Scott Walker: Unbending (and unexcitable)

Unbending (and unexcitable)

Even polite politicians can polarize, and Scott Walker has made lack of compromise his calling card

Published on July 14, 2015

He tells the story without a dose of excitement or flash of charisma. Scott Walker is standing on the stage of a Denver convention center, shirt sleeves rolled up, microphone cradled in both hands. Before him is an eager audience of more than 4,000 Republican activists at the Western Conservative Summit.

Above: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) in June at Sen. Joni Ernst's Roast and Ride fundraiser in Des Moines. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Above: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) in June at Sen. Joni Ernst's Roast and Ride fundraiser in Des Moines. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Make or Break: Presidential candidates are a breed apart, often propelled by traits that have shaped their careers and have deep roots in their personal histories. In this occasional series, The Washington Post is exploring key characteristics of the leading contenders that could help make one of them the country’s next commander in chief -- or sink their presidential ambitions.

Also in this series:
Ted Cruz: Principled or know-it-all?
Rand Paul: Heir to a 'libertarianish' revolution
Marco Rubio: A man in a hurry
Mike Huckabee: Is this folksy showman willing to get meaner?
Rick Perry: Can he close the deal?
Hillary Clinton: She won't back down. Or go away.
Jeb Bush: A clan of ferocious competitors returns to the fray
Chris Christie: The human opera takes the stage

In a slightly nasal, Midwestern monotone, the Wisconsin governor talks about the furor he created. He describes how 100,000 protesters descended on the State Capitol to denounce his plan to curtail collective bargaining for public employees. And he shares, in the least fiery way possible, how he forged ahead with other polarizing policies, overcoming a precipitous slide in the polls and a fevered recall effort that inspired headlines asking whether he had become “Dead Man Walker.”

The bruising fights once threatened his political career. But he survived a recall campaign and was reelected after that. By prevailing, Walker transformed his battles into his calling card. He says one supporter summed up his appeal in a tweet: “I like Walker because he wins without caving.”

At 47, Walker’s polite unwillingness to bend, his placid determination to stand his ground at all cost, both animates and complicates his presidential candidacy. Partisans love hearing about how he decimated Wisconsin unions, cut taxes, defunded Planned Parenthood and required photo identification at the voting booth - all while calmly staring down political opponents. It has helped catapult him to the first rank of Republican presidential hopefuls.

The question is whether voters will see his style as evidence of clear vision or the mark of a man unwilling to compromise. And how far can he go without backing down as he enters an arena where the issues are more complex and the politics more treacherous?

Already, there are cracks. Speaking to farmers in Iowa earlier this year, he endorsed the federal ethanol mandate, a reversal of his previous position. Years ago, as Milwaukee County executive, he supported a plan that would create a path to legal status for the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. He said in March, “My view has changed.”

But Walker is betting that voters want an unwavering, unflappable leader who knows exactly where he want to go and won’t stop until he gets there. He tells audiences he refused to back off on making change in Wisconsin even in the face of death threats, including against his wife, Tonette, and their children.

“It is a myth that winning the center requires moving to the center,” he wrote in his autobiography. “The path to a conservative comeback lies not in abandoning our principles but in championing bold, conservative reforms and having the courage to see them through.”

In 2011, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) appears before the House Oversight Committee in Washington as members of the group Code Pink protest his push to curtail collective bargaining for public employees in his state. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Protesters pack the State Capitol in Madison, Wis., in February 2011. (Andy Manis/AP)
Gov. Walker speaks at the State Capitol in January 2011 at his first inauguration. (Morry Gash/AP)

Pleasant. That’s even how Walker’s bitterest political foes describe him.

In the heat of the state’s showdown with its union four years ago, Rep. Peter Barca, the Wisconsin State Assembly’s top Democrat, publicly denounced the governor at protests across the state. “You know, Governor Walker, you have defiled our heritage,” Barca said at one rally. “You have disregarded our values.”

But Walker, who declined to be interviewed for this article, never took it personally. “I’d give a speech in front of 50,000 protesters saying, ‘Walker’s got to go,’ “ Barca says, “and you’d see him the next day and you’d think I just sent him a coffeecake or something.”

Barca is part of a small group of leaders who meet regularly with Walker during the legislative session, but Barca said those gatherings are almost never satisfying. “Generally, when you meet with him on the major issues, you don’t feel like it’s a dialogue,” he says. “We get along just fine. He is sort of chitchatty. He exchanges pleasantries, makes some jokes. But you just feel like that on the big issues he is just there to tell you, ‘Here’s what I am going to do.’”

