people rallied at the Capitol.

They complained Walker would not listen to them, while he did take a call from a prankster, claiming to be a wealthy donor.

The two talked about ending the protests. The caller asked Walker whether he considered planting disrupters in the crowd.

Walker responded: “My only fear would be is if there’s a ruckus caused is that that would scare the public into thinking, maybe the governor's got to settle to avoid all these problems.”

The phone call was pivotal for many skeptics, according to Milwaukee Democratic state Rep. David Cullen.

“I think that that was really sort of the impetus for a lot of the bad feelings that some people have towards him,” Cullen says.

Some of the governor’s critics are convinced he was taking marching orders from big contributors. Cullen disagrees. He has known Walker for years; the two served alongside each other in the Assembly, representing abutting districts.

“We all in elective office are kind of an amalgam of our own ideas and ideas that we get from other sources,” Cullen says.

Yet Cullen thinks critics were justifiably shocked by Walker’s union limits, and his refusal to budge on the matter.

“That seems to be his style, he doesn’t seem to be very compromising. And I don’t think that benefits the state, long-term,” Cullen says.

Cullen says by not negotiating, Walker could be ignoring the will of 50 percent of Wisconsin voters, because recent elections show the state to be “purple” -- despite Republican victories last year.

Milwaukee County Supervisor Lynne De Bruin has also noted Walker’s uncompromising approach.

She dealt regularly with him during the eight years he served as county executive.

“He’s not a consensus builder. He would announce what he wanted to do and if people went along with it, that was great. But if they didn’t, he’d rather lose than have consensus reached and have a modified version,” De Bruin says.

The board frequently clashed with Walker over financial matters, and De Bruin says he was constantly at odds with the biggest union representing county workers.

So she, for one, was not surprised when he proposed stripping public employees of most collective bargaining rights.

“I don’t expect him to change. He’s an ideologue. He knows what he wants to do, and he’s going to push for it, and I don’t see that changing much -- even with the recall movement,” De Bruin says.

Where some see obstinacy in the governor, UW-Madison Political Science Professor John Witte perceives strength.

“He was the first one to face this structural deficit problem that we’ve had for 15 years. It goes back to Tommy Thompson, and no one has faced it since that time, including Thompson. He left and went to Washington,” Witte says.

Witte calls Walker an “aggressive” politician and “rock-solid conservative,” who’s distrustful of high taxes and large government.

While that steadfast stance may enrage liberals, Republican Sen. Glenn Grothman expects big things from Walker.

“He’s such a young guy with a national reputation. We have a shortage of conservative Republicans with national appeal, and Scott Walker would immediately have that national appeal,” Grothman says.

That may be assuming Walker survives the recall attempt against him. So the stakes appear very high for both the governor and his detractors.