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From preacher’s kid to front-runner: Scott Walker’s small-town roots led to reputation as fiscal hawk

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Scott Walker
Scott Walker

To understand Scott Walker’s rise from state representative to county executive to front-runner for the office of Wisconsin governor, one must first know the meaning of a simple two-letter acronym: P.K.

The Milwaukee County executive and Republican nominee has reached the precipice of the state’s highest office with a message and approach that has roots in a rural Wisconsin church and the man who ministered there.

That’s because Walker was — and is — a preacher’s kid.

It’s a label that carries the burden of expectations, especially in a small town. More than a few have wilted under it or rebelled against it. Walker learned from it.

Growing up, he watched his father minister to people as they struggled with family and money problems, offering advice when warranted and a shoulder to lean on when needed.

“I watched how my father dealt with people, how he really listened to them, and I have always tried to emulate that in my daily life,” he said.

In a little more than a week, Walker, 42, will face Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in the general election. He leads by wide margins in most polls, propelled in no small part by his reputation as an uncompromising fiscal hawk.

But if he wins, it also will be because of the easygoing style and empathetic manner he developed growing up an arm’s length from the pulpit.  

“He was trained as a child in his father’s congregation to be personable,” said Lee Holloway, chairman of the Milwaukee County Board and a frequent Walker opponent. “And he is good at it. Professionally we are constantly fighting. But (even) I have a positive personal relationship with him.”

‘This stuff isn’t osmosis’

Walker was born in Colorado Springs, Colo. When he was 10, his family moved to Delavan, 60 miles southeast of Madison.

A city of about 8,000 people, Delavan in many ways is a microcosm of the state. Its economy relies heavily on farming, manufacturing and tourism.

To Walker, it was an idyllic place. His father, Llew Walker, led the First Baptist Church of Delavan. His mother, Pat Walker, did the books for a department store and wrote a column for the local paper, the Delavan Enterprise.

“It was a fishbowl,” Walker said of growing up in the tight-knit community. “Everyone knew my father. And everywhere I went, they asked me to lead them in prayer. I was happy to do it, but I remember thinking at the time, ‘You know, this stuff isn’t osmosis.’”

Walker played football and basketball, ran track and played drums in the school band. He was an Eagle Scout and took part in Badger Boys State — a weeklong program that teaches Wisconsin high school students leadership and the workings of government.

He was one of two boys selected in 1985 to represent the state in Boys Nation in Washington, D.C. His hero, Ronald Reagan, was president at the time. He credits the trip with giving him the political bug.

“There is no doubt that Reagan played a big role in inspiring me,” Walker said.

Job, family trump degree

The Walkers were a frugal bunch, by necessity: The family of a preacher is respected but rarely wealthy. Walker’s wife, Tonette, said the family often was paid in food. Those humble beginnings rubbed off on her husband, who now struggles with simple extravagances like buying a new suit.

“You have to walk him through it,” she said. “It’s a process.”

Walker graduated high school and left Delavan for Milwaukee and Marquette University. He worked his way through school, doing an assortment of odd jobs. In his senior year, Walker landed a well-paying job in marketing and development with the American Red Cross.

He left school and focused full-time on the position, thinking he would return for his degree in the near future.

But life got in the way. Walker met Tonette. The two fell in love and got married. He was 25. She was 36. They started a family.

“In the end, I figured I was in school to get a good job,” he said. “So once I had one, family became more important than getting a degree.”

Pension scandal creates opening

Walker’s foray into politics began in 1993, when he was elected to the state Assembly. Newly married and barely 26, he made a name for himself as an ambitious young politician with a future. He served for nine years and, according to his wife, often thought about running for governor some day.

But in early 2002, a controversy surrounding then-Milwaukee County Executive Tom Ament led Walker in another direction.

It was discovered that Ament took part in some back-loaded pensions, including a $2.3 million lump-sum payment for himself. That led to a recall that opened the door for a candidate with a different vision of county government.

“At the same time as the pension scandal, there was a caucus scandal in Madison” in which lawmakers were found to be using taxpayer-funded staff to secretly run campaigns, said John Gurda, author of “The Making of Milwaukee.” “It was like the wheels of government were falling off, and people were very angry.”

Walker was elected county executive in 2002. Though it is a nonpartisan position, he ran openly as a Republican who promised to clean up the scandal.

“That was a defining moment for me,” he said.

Executive’s office transformed

Walker’s time as county executive has been by most measures historic. Traditionally held by liberals, the position was transformed by Walker who brought “talk radio Republicanism” to the job, UW-Milwaukee political science professor Mordecai Lee said.

“He was the first ideological county executive of Milwaukee County,” said Lee, a former Democratic state senator. “And he proved that government could be run that way, which a lot of people doubted.”

Since his election, Walker has given $370,000 of his salary back to the county, reduced the size of the government work force by 20 percent, eliminated the waiting list for long-term care for seniors, and used his veto more than 100 times to cut $44 million in proposed spending.

Each of his nine consecutive budgets have held the property tax levy to the previous year’s level.

“A lot of politicians will get in office and then go soft on the issues that got them elected,” said Joe Sanfelippo, one of Walker’s few allies on the County Board. “In eight years in office, I don’t know that Scott Walker has given an ounce on anything.”

‘Cuts things to the bone’

But critics say that each year the County Board has had to override his budgets to cover the cost of basic services.

For example, in 2009 Walker offered a budget of $241 million. The board produced a budget of more than $249 million. The next year, he offered a budget of $249 million — in effect, accepting the tax levy increase from the previous year. His opponents said he proposes unrealistic budgets to put the onus on the board.

“He gives us a bullshuck budget and then we have to fill in the gaps,” Holloway said. “I don’t think he knows how to manage anything. He just cuts things to the bone. He never creates.”

But in this political climate, that reputation for holding spending down could play well among voters who feel government spending is out of control.

Walker “has that ability to disagree without being disagreeable, which is important,” Lee said. “He is probably the best politician I have seen in a generation.”


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