Eight years ago, Scott Walker was sworn in as Wisconsin’s 45th governor and declared: “Under our administration, state government will do only what is necessary — no more, no less.”
It turned out, he was underselling the conservative revolution that was about to begin.
Walker’s tenure was controversial and consequential, a dramatic break from Wisconsin’s traditions.
His years in office will echo across decades.
“Scott Walker did not sit back and let the world pass by him and watch the parade pass by,” said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a Rochester Republican. “He was the leader of the parade.”
But not everyone was cheering.
“Unfortunately, I truly feel like he decided to be a cookie-cutter Republican,” said U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat from rural Dane County who served with Walker in the Legislature in the 1990s. “Everything he did was to position himself for president and we all had to, unfortunately, endure that.”
Walker, 51, leaves office Monday and will be moving out of the governor’s mansion and to the Milwaukee area. In recent days he announced he had signed on with a speaker’s bureau and plans to travel the country promoting lowering taxes, shifting power from the federal government to the states and re-electing President Donald Trump.
A second political act? Don’t rule it out. Walker told The Associated Press on Friday he wouldn’t rule out running for governor or U.S. Senate in 2022.
Walker won three races for governor — two general elections and a recall.
He had a failed presidential bid in 2015, the 71-day campaign sapping his popularity back home.
A third-term was a political bridge too far, and in November he lost to state schools Superintendent Tony Evers, a Democrat.
And yet … the broad brush strokes of Walker’s years in office remain vivid.
From Act 10 to Foxconn
The state that first recognized collective bargaining for public workers in 1959 became the epicenter of a showdown with unions during Walker’s first weeks in office. Protests snarled the state Capitol and catapulted Walker to national prominence.
Walker and Republicans pushed through Act 10, which all but ended collective bargaining for most public sector workers.
Other anti-union measures would follow over the years. One made Wisconsin a “right-to-work” state that bars labor contracts requiring non-union workers to pay union fees. Another ended a requirement that contractors pay union-scale wages when they work on government construction projects.
Walker and Republicans enacted big tax cuts, expanded private school vouchers and froze tuition at University of Wisconsin campuses.
They passed laws on concealed carry for gun owners, voter identification at the polls, limits on abortion and work requirements for those receiving public benefits. They redrew legislative districts to help them win elections and hold their big majorities in the Legislature.
Walker came nowhere near his vow to create 250,000 jobs during his first term. However, during his eight years, unemployment plummeted as Wisconsin and the rest of the country bounced back from the Great Recession.
Walker never issued a pardon and never visited a prison as governor, even Lincoln Hills School for Boys, a youth facility wracked by lawsuits and a long-running criminal investigation into prisoner abuse and child neglect.
The proponent of small government, of letting the market determine the winners and losers of capitalism, used $4 billion in public subsidies to lure Taiwan’s Foxconn Technology Group to Wisconsin.
And the governor who used every lever of power while in office, ended his term by signing lame-duck legislation to crimp the power of his Democratic successor.
Looking back over a half-century of Wisconsin political history, Vos said, Walker and Republican Tommy Thompson stand out as governors who transformed the way government operates.
“And I think Governor Walker, as you look over the next 50 years, people will say that’s a guy who made a big difference in an eight-year term,” Vos said.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, a Juneau Republican, said there’s “no avoiding” the impact of Act 10 on those in the Capitol and across the state.
But there were other areas that stood out, he said, including Walker’s focus “on making sure the state was in (a) good financial position.
“He always tried to hold the line on property taxes,” Fitzgerald said. “Having a rainy day fund, eliminating the deficit, it’s the stuff that put the state in a good position that the rest of the states in the Midwest look at and envy right now. He was driven by that. He wanted to make sure the state was in a good place fiscally. And it is.”
When he first took office, Walker vowed Wisconsin was open for business, a phrase he would repeat constantly during his tenure. Evers, who served with Walker and established a good working partnership, had a grudging respect for the governor’s focus on business.
“Certainly he has helped Wisconsin’s business climate and I think that’s an important part of his legacy,” Evers said. “You know, there’s a flip side to that. Making the state more business-friendly also creates problems with the environment and other issues, so I’ll be seeking more balance.”
But he said Walker divided the state, too.
“There’s no question he did not bring the state together,” Evers said. “He started his job pitting people against each other and he did right up to the end when he signed that (lame-duck) legislation. So I think that’s part of his legacy, not a positive part of it.”