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks in March at a high school in Concord, N.H. For this series, Washington Post photojournalists used a phone app with filters to capture the candidates as potential voters might. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The roots of his immovability may lie in what he calls being a “P.K.” - a preacher’s kid.

In the tiny farming community of Plainfield, Iowa, where Walker moved when was 2, his father, Llewellyn Walker, was pastor at First Baptist Church and served on the city council. His mother, Patricia, was head of the Sunday school. The family, which would soon include Walker’s younger brother, David, lived in a parsonage next door to the church.

Walker credits his no-frills upbringing and parents’ example for imbuing a deep religious belief and a clear moral vision that has guided him for as long as he can remember.

He relied on that resolve, he says in his 2014 book, “Unintimidated,” even as tens of thousands of protesters marched on his office in Madison and, at times, outside his home in Wauwatosa.

“It wasn’t always easy,” he writes. “What gave me the inner strength to go on was my faith.”

Make or Break:  Presidential candidates are a breed apart, often propelled by traits that have shaped their careers and have deep roots in their personal histories. In this occasional series, The Washington Post is exploring key characteristics of the leading contenders that could help make one of them the country’s next commander in chief -- or sink their presidential ambitions.

Also in this series:
Ted Cruz: Principled or know-it-all?
Rand Paul: Heir to a 'libertarianish' revolution
Marco Rubio: A man in a hurry
Mike Huckabee: Is this folksy showman willing to get meaner?
Rick Perry: Can he close the deal?
Hillary Clinton: She won't back down. Or go away.
Jeb Bush: A clan of ferocious competitors returns to the fray

Classmates, teachers and friends say Walker has always been earnest, the kind of guy people used to call a “straight arrow.”

As a young boy, he founded a “Jesus USA” club. He was so concerned that Plainfield’s city hall did not have a state flag that he grabbed an old container, punched a hole in it, and started collecting donations. Before long, he had enough money to buy a flag that he presented to the city.

“Scott has a very strong sense of right and wrong,” says Stephen Satran, who was in an antiabortion group with Walker in college.

In 1977, his family moved to Delavan, Wis., an agricultural town about an hour’s drive southwest of Milwaukee. There, he was active in just about everything. He whittled down model wooden cars to compete in the Cub Scouts’ Pinewood Derby. On Sundays, he stood next to his parents greeting parishioners at First Baptist Church. As he got older, he would at times step to the pulpit and deliver sermons himself.

“It was a biblically based church, but not fire and brimstone,” says Chris Stebnitz, who attended First Baptist. “The sermons were very conversational. They always had a tie-in to the Bible and how these teachings relate to everyday life.”

Walker was focused and busy as a teenager. Yearbooks from his days at Delavan-Darien High School are filled with pictures of Walker in his numerous and varied roles: on the track, cross-country, basketball and football teams; playing percussion in the pep and symphonic bands; as a member of the foreign-language club; and performing the “Stray Cat Strut” with the Swing Choir. The book from his senior year features a photo of Walker with his black hair grazing his shoulders. The caption reads, “Scott K. Walker - the Desperado”- even if the wildest thing friends remember him doing back then was painting his bedroom deep red, with a black-and-white checkerboard ceiling.

“He was very responsible for his age,” says Russell Draeger, Walker’s high school principal. “. . . He came from a great family. His mother would bring cookies to sporting events, and she would cut out newspaper photos of high school athletes and send notes congratulating kids for their achievements.”

He became an Eagle Scout after completing a project that used old telephone poles to shore up a steep slope behind his father’s church. He also worked part-time jobs washing dishes at a local restaurant and later flipping burgers at McDonald’s.

But the unyielding determination that has come to define Walker as governor was not evident the first time he ventured to the nation’s capital in 1985 to attend Boys Nation, the mock-government program run by the American Legion. In those days, Walker stood out as someone adept at forging compromise.

“The dichotomy is he is no longer the person I knew then. He was an intelligent, compassionate young man who seemed to care about solving problems and bringing people together,” says Scott Adrian, who as a youth counselor recommended Walker for Boys Nation and now works as a Democratic staffer in the Wisconsin legislature. “Time sure changes a lot of things.”

Scott Walker when he was a member of the Delavan-Darien High School marching band and with his parents, Llewellyn and Patricia, at home on his graduation day in 1986. (Photos courtesy of the Scott Walker campaign via Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)

Walker returned from Boys Nation with a new sense of purpose. Seeing the capital’s monuments and being able to confer with the nation's youth leaders in Washington was mesmerizing. “As someone who loved history, that just blew me away,” Walker said in a 2014 American Legion video.

