Wisconsin's Union Battler Walker Is Republican Star

Wednesday, 06 Jun 2012 05:46 AM

 

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Wisconsin's Scott Walker, derided by Democrats as "The Rock Star of the Right", emerged from a bruising fight for his political life on Tuesday as a rising Republican star, and analysts said he could one day be a candidate for U.S. national office.

The Republican sailed to victory over Democrat Tom Barrett in a state recall vote, ending a 15-month battle over Walker's efforts to eliminate most collective-bargaining rights for Wisconsin's public-sector unions.

Targeted by organized labor and Democrats for recall, the embattled first-term governor had hit the road to ask for help and raised about $30 million for the campaign.

"With the financial support he has, he's certainly in a position to go beyond Wisconsin in four years' time," said Kent Redfield, a political analyst at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

Walker, 44, traveled around the nation making speeches that often drew protesters, and he raised about 60 percent of his campaign funds from out of state. He got hefty contributions from conservative donors such as Walmart heiress Christy Walton and industrialists David and Charles Koch.

His victory was the latest twist in career that began at age 22, when he lost a race to represent one of Milwaukee's poorest neighborhoods.

The son of a Baptist pastor, Walker was born in Colorado and raised in Iowa until the third grade when his family moved to Delavan, a small town in southern Wisconsin.

He reached voting age during President Ronald Reagan's second term and enrolled in Marquette University in Milwaukee, where he came to the attention of Scott Jensen, who was then chief of staff to former Wisconsin Republican Governor Tommy Thompson.

"He was a young guy, fired up - a Reagan baby in every way: philosophy, style, understanding of the importance of communication, the determination to stick to principle, the affable and personal nature," Jensen told Reuters.

Walker won the first of five terms in the state legislature representing Wauwatosa outside Milwaukee, where he still lives. He became the Republican spokesman on crime in Wisconsin, successfully eliminating reduced prison sentences for good behavior of inmates.

In 2002, he won a special election to be the top official in solidly Democratic Milwaukee County, which was mired in a pension scandal. There he began battles with labor unions.

"Nine years of frustration as the Milwaukee County Executive convinced him that if he was going to bring true reform to Wisconsin and be able to make government efficient, make it smarter and smaller, that he had to overcome extraordinary work rules and practices that are built into the collective-bargaining agreements," Jensen said.

In an interview with Reuters last year in the middle of his fight with public employees, Walker said as county executive he made several offers to cut costs without resorting to layoffs.

"And each of those times, the public employee unions in the county, emboldened by collective-bargaining contracts, said, 'No. We're not going to do it. Go ahead and lay 400 or 500 people off'. And that very much shaped my beliefs," he said.

In 2010, Walker ran for governor and won by nearly 6 percentage points. Walker won the recall vote by 7 points despite fierce opposition from critics for months.

Walker's bulldozing approach to cutting state budgets has made him what recall vote opponent Barrett derisively called the "Rock Star of the Right".

His confrontational approach with unions and Democrats in his state may make him too risky to tap as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's vice presidential running mate.

"He's much too polarizing right now to be a vice presidential candidate," Redfield said.

© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

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