MADISON, Wis. » Just last fall, people here were waving campaign signs. But the blocks around the State Capitol have been filled for the past week with protesters brandishing signs with a different message — demanding a recall of Gov. Scott Walker, calling him a bully and likening him to Scrooge, Hosni Mubarak, even Hitler.
Seemingly overnight, Walker, a Republican, has become a national figure, the man who set off a storm of protest, now spreading to other states, with his blunt, unvarnished call for shrinking collective bargaining rights and benefits for public workers to help the state repair its budget.
Wisconsin may seem to the rest of the country like an unlikely catalyst, but to people who have watched the governor’s political rise through the years, the events of the week feel like a Scott Walker rerun, though on a much larger screen and with a much bigger audience.
Critics and supporters alike say Walker has never strayed from his approach to his political career: always pressing for austerity, and never blinking or apologizing for his lightning-rod proposals.
He regularly clashed with the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors over the past decade when he was that county’s elected executive. He pushed to privatize cleaning and food service workers and sought changes to pension and health contributions and workers’ hours. At one point, he proposed that the county government might want to consider, in essence, abolishing itself. It was redundant, he suggested.
"All I can think is, here we go again," said Chris Larson, one of 14 Democratic state senators who fled the state last week to block a vote on Walker’s call to cut benefits. Larson knows the governor well, having served on Milwaukee County’s board when Walker was the executive. He says that Walker is a nice guy on a personal level, "a good listener," but that his politics are another matter.
"Unions have always been his pinata, over and over," Larson said. "And this time I think he’s trying to out-right-wing the right wing on his way to the next lily pad."
Walker’s supporters cheer the governor for what they see as delivering on the campaign pledge of frugality that got him elected in November and forced a surprising makeover, at all levels of government in the state, from Democrats to Republicans.
"This doesn’t faze me one bit," Walker said Friday as thousands of protesters from around the country marched and screamed and filled every unguarded cranny of the Capitol, just as they had all week.
He said he had seen plenty of labor protesters before. Crowds of them in green T-shirts once even showed up when he presented a Milwaukee County budget proposal — one of nine proposals in a row, he boasts now, that included no tax increase over the rate the board had settled on the year before.
"I’m not going to be intimidated," Walker said, "particularly by people from other places."
Walker, 43, the son of a Baptist preacher, is an Eagle Scout. He opposes abortion. He rides a motorcycle. For years, he has carried the same bagged lunch to work (two ham and cheese sandwiches on wheat) — a fact he has been fond of mentioning on campaign trails. His political heroes: Tommy Thompson, this state’s former governor, and Ronald Reagan.
"He didn’t flinch," Walker said of Reagan. "Obviously, I take a lot of inspiration from that."
Walker once lost a bid for class president at Marquette University (which he attended but did not receive a degree from), but won a seat in the state Assembly several years later.
By 2002, when a pension scandal engulfed the Milwaukee County government, the county executive stepped down and Walker ran on a reform platform to replace him. He was never an obvious fit for a county that leans Democratic and that, in the view of Walker, was "addicted to other people’s money."
Walker describes himself as a fiscal conservative with a populist approach. It is a label that many in the enormous and angry crowds here would question, but it has won Walker backing in recent years from Tea Party supporters, who planned counterprotests this weekend in Walker’s defense.
Barack Obama won Wisconsin in 2008, but in November, Republicans swept into power in the state, shocking many who pointed to its long tradition of union power.
Republicans took control of the State Assembly, the State Senate and a U.S. Senate seat held by a longtime incumbent, Russ Feingold, in addition to the governor’s office. Former Gov. James E. Doyle, a Democrat, did not seek re-election, and Walker — who promised to bring 250,000 new jobs to Wisconsin in his first four-year term — defeated Tom Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee and a Democrat, 52 percent to 46 percent.
"This is the one part of the equation people are missing right now," said Scott Fitzgerald, who became the Republican majority leader in the State Senate after the election and whose brother became the speaker of the Assembly. "Scott Walker and I and my brother Jeff went into this session with the understanding that we had to deliver on campaign promises, that people wanted the Republicans to make change, that the more feathers you ruffle this time, the better you’ll be."
Within days of becoming governor, Walker — who hung a sign on the doorknob of his office that reads "Wisconsin is open for business" — began stirring things up, and drawing headlines.
He rejected $810 million in federal money that the state was getting to build a train line between Madison and Milwaukee, saying the project would ultimately cost the state too much to operate. He decided to turn the state’s Department of Commerce into a "public-private hybrid," in which hundreds of workers would need to reapply for their jobs.
He and state lawmakers passed $117 million in tax breaks for businesses and others, a move that many of his critics point to now as a sign that Walker made the state’s budget gap worse, then claimed an emergency that requires sacrifices from unions. Technically, the tax cuts do not go into effect in this year’s budget (which Walker says includes a $137 million shortfall), but in the coming two-year budget, during which the gap is estimated at $3.6 billion.
Democrats here say Walker’s style has led to a sea change in Wisconsin’s political tradition.
"Every other Republican governor has had moderates in their caucus and histories of working with Democrats," said Graeme Zielinski, a spokesman for the state’s Democratic Party. "But he is a hard-right partisan who does not negotiate, does not compromise. He is totally modeled after a slash-and-burn, scorched-earth approach that has never existed here before."
To the anger of his critics, who say he thrives on publicity, he has been on television and radio call-in shows and has taken phone calls of support from some of his Republican friends. He said he was speaking with Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey on Thursday night while exchanging e-mails with Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, whom he describes as a "great inspiration and mentor," and Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida.
"Months from now, when this is enacted and people realize it’s not the end of the world," Walker said, "not all, but I think the vast majority, including the vast majority of the public employees, will realize this was not nearly as bad as they thought it was going to be. And we’ll get back to work in the Capitol."