With a June recall election all but certain, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker says the debate is no longer just about collective-bargaining rights for state workers. Union leaders and others, he said, have made it personal.
“They want me dead. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration,” Mr. Walker said in an exclusive interview with The Washington Times after a roundtable discussion Thursday at the American Enterprise Institute.
His opponents have until Jan. 15 to collect about 540,000 signatures and trigger another election, which would surely center around Mr. Walker’s successful but controversial efforts to strip many collective-bargaining rights from teachers and other government employees in his state, all in an effort to close budget gaps and put Wisconsin back on firm financial footing.
Mr. Walker said he expects the drive to be successful and is preparing for the possibility that, for the second time in less than two years, he’ll be back on the ballot.
The recall initiative already has claimed several victims. In August, Democrats captured two seats in the state Senate, but fell short of recapturing the majority, which would have allowed them to block further changes sought by Mr. Walker and his Republican colleagues in the Legislature.
Central to the union strategy has been a successful public relations barrage that portrayed Mr. Walker as the leader of a right-wing, union-breaking movement that organized labor and its Democratic allies feared could spread across the country.
This time, however, Mr. Walker and his supporters hope to be better prepared.
Shortly after his inauguration in January 2011, union members from across the country descended on Madison and mounted an unprecedented public attack on Mr. Walker and his policies. At its height, the demonstrations drew nearly 100,000 people. Residents were bombarded with television, radio and print ads, funded with union money. Liberal commentators, such as MSNBC’s Ed Schultz, made the Wisconsin Statehouse their temporary home. Death threats reportedly were made against Mr. Walker and other Republicans.
The first-term governor and former county executive now acknowledges that he was, to some degree, unprepared for the onslaught, which galvanized Democrats ahead of the first recall election.
“Had I known what we were expecting, I would’ve run ads. I would’ve had a very concentrated campaign on TV, radio and direct mail, Op-Eds in the papers, making the case,” Mr. Walker said, adding that while some of the Madison protesters were from Wisconsin, many others were dispatched from hundreds or even thousands of miles away.
“This stuff is fueled by national money,” he said. “We could see the Teamsters coming in from New Jersey, the AFL-CIO from Chicago. You could see all of the people being bused in. This really became a national issue. We didn’t seek it to be, but it has become that.”
Amid the turmoil, Mr. Walker has evolved from a first-term governor, unknown to most people outside Wisconsin, to fiscal hero, viewed by many conservatives as a trailblazer and the chief architect of a successful blueprint for how to turn around a financially failing state.
Tapping his network of conservative supporters, to both raise money and act as surrogates on the campaign trail, will be vital in the months to come.
But his reliance on that support has a downside — it prohibits him from endorsing a candidate in the GOP presidential primary.
“I have unbelievable support among Republicans. For me, I can’t afford to jeopardize any of that base by picking one [candidate for president] and having everybody else’s supporters be miffed about it,” he said.
The governor’s prospects for re-election likely will be complicated by an ongoing investigation into allegations of corruption among county workers during Mr. Walker’s time as the Milwaukee County executive.
The Associated Press reported Wednesday that two people, including a close aide to Mr. Walker when he served as county executive, were arrested on felony theft charges Thursday.
Kevin Kavanaugh, Mr. Walker’s appointee to the Milwaukee County Veteran Service Commission, was charged with one felony embezzlement charge of taking more than $10,000 from a business and four felony counts of fraudulent writings by a corporate officer.
The arrests were made more than a year and a half after a secret investigation into people who worked in the county when Mr. Walker served as executive began in May 2010.