Mahlon Mitchell, the state firefighters union president who ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic primary for governor, said Walker’s legacy “will be remembered as one of division and deceit, all because of political ambition.”
Rep. David Bowen, a Milwaukee Democrat, said Walker didn’t pay enough attention to Milwaukee County — a community Walker once led as county executive.
“His divide and conquer mentality was effective to the point where he made us seem like we were an island, that we weren’t truly a part of the state of Wisconsin,” Bowen said. “He was very much opposed to Milwaukee growth and sustainability.”
Bowen said Walker didn’t do enough to improve African-American graduation rates or reduce the state’s prison population, saying he “over-incarcerated the entire state.”
Another Milwaukee Democrat, Rep. David Crowley, said Walker portrayed Milwaukee as a problem without addressing its underlying needs.
“Us continuing to be the No. 1 worst place to raise a black child and continuing to be leading No. 1 and No. 2 in many staggering statistics that negatively impact people of color — Walker has not done anything (on that),” he said.
Walker and his backers disagree, arguing Walker worked hard to help the state’s largest city. His administration gave tax incentives to Komatsu Mining Corp. for a corporate campus that will help redevelop the city’s Harbor District. And Walker put together a bipartisan deal to provide public funding for a new Milwaukee Bucks arena in downtown Milwaukee.
One divide has been evident in the state for years: the rural-urban split. It was most recently studied by Katherine J. Cramer, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist and author of “The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.”
“There have always been tensions between rural Wisconsin and Madison and Milwaukee,” she said. “What changed is now those tensions are on the surface and very obvious to people. I think Governor Walker, depending on where you stand, he either exacerbated that divide or he drew attention to some of the injustices a lot of people have been feeling for a while in rural Wisconsin.”
Cramer said one of the big things that happened under Walker “is a shift in how we as Wisconsinites think about government.”
“Some people may say that’s gradual or has been coming for a long time,” she said. “His administration marks a change between Wisconsin as a place that thought of itself as a clean government, open government state.”
Cramer said Wisconsin was “a state in which people were proud to be a modest state with above average public institutions to now a place where that is not necessarily what we can claim anymore.”
Instead, she said, Walker “tried to focus on being open to business and using market mechanisms to achieve our ends. He’s not necessarily the first governor to make some of those shifts but was open about it.”
Noah Williams, director of the Center for Research on the Wisconsin Economy, said that overall, “the economic record under Walker is very strong.”
On policy, Williams said, the Walker administration’s manufacturing and agriculture tax credit helped the economy, along with “holding the line on taxes and regulations.” The tax credit effectively eliminated income taxes for manufacturers and farmers.
State Sen. Alberta Darling, a River Hills Republican and co-chairwoman of the powerful Joint Finance Committee, said the reforms instituted under Walker were necessary to move the state forward economically.
As bitter as the fight over Act 10 was, Darling said it ultimately saved teaching jobs by allowing local school boards to save money.
SPECIAL REPORT: Act 10 at Five
Throughout that fight and others, Darling said Walker would “always come back to the comment, it’s the right thing to do.”
“And I think he really believed he was there as a servant,” she said. “He really had a mission. He was driven by values and would always come back to, it’s the right thing to do. Some saw that as strident. I saw that as being mission-driven.”
Asked if Walker left any unfinished business, Darling said, it was “to go further, to make sure we reduce the tax burden on individuals so people could have more of their own money and thrive.”
“We are on the right track. We have to do much more or we won’t stay there,” she said.
Pocan saw the Walker years in a different way.
“He kind of took the office in a way that was more about Scott Walker than the people of Wisconsin,” Pocan said. “I think, ultimately, it showed. He never had huge amounts of support. I don’t think he’s leaving and people are saying, ‘we’re going to miss that Scott Walker.’ You hear that about Tommy Thompson but you don’t hear that about Scott Walker.”
Asked if Walker was a historic governor, Pocan called him “historically insignificant,” adding that he didn’t introduce any big ideas.
“What he did was very significant around damaging workers and unions but his governorship overall as a positive will go down as a big nothing,” Pocan said.
As the Walker era closes, Vos sees the governor’s critics and supporters agreeing on at least one thing.
“I just look at this and think to myself, there’s a lot of people who are going to be happy that Scott Walker is leaving because he was too darn effective,” Vos said. “And there are a lot of people who are sad he’s leaving because he was too effective. Whether you like him or not there seems to be a common thread: He was able to get a lot done in an eight-year tenure.”
Journal Sentinel reporter Molly Beck contributed to this article.
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