WAUWATOSA, Wis. — Tonette Tarantino’s year of sorrow came when she was only 30. First she lost the grandmother who helped raise her, like a second mother. Weeks later her brother, her only sibling, died of bone cancer. Then her husband died of kidney failure.
Now, as Tonette Walker, the wife of Wisconsin governor and GOP presidential hopeful Scott Walker, looks back, she says those brutal 12 months in the mid-1980s prepared her for her life ahead — and most especially for the rough ride of politics.
“My mom was tough. She didn’t give you a break,” Tonette Walker said in an interview at the Camp Bar, a neighborhood hangout here. “Days after my first husband died, my mom said, ‘Get up, get moving, you are not going to wallow in this. You’re going to be great, you are going to be fine. Life is going to go on.’ ”
Tonette, who at 59 is a dozen years older than her husband and comes from a pro-union Democratic family, is part of a 2016 class of political spouses who are more visible and unusual than ever.
Former president Bill Clinton would, of course, be the nation’s first gentleman if Hillary Rodham Clinton, who began her career in public life as political spouse, wins the presidency. The group also includes Columba Bush, Jeb Bush’s Mexican-born wife, who could be America’s first Latina first lady, and the wives of Chris Christie and Ted Cruz, who have had high-powered careers of their own.
With her short brunette cut and bangs, and an infectious laugh, Tonette Walker is, as Brad Yates, the general manager of the bar, describes her, “a bit of a spitfire. She has a bubble to her.”
On the campaign trail, Walker constantly mentions Tonette, whom he married in 1993, often calling her “my rock.” And although Walker is a famously combative politician who wrote a book about himself called “Unintimidated,” his wife, in many ways, adds steel to his spine.
Walker has had a tumultuous time as governor, especially over his high-stakes showdowns with public workers unions that made him a hero to conservatives and a pariah to liberals. The governor who touts smaller government is now in a fevered battle over the state budget, and his proposed cuts to public education have led friends and neighbors to complain to Tonette.
“People ask me, ‘Is your wife tough enough to handle this?’ ” said Walker, who plans to formally announce for president July 13. “She is certainly not fragile,” he said, describing all she has been through, including caring for her mother when she was dying of a brain tumor, and, more recently, her father, who died of lung disease.
“Politics is nothing compared to that,” he said.
During the interview in this city of 46,000 people west of Milwaukee, Tonette Walker’s husband popped in and out, threading his way back and forth amid the trophy deer hanging on the bar walls to the crowds outside cheering on a bike race called “Tour of America’s Dairyland.”
The Walkers live primarily in the governor’s residence in Madison, but this pretty town is where they say they feel most at home, where they have a modest white house on a busy street, and where their two sons went to high school.
But even here, the roughness of politics intrudes: During Walker’s 2012 recall election, angry protesters swarmed around their home. Death threats were sent not just to Walker but to Tonette, including one vowing to “gut her like a deer.”
“Scott signed up for this,” but his whole family is dragged through it, said Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, who endured the recall alongside the Walkers and calls it a “scary time.” She says there is growing interest in the man or woman beside the candidate, perhaps, she said, because in this “reality TV” era “we want to know what happens behind the scenes.”
“She is not a political junkie who gets up in the morning and reads RedState, Drudge, Politico or The Washington Post,” Kleefisch said about Tonette. She gives her husband “the perspective of the smart, average voter . . . she is the ‘first listener.’ ”
“Do I agree with him all the time? No,” said Tonette. “But most of the time things work out a lot better than I think they will.”
A particularly tough day for the family came a little more than a week ago, when the Supreme Court issued its ruling in favor of same-sex marriage. Scott Walker, a favorite of Republican conservatives and the son of a Baptist preacher, issued a statement calling it a “grave mistake” and supporting a constitutional amendment to allow states to determine who can marry.
In the political world, Walker drew immediate scrutiny for being particularly strident. In their house, Tonette Walker heard immediately about her husband’s response from the couple’s two sons, Matt and Alex, who are taking time off from college to help their father’s campaign. She told them to talk directly to him.
“That was a hard one,” Tonette said, pausing and choosing her words carefully. “Our sons were disappointed. . . . I was torn. I have children who are very passionate [in favor of same-sex marriage], and Scott was on his side very passionate.”
“It’s hard for me because I have a cousin who I love dearly — she is like a sister to me — who is married to a woman, her partner of 18 years,” she said.
She said her son Alex was her cousin’s best man at their wedding last year.
The couple, Shelli Marquardt and Cathy Priem, have vacationed and hosted parties with the Walkers, according to friends.
The day after the Supreme Court ruling, Tonette flew with her husband to Colorado, where he addressed a group of 4,000 conservatives and met with donors. It was widely noted that, despite a perfectly receptive audience, Walker did not repeat his sharp criticism of the Supreme Court decision.
