Scott Walker was embroiled in a heated campaign for governor of Wisconsin when he and his staff leapt into crisis mode.
A 13-ton concrete slab had come loose and fallen from a county-owned parking garage in Milwaukee, crushing and killing a 15-year-old boy, and within minutes, aides feared the worst for their boss, then Milwaukee County’s top elected official.
“He’ll be eaten alive,” wrote his chief of staff, worried that Walker might be at a political fundraiser. His campaign manager weighed in, too, saying, “He needs to lead. . . . His response will be the focal point.”
As his aides fretted, Walker was already in place, his cellphone battery drained, touring the scene with the county sheriff and briefing reporters.
The response from Walker and his staff to the 2010 incident was captured in newly released internal e-mails that offer unusually intimate insight into the behind-the-scenes management style of a possible Republican presidential candidate at a formative stage in his career.
In dozens of exchanges while Walker was county executive and running for governor, he appeared equally fixated on cultivating his political image and tackling the substantive demands of a large local government.
Walker, in effect, operated as the county executive, chief of staff, press secretary and campaign strategist all at once. He ordered up briefing documents, spun out talking points, recruited the help of a local conservative talk-show host and even wrote a quote for a state lawmaker to issue in her own words.
The e-mails, spanning 27,000 pages and covering a nine-month period, had been seized as part of a criminal inquiry that was closed in 2013 and recently were unsealed by a Wisconsin court. Walker has called the e-mails “old news.” His spokesman did not respond to questions regarding what they revealed about Walker’s leadership.
Now 46, Walker emerged as a national GOP star after his battles with public-worker unions prompted an unsuccessful effort in 2012 to recall him from office. He is considering a 2016 White House bid.
Like the situation with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, another potential GOP presidential candidate whose internal staff e-mails recently became public, Walker’s team during the time covered by the e-mails seemed focused on scoring political points to shore up their boss’s standing.
Christie, though, has described himself as a delegator who was unaware of the four-day traffic jam his aides arranged as apparent political retribution that has since become a scandal. No e-mails written by the New Jersey governor have been released.
Walker, in contrast, appears deeply engaged by his staff’s most minute decision-making.
“I think that her statement should be short and to the point (something like this),” he wrote to staff members in April 2010, suggesting a quote to be released on behalf of state Sen. Alberta Darling (R).
Walker’s suggestion came as he and his aides discussed how to respond to a news conference by political opponents highlighting problems with the county’s troubled mental-health facility.
“ ‘This press conference is a political stunt that ignores the facts,’ ” began Walker’s suggested statement.
“Assuming we are in agreement, we need to find a personal email for someone on her staff to get this language (or read it to them over the phone),” Walker continued. “It should NOT be emailed to her official account.”
Less than an hour later, the e-mails show, Walker’s campaign spokeswoman released precisely the quote Walker had suggested. “Here is a statement from state senator Alberta Darling,” she wrote to reporters.
Darling did not respond to requests for comment.
Some of the e-mails were made public earlier as parts of other legal proceedings. The mass release last week came from the files of former Walker deputy chief of staff Kelly Rindfleisch, who is appealing a conviction for fundraising on behalf of a Walker-allied lieutenant governor candidate while being paid to do county business. An attorney for Rindfleisch did not respond to requests for comment.
The e-mails had been gathered as part of an investigation that resulted in convictions of six former Walker aides and allies. The governor was not charged, and the inquiry was closed last year.
Democrats hope the e-mails will damage Walker as he embarks on a reelection effort this year and contemplates stepping onto a bigger national stage.
A review of the thousands of pages revealed some fodder for his political enemies, particularly as Walker faces questions about whether he knew his publicly paid county staff was using private e-mail addresses and a separate Internet router to evade public-records requests or handle political business during work hours. Doing so is illegal in Wisconsin.
An analysis by the Democratic super PAC American Bridge found that Walker was copied on 960 e-mails sent to the private e-mail addresses of public employees during work hours.
