Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whose efforts to curtail the rights of public-employee unions have thrust him into the national spotlight, is pushing other new Republican governors to follow his lead.
He said he communicates regularly with Ohio Gov. John Kasich and has spoken with Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval. And Walker has suggested that his counterparts in Michigan and Florida seek to address their budget problems in part by demanding major concessions from public workers.
"There's a lot of us new governors that got elected to do something big," Walker said this week. "This is our moment."
His comments about his GOP brethren came in an unusual forum: a recorded telephone conversation with a liberal blogger purporting to be conservative financier David Koch.
Walker's standoff with unions in Wisconsin has also prompted tea party groups to put together an extensive schedule of national grass-roots organizing, with the goal of supporting governors and lawmakers who are pushing for pension reform, restrictions on public-sector collective bargaining and deep cuts in spending.
FreedomWorks, a Washington-based group led by former House majority leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.), said it will send paid workers to Tallahassee; Indianapolis; Harrisburg, Pa.; Columbus, Ohio; and Salt Lake City in coming weeks as part of the effort.
"This is clearly just the beginning of many state battles that are happening around the country," said FreedomWorks state coordinator Brendan Steinhauser.
The uproar over Walker's efforts has meanwhile spurred liberal groups and unions, including MoveOn.org and the AFL-CIO, to reinforce the protests in Wisconsin and to plan rallies in every state capital on Saturday as part of their own push to shape the national debate.
In the recorded phone call, Walker reaffirmed his view that rolling back unions' negotiating power is essential for fixing Wisconsin's budget ills. He also clearly relished his new high-profile role in U.S. politics, mentioning his multiple national media appearances and comparing his stand to President Ronald Reagan's efforts in the 1980s to break a strike by air-traffic controllers.
Walker said that on the evening of Feb. 6, after the Super Bowl, he hosted his cabinet members at a dinner at the governor's mansion, pulled out a picture of Reagan and spoke about the budget legislation he was about to release.
"I said: 'This is our moment. This is our time to change the course of history,' " he said in the recorded call.
The conversation took place Tuesday afternoon, and Walker's office confirmed its authenticity Wednesday.
Walker is recorded saying that Kasich has to "stand firm in Ohio." He added that "we could do the same thing" with Florida Gov. Rick Scott and that Gov. Rick Snyder, "if he got a little more support, probably could do that in Michigan."
Not all of Walker's counterparts, however, have leaped to join his efforts. The governors of Nevada and Florida have steered clear of trying to curb union rights, though some GOP lawmakers in those states are considering legislation to do so.
In Michigan, Snyder has proposed a budget that lists $180 million in "concessions" by public workers, but the details will be worked out through negotiations, said his spokeswoman, Sara Wurfel.
"I don't see Michigan like Wisconsin at all," Snyder said at a news conference Wednesday, according to audio provided by Michigan Public Radio. "Collective bargaining is something that we've been supportive of."
Other states continued to wrestle with union-related legislation Wednesday. In Indiana, GOP lawmakers killed a "right to work" measure that would no longer have required private-sector employees to belong to a union or pay for union representation. Democrats who have left the capital said they want to see other controversial bills dropped before they return.
In Ohio, the fate of legislation that would roll back the collective-bargaining rights of public employees was uncertain, as thousands of protesters again descended on the statehouse in Columbus and Senate leaders said they would let the unions retain some bargaining power.
Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols said the Ohio governor speaks regularly with Walker. He said that the two are "becoming friends" and that their conversations do not necessarily focus on legislative strategy. Kasich has expressed support for measures to scale back, but not eliminate, collective bargaining by public-sector unions.
Senate Democrats in Wisconsin, who decamped to Illinois last week to deny Republicans a quorum to vote on the measure weakening union rights, said Wednesday that they plan to stay away until Walker softens his position.
"The only thing that's in the way is his refusal to accept a compromise," Wisconsin Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller said in a conference call with reporters.
Miller noted that public-union workers have agreed to the concessions Walker is seeking on pension and health-care contributions, even as they hold firm on their collective bargaining power.
"The public employees have given him a victory in saying they would pay a bit extra," Miller said. "They have given him the money he needs [to fix the budget]. He's got a victory; he should claim it."
Walker remained unmoved Wednesday, insisting that curtailing the power of public unions is essential to curing the state's budget shortfall, and warning that if a deal isn't reached by week's end, 1,500 public employees risk being laid off.
The blogger who made the prank call to Walker is 33-year-old Ian Murphy of Buffalo, a writer for BuffaloBeast.com. He said in an interview that he was stunned at how easily he got himself patched through to the governor. "I thought it was so ridiculous and there was no way I would get through," he said. Murphy, who describes his politics as "extreme left-wing," said he conducted the interview from his house, using Skype to record it.
The call offered a rare, unguarded glimpse into a private interaction between a politician and someone who he believed to be a supporter. Murphy tried at times to bait Walker into saying something explosive about "busting" the unions, but the governor demurred.
At one point, though, Murphy asked whether Walker needed help "planting troublemakers" in the union protests, an allusion to rumors in the blogosphere that some Walker supporters might be planning tricks to make the demonstrators appear more thuggish.
"We thought about that," Walker acknowledged, but said he believes the protests will die out because of public backlash and a lack of interest by the news media. "We can handle this, people can protest; this is Madison, you know, full of the '60s liberals. Let 'em protest. It's not going to affect us. And as long as we go back to our homes and the majority of people are telling us we're doing the right thing, let 'em protest all they want."
Staff writer Amy Gardner contributed to this report.