Ever since Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker grabbed the political world’s attention on June 5, 2012, by becoming the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall election, he has been on a roll.
In his 3½ years as governor, he has managed to get taxes and unemployment rates down, reverse the jobs-killing out-migration of businesses and turn a $3.5 billion inherited budget deficit into a nearly $1 billion surplus.
Sometimes in his half-blue, half-red state, it has looked more like a roller-coaster ride for the outwardly mild-mannered but quietly stubborn Republican. He says with pride that he refused to be intimidated by one of the most muscular, all-out efforts by national labor and public employees unions to unseat an elected official in years.
The year before Mr. Walker was sworn in as governor, the state struggled with a crushing unemployment rate of 9.2 percent, about the same as the nation as a whole. Now, the state boasts an unemployment rate of 5.7 percent, a bit below the 6.1 percent national rate and the lowest for the state since 2008.
“Personal income grew 4.4 percent over the year — faster than the U.S.,” he said in his State of the State address this year, adding that, according to the latest figures, “Wisconsin ranked as the fourth-best state in the country for personal-income growth.”
In his battle with public-sector unions, Mr. Walker, 46, has become a hero for many taxpayers in his own state and for other governors facing similarly mountainous problems with unsustainable retirement and health care benefits for their state workforces. For them, the onetime county executive of Milwaukee County has shown the determination to reform government in ways that make Milton Friedman acolytes applaud and drive Paul Krugman apostles into liberal apoplexy.
To most Democrats, he is simply a union-busting tool of business.
For all of Wisconsin’s reputation as a bastion of left-liberalism, Republicans occupy the governorship, are a majority in the state Senate and House, hold one of the two U.S. Senate seats and five of the state’s eight seats in the House.
Yet Mr. Walker is in a tight re-election contest. The latest Marquette University Law School poll has the incumbent in a dead heat with Madison School Board member Mary Burke, whose family owns and runs the famous Waterloo-based Trek Bicycle Corp. Mr. Walker has condemned Trek for buying bicycle parts abroad — an understandable political tactic by the Republican, but one that would not have drawn a smile of approval from Mr. Friedman, the late iconic economist for many American conservatives and a champion of free trade.
What Mr. Walker is banking on is that voters ranging from the center to the right on Wisconsin’s political continuum will remember that he stood up to the powerful unions in the face of rising tax burdens and the prospect of eventual insolvency as retirement and health care costs rose faster than state income. He continues to cut taxes and government spending while achieving an economic growth rate that many other governors would love to be able to claim in their states.
One reason he was able to do that is that, as he said, he “signed a bill that requires public workers to contribute 5.8 percent of their salaries to their pensions — that’s up from zero for most of them — and to pay 12.6 percent of their health insurance premiums, up from 6 percent.”
He can be expected on the campaign trail to take credit for achieving agenda items that have eluded conservatives for years, such as ending collective bargaining for “everything except base wages, ending compulsory union membership, and stopping the forced collection of union dues.”
For many conservatives and independents, his most commendable act as governor was what he described as “freeing school districts from the stranglehold of collective-bargaining rules,” allowing them to buy health insurance on the open market and to hire and fire teachers based on merit, not tenure. Most of all, Mr. Walker can be expected to lay what economists say is legitimate claim to having strengthened Wisconsin’s pension system, which is the “only one in the country that is fully funded.”