At Marquette University, a Jesuit school in the heart of Milwaukee, Walker dove into student politics with much more enthusiasm than he hit the books. He helped lead a campus antiabortion group and won a seat on the student Senate, heading an investigation that ended up with student leaders resigning for charging a lavish dinner to organizational accounts.

As a sophomore, he ran for student government president. Walker, who was known to wear suits to class, cited the job he did with the student Senate investigation, as well as his status as an Eagle Scout and his opposition to abortion. The campaign turned bitter, with charges and countercharges about election violations by both sides, and Walker lost.

For some young men, a defeat might have ended any political aspirations. But not for Walker.

“It’s funny - his friends were the ones losing their minds about the election,” says Satran, who supported his candidacy. “He was not upset. It was almost weird. He accepted it as God’s will.”

Scott Walker addresses supporters during a dinner in Washington in June. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Walker left Marquette without graduating, and soon after he made his first attempt at public office. He ran for an Assembly seat against Democratic incumbent Gwen Moore, now a member of Congress. He pushed an anti-crime message and papered the district with handouts. The odds were stacked against him in the heavily Democratic district, and he was trounced.

Again, the defeat did little to curb Walker’s political ambitions. He volunteered in the campaigns of other Republican candidates and kept an eye peeled for future possibilities.

Soon Walker moved to Wauwatosa, the close-in Milwaukee suburb that he still calls home. He ran again for an Assembly seat, and he won.

Democrat Sheldon Wasserman, a Milwaukee doctor and former member of the State Assembly, says that, at first, Walker was a typical backbencher in all ways but one: He would not budge on the issues.

At one point, Republican leaders wanted to raise the state gasoline tax to cover the cost of a new road construction. Walker had joined a group of Republicans who opposed the legislation, causing the leadership to turn up the heat.

“They started working him over,” Wasserman recalls. “Leaders were coming over telling him: ‘You are part of the team. You have to do this.’ Some were yelling at him. Scott just sat there like a stone, with a little smile on his face. He never got upset. He just shook his head no, no, no. He was not going to change.”

By the time Walker decided to run for Milwaukee County executive, his unbending political style was in full effect. In 2002, he saw an opening in the heavily Democratic county because of a pension scandal that prompted the incumbent to resign. Walker ran as fiscally conservative reformer. Although he was by then the father of two sons, he promised to return nearly half his salary as county executive. He won.

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Finally, he had a chance to put his ideas into action. He moved to privatize services, cut social service programs and reduce taxes. He pushed to lay off unionized county workers, although often the unions blunted his efforts.

Members of the county’s Board of Supervisors, which was controlled by Democrats, recall an annual budget ritual in which Walker would propose a series of tax cuts and offer a series of spending reductions. The board would undo many of the changes. Walker would then veto the budget, and the board would override his veto.

“We overrode more than 80 percent of his vetoes,” says Michael Mayo (D), a county supervisor. “He is a nice person, very pleasant. But he was determined.”

Early in his tenure, Walker moved to eliminate some bus routes in the district of Supervisor John F. Weishan, a Democrat. Concerned, Weishan met with Walker to propose a more palatable alternative. He says Walker listened carefully and promised to think about rescinding the changes. Later that morning, Weishan was stunned when Walker’s office released a statement saying the routes would be cut.

“With him, it was total warfare on everything,” Weishan says.

Despite the pitched battles, Walker was reelected twice, and he took credit for reducing the county workforce by 20 percent. And in 2010, his uncompromising posture helped him win election as Wisconsin’s governor.

Even when he encounters resistance in his family, he does not back down. He blasted the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage last month as a “grave mistake,” despite the wishes of his two sons, who support gay marriage as well as their father’s candidacy.

Now Walker is running for president with his trademark brand of bland but unshakable certainty.

“The closer you get to being at the point of running,” he tells a Washington Post reporter in Wisconsin when she asks what’s fueling him, “the more you realize you have got to be crazy to want to be president of the United States. The only reason you should do it is you feel called.”

Walker invokes all that he and his family have endured the past four years: the union protests, the death threats, the bitter recall, the tough reelection campaign.

“If we made it through all that,” he says, “maybe it’s a little bit of God’s providence to say . . . this is what we are supposed to do.”

Read more about Scott Walker:

Tonette Walker, toughened by life, adds steel to her husband's spine

Questions linger over Walker's exit from college

Mary Jordan contributed to this report.

Walker greets people after a March appearance in Concord, N.H. This week, Walker made his bid for the Republican presidential nomination official. (Matt McClain/ The Washington Post)