The e-mails paint a more complicated picture than Walker’s Democratic critics would suggest.
He demonstrated a knack for decisive decision-making. And Walker, who comes across in public as wholesome and earnest, never showed a mean streak in the released e-mails. He was generally not sarcastic, nor did he crack jokes or criticize.
“There’s some dumb stuff in there. But Scott himself, he is basically exactly the guy you expect him to be,” said Charlie Sykes, a conservative radio host who has known Walker since the 1990s and engaged in regular e-mail correspondence with him.
“He doesn’t drop F bombs. You don’t find him lashing out at people,” Sykes added. “He’s very, very hands-on.”
The e-mails suggest that Walker, unlike many politicians who rely on underlings for political advice and strategy, is a tactician with a tight grip on his public image.
He frequently wrote his own quotes for distribution to the news media. He personally tipped off Sykes to news stories that could help his campaign or counter coverage in other outlets that could prove damaging.
In June 2010, he enlisted Sykes in a scheme to embarrass his Republican primary challenger by exposing how the challenger was filing public records requests that were eerily similar to those filed by his Democratic critics.
“It might be interesting for you to make an Open Records request to my office (firstname.lastname@example.org) for a copy of all of the requests made by various groups,” Walker e-mailed Sykes.
In an interview, Sykes said that he did not recall the request or what came of it but added that he didn’t find it unusual.
Walker tended to many aspects of his broader media strategy, as well.
He directed his staff members to release potentially damaging news tidbits late on Fridays or otherwise delay their responses — a common tactic by political offices to ensure less coverage.
But he also repeatedly overruled aides who wanted to ignore or rebuff reporters they considered unfriendly.
“Feed the beast,” Walker wrote to his staff in one such exchange in August 2010. “If I don’t talk, he’ll get it somewhere else.”
Walker, in his frequent e-mailing, never veered from his direct approach, even when his staff engaged in biting language to demean political opponents.
“I would furlough the hell out of them,” wrote Tom Nardelli, Walker’s chief of staff, in a May 2010 note about members of a county-worker union. Nardelli predicted that the union would never accept benefit concessions Walker proposed. “Find the most senior members and burn them a new one!”
Walker, who was copied on the e-mail, does not appear to have asked his staff members to tone down their talk. He later responded to the conversation involving the union: “We should not assume that they do not settle (or that we do not win).”
When controversy erupted, Walker demanded immediate action.
“I need that dr gone now. Today. Fired,” he wrote to staff members after the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an August 2010 article about a psychiatrist who had supervised a patient who became pregnant at a county-owned facility and then was given medication that was potentially harmful to her fetus.
“I want this done sooner rather than later (early this after noon would be better) and not past 5:00 pm today,” he wrote.
His staff scrambled to comply, ultimately suspending the doctor, who later retired after it was found that he also faced allegations that he had sex with a female patient.
In May 2010, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an interview with a Walker aide who worked for the county in which she acknowledged using her personal laptop to leave dozens of anonymous comments praising Walker on news articles posted online. Some were made during work hours.
The aide quickly resigned and later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for doing campaign tasks on county time. The incident prompted a strongly worded note from Walker to his staff — a note Democrats now cite to challenge Walker’s position that he had been unaware of the aide’s actions.
“No one can give them any reason to do another story,” he wrote to his deputy chief of staff the next morning. “That means no laptops, no websites, no time away during the work day, etc.”
Few controversies sparked as much angst in Walker’s office as the death of the teenager crushed by the concrete slab.
What the community considered a tragedy was discussed internally as a public relations headache.
“After yesterday, I am sooooo ready for gluttonfest,” Rindfleisch wrote to a friend, who had invited her over for a junk-food dinner. Walker was not copied on the exchange.
“Why, what happened yesterday besides the parking lot falling on some kid,” the friend responded.
“That was our structure,” Rindfleisch wrote back. “The headlines are going to be ‘Scott Walker kills 15 year old.’ ”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.