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Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is loved and hated

The son of a preacher and perpetual optimist has received thousands of e-mails supporting his union proposals. But protesters at the state Capitol are comparing him to Adolf Hitler and Darth Vader.

February 19, 2011|By Katherine Skiba, Washington Bureau
  • Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has stirred anger with proposals that would strip most of the state's public-sector workers of their union rights and pare their benefits.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has stirred anger with proposals that would… (Tom Lynn / Milwaukee Journal…)

A preacher's son and perpetual optimist, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker pledged a "return to frugality in government" during his inauguration speech in Madison.

The boyishly handsome Republican spoke from the flag-draped rotunda in the state Capitol, where a band sounded "On, Wisconsin" and well-wishers burst into applause.

Six weeks later, boisterous protesters have seized the same real estate, comparing the energetic, 43-year-old governor to Adolf Hitler and Darth Vader. There's even talk of a recall election.

"The Badger State has a weasel for a governor," one sign read.

What's triggered the ire are Walker's far-reaching proposals, which the Republican-controlled Legislature supports, to strip most public-sector workers of their union rights and pare their benefits. Some think Walker's vaunted "frugality" is code for "union busting."

"Frugal" describes Walker himself. Before taking the governor's seat, he was county executive in Milwaukee County beginning in 2002. The job paid $129,611 a year.

Walker, married with two sons in high school, often carried the same bagged lunch: two ham-and-cheese sandwiches on wheat with mayo. He boasted of his 1998 Saturn with 100,000 miles on it.

He returned thousands of dollars in salary to the county every year, the total reaching about $376,000, said Harold Mester, a spokesman for the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors.

A fiscal and social conservative, Walker spun his lunchtime proclivities into the three-part "Brown Bag Guide to Government": Don't spend more than you have; smaller government is better government; and people create jobs, not government.

Voters approved. He dispatched his Democratic rival, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, 52% to 46%, in the gubernatorial election Nov. 2, which was Walker's birthday.

Walker, now paid $144,423 a year, turned down an interview request, leaving friends and foes to round out the official bios and news accounts.

Plainspoken, upfront and genuine — that's Walker, said Jim Villa, 39, president of the Commercial Assn. of Realtors Wisconsin. When Walker had the county post, Villa was his chief of staff for almost five years. "There's no pretensions or facades," Villa said.

Villa can't imagine him caving in to protesters, who have been met by counter-protesters complaining about teacher "sick-ins" shuttering schools.

Villa said Walker received as many as 8,000 e-mails one day last week, most supportive.

Walker was born in Colorado Springs, Colo., and lived in tiny Plainfield, Iowa, before the family moved in 1977 to Delavan, a small town in southeastern Wisconsin nicknamed the "Circus Capital of the World" because it was home to 19th century circus troupes.

His father, Llewellyn Walker, led a Baptist church, and his mother, Pat, kept the books for a department store, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

In Delavan, Walker was active in sports, band and church and became an Eagle Scout. During his mid-30s, he developed a new passion: riding a Harley-Davidson Road King motorcycle, a nod to the Wisconsin firm, Villa said.

Walker moved to Milwaukee in 1986 to attend Marquette University, leaving after four years with a 2.59 grade-point average and without graduating, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel said. He later worked in financial development for the American Red Cross.

The winner of several elections, Walker stumbled in his first race in 1990 for state Assembly. The victor was Milwaukee Democrat Gwen Moore, who is now in Congress. There remains no love lost between them. Moore, in an interview, called him a proud, vain "union buster."

Political scientist David Canon at the University of Wisconsin Madison said he expects the Legislature to sign off on the anti-union proposals. The governor's future, he said, may well hinge on his pledge to bring 250,000 new jobs to the state.

"He can definitely overcome this," Canon said of the dissent. "People will forget if the economy recovers. On the other hand, if the unions are decimated and you have a lot of angry people and the economy doesn't turn around, he's a one-term governor."

kskiba@tribune.com

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