By Brady Dennis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 20, 2011; A03
MADISON, WIS. - On a Tuesday afternoon in September 2003, during Scott Walker's first term as Milwaukee County executive, scores of union workers gathered at the local courthouse to protest layoffs he had ordered as part of an aggressive effort to balance the budget and avoid what he said would otherwise be necessary tax increases.
They shouted anti-Walker chants, and union officials and Democratic officeholders took turns denouncing his slash-and-burn approach.
The layoffs Walker had announced that summer decimated the county's public parks staff and also reduced the number of county social workers, corrections officers and janitors. As a result, park bathrooms were shuttered and pools were closed. Trash was piled up so high in the Milwaukee County Courthouse that visitors had to sidestep apple cores and coffee cups, and some judges resorted to cleaning toilets, a local newspaper reported.
Despite the deep cuts and the union uproar, Walker cruised to reelection the following spring and remained in his post six more years, until his successful gubernatorial run in the fall.
The 43-year-old governor has garnered national attention in the past week - challenging unions in a birthplace of the progressive movement and joining other high-profile governors such as New Jersey's Chris Christie (R) in pushing deep budget cuts and straight talk on fiscal restraint - but allies and opponents alike say they are hardly surprised. While deficit reduction and spending cuts are in style these days in Washington and beyond, they have been Walker's bread and butter for two decades.
"Anybody who said they didn't see this coming wasn't paying attention to the election," said Joe Sanfelippo, a member of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors and a Walker supporter. "He's true to his word . . . he's not going to back down."
Indeed, Walker showed little concern for the sea of protesters singing Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It" outside his window Friday evening. Dressed in a navy suit and red tie, he shrugged off the chants for his resignation and the signs portraying him as a dictator.
"My last couple budget addresses [in Milwaukee County], I literally had protesters from the unions in the chambers standing up during my speech holding signs. . . . I had people catcalling and the whole bit; I'm used to it," he said in an interview in his spacious Capitol office, with its dark wood furniture and tightly drawn burgundy blinds.
"Obviously these guys have a right to be heard, but this is still a small fraction of the percentage of all state and local government workers," he said. "I can't let these voices overpower the voices of the millions of other taxpayers I represent."
Asked whether his experiences with unions as county executive had influenced his bill to curb state employee benefits and put tight restrictions on their collective-bargaining rights - the same measure that brought the chanting masses to his doorstep - he didn't hesitate.
"Absolutely," he said. "Totally."
During his eight-year tenure in Milwaukee County, Walker never raised property taxes. He cut the county workforce by 20 percent, improved its bond rating and gave back hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own salary as part of the effort to trim spending. But he also saw his relations with local unions deteriorate.
Union leaders say Walker never negotiated in good faith and had a singular solution to every budget problem: cut. Under his watch, the county privatized public jobs, laid off workers and placed others on furlough.
"The guy's a one-trick pony. His playbook is very limited," said Rich Abelson, executive director of AFSCME District Council 48, Milwaukee's largest union. "The result of that is an absolute devastation of the programs and services in Milwaukee County."
Abelson said the union filed multiple lawsuits against Walker over the years for unfair labor practices, and the relationship continued to sour as Walker kept "cutting wages and benefits for working people."
Walker argued that collective bargaining was the biggest hurdle to balancing the budget and that unions had little incentive to give ground because they almost always prevailed in arbitration. He said that the cuts he proposed were intended to prevent layoffs and accused union leaders of being uninterested in compromise.
"If I could go after . . . the pension and health-care contribution, I could have avoided layoffs; I could have avoided other service cuts," he said. "But because of the way the law is, local governments just can't do that."
Walker, a native of Colorado Springs, spent his formative years in a small town 60 miles south of Madison, called Delavan, where his father served as pastor at the Baptist church. He became an Eagle Scout and idolized Ronald Reagan.
He attended Marquette University but left just shy of a degree to take a marketing job with the American Red Cross, making him the first Wisconsin governor in more than half a century not to have a college degree.
At 25, he won election to the state Assembly and served for nine years. But in 2002, Milwaukee County Executive Tom Ament, a Democrat, resigned in the wake of a county pension fund scandal, and Walker became the rare Republican to win office in the area by vowing to clean up the mess.
Friends and foes alike describe Walker as hardworking and amiable, a devoted husband and father of two teenage sons. They also call him a gifted and ambitious politician who has never strayed from his conservative ideals.
"He was tea party before there was a tea party. He's always been ideologically pure," said Mordecai Lee, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee political science professor who sparred with Walker on a weekly television show during his Assembly days. "He would do whatever it took not to raise taxes. He never wavered, never doubted."
Lee said Walker's repeated success at the polls, even in Democratic strongholds, came as no surprise. He preached fiscal conservatism but also campaigned on his own frugality, noting that he packed ham-and-cheese sandwiches for lunch and drove a weathered Saturn.
"Scott Walker is the Republican Obama - he's likable, he's nice, so voters saw that [side] rather than the very ideological Republican," Lee said. "He's one of the most impressive politicians I've ever seen."
On Friday evening at the Capitol, Walker remained true to the portrait painted by supporters and detractors alike - calm and composed even during the tensest moments but utterly unwavering and unapologetic in his views.
Guards stood outside every entrance to the governor's office. Walker talked about finding time to watch "American Idol" with his wife the previous night. The crowds outside chanted, "Kill the bill!" Walker talked about texting with his sons throughout the day. "They've been following this. They're intrigued," he said.
Outside, the sun was setting. The crowd sang "We Shall Overcome." The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson had arrived to fire up the tens of thousands of protesters in their fifth day of demonstrations.
Inside, the governor prepared to slip quietly out of the Capitol and head 80 miles north to welcome home members of a National Guard unit from Iraq, a brief and welcome respite from the budget battles.
He predicted that the legislative impasse would soon end and that he would have the votes to push through his bill. As for the union backers who would surely return day after day to shower him with their discontent - well, he wasn't looking for their affection.
"I sleep all right," he said.