Monday, Dec. 2, 2013 | 2 a.m.
MILWAUKEE — In 2011, tens of thousands of government employees and others, enraged by Gov. Scott Walker’s determination to break the ruinously expensive and paralyzing grip that government workers’ unions had on Wisconsin, took over the capitol building in Madison. With chanting, screaming and singing supplemented by bullhorns, bagpipes and drum circles, their cacophony shook the building that the squalor of their occupation made malodorous. They spat on Republican legislators and urinated on Walker’s office door. They shouted, “This is what democracy looks like!”
When they and Democratic legislators failed to prevent passage of Act 10, they tried to defeat — with a scurrilous smear campaign that backfired — an elected state Supreme Court justice. They hoped that changing the court’s composition would get Walker’s reforms overturned. When this failed, they tried to capture the state Senate by recalling six Republican senators. When this failed, they tried to recall Walker. On the night that failed — he won with a larger margin than he had received when elected 19 months earlier — he resisted the temptation to proclaim, “This is what democracy looks like!”
Walker recounts these events in “Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge.” Most books by incumbent politicians are not worth the paper they never should have been written on. If, however, enough voters read Walker’s nonfiction thriller, it will make him a — perhaps the — leading candidate for his party’s 2016 presidential nomination.
Act 10 required government workers to contribute 5.8 percent of their salaries to their pensions (hitherto, most paid nothing) and to pay 12.8 percent of their health care premiums (up from 6 percent but still just half of what the average federal worker pays). Both percentages are well below the private-sector average. By limiting collective bargaining to base wages, Act 10 freed school districts to hire and fire teachers based on merit, and to save many millions of dollars by buying teachers’ health insurance in the competitive market rather than from an entity run by the teachers union. Restricting collective bargaining to wages ended the sort of absurd rules for overtime compensation that made a bus driver Madison’s highest-paid public employee.
Act 10’s dynamite, however, was the provision ending the state’s compulsory collection of union dues — sometimes as high as $1,400 per year — that fund union contributions to Democrats. President Barack Obama and his national labor allies made Wisconsin a battleground because they knew that when Indiana made paying union dues optional, 90 percent of state employees quit paying, and similar measures produced similar results in Washington, Colorado and Utah.
Walker has long experience in the furnace of resistance to the looting of public funds by the public’s employees. He was elected chief executive of heavily Democratic Milwaukee County after his predecessor collaborated with other officials in rewriting pension rules in a way that, if he had been re-elected instead of resigning, would have