Instead, Walker spoke more vaguely and was quoted as saying, “We should respect the opinions of others in America. But that in return means that they not only respect our opinions, they respect what is written in the Constitution.”
Asked at the Camp Bar what effect it has when his family disagrees with him, Walker said, “It doesn’t mean I change my position,” but it may lead to “finding a different way of explaining it, so they can appreciate where I am coming from.”
He said that during the protests over his move to end collective bargaining for many public-sector unions, Tonette was a huge help. He said he knew how costly it was to taxpayers and how it could help close the gaping state deficit but he hadn’t explained that well enough, even to his wife. He made a better public case, he said, after Tonette asked him one night: “ ‘Why are you doing this? Why is this causing so much havoc?’ ”
Tonette Walker grew up in a working-class neighborhood on the east side of Milwaukee. Her father’s family came from Sicily and her dad, Tony Tarantino, held a string of jobs, including owning beauty shops. It was her father who came up with “Tonette,” naming his baby after a favorite home permanent kit.
“It’s horrible growing up with that name. I was made fun of. Nobody could ever pronounce it,” she said. When her husband started to become well known, she started getting “nice notes from people saying they knew that ‘tonette’ was a musical instrument from France, that they had researched it . . . I would write back and say, ‘Sorry, it’s really about a home permanent.’ ”
After she graduated from an all-girls Catholic high school, she took a job at an insurance company, where for years she processed claims.
“My family didn’t know anything about college. They were both union workers and poor. It wasn’t even on their radar that you went to college.”
Tonette was married at 23 and widowed at 30, supporting her sick husband at the end. Then six years later, in April 1992, she and a friend went to karaoke night at Saz’s, a Milwaukee bar known for its barbecue.
There, as she chuckled at the amateur singers, she spotted a young man looking at her, and they kept locking eyes.
Scott Walker, then only 24, scribbled a note on a napkin and handed it to Tonette as he walked out, without saying a word.
“Forgive me for being rude. I have to go to get up early for work,” he wrote. “If you want to have dinner, please call,” he said, as the two recounted their first meeting laughing as they quibbled over how many days it took her to phone him. (She says a week; he says two days.)
Despite their differences — she was a Catholic Democrat, he was the son of a Republican Baptist preacher — they hit it off immediately. But she said her parents were concerned about the age difference.
“But he had an answer for everything — that’s Scott Walker,” she said. “I said, ‘I want kids,’ and he said, ‘Okay.’ I said, ‘I want kids now,’ and he said, ‘Okay.’ ”
She said she looks back now and thinks that if her son Matt at 24 brought home a 36-year-old woman, “I would say, ‘Really, Matthew?’ ”
But just months after they met, when the couple went back to Saz’s, Walker pushed another napkin-note toward her. This one was a marriage proposal, and she said yes. And on their wedding day in February 1993, they returned to Saz’s again, stopping in their wedding attire for a drink before the reception.
Their wedding day was also, coincidentally, Ronald Reagan’s birthday, so every year they have a Gipper-themed anniversary party with jelly beans and macaroni and cheese.
Four months after the wedding, Scott Walker was elected to the state assembly, where he served until 2002. He then became Milwaukee County executive and in 2010 was first elected governor.
“The first time I had to introduce him, I had a 3-by-5 card and my hands were shaking,” she recalled. “You grow into the job.”
Jim Villa, Walker’s chief of staff when he was county executive, said Tonette was the one in the car after a speech asking him, “ ‘Have you thought about this?’ She isn’t just in the background. He values her input.”
On one of the “Walk with Walker” outings Tonette holds to promote fitness and beautiful spots in the state, a few dozen protesters showed up. Candee Arndt, one of her close friends, said Tonette invited them along to talk and was a “great advocate” for her husband.
Much of the charity work she does is related to her own experience, including a gala she runs for the Lung Association. Her father carted an oxygen tank to campaign events before dying of lung disease. She works with Teen Challenge, a faith-based rehabilitation program for young people with substance-abuse problems, and has talked there of her mother’s struggle with alcohol.
“I love being part of the excitement of the campaign,” she said, sitting at a patio table in a white denim jacket. Then she started laughing, and said sometimes she thinks girls from her high school must see her on the news and “be laughing like crazy that it’s me. You? Tonette Tarantino?”
As a state trooper came to tell the Walkers their car was waiting, the governor said that not much gets his wife down: “She’s tough.”
He mentions, too, that she has Type 1 diabetes and an insulin pump.
“It’s fine. It’s fine,” she says, waving off talk of that, preferring to chat about the Rolling Stones concert she attended in Milwaukee — 11th row! Then she was off with someone in the bar following her to ask if she wouldn’t mind posing for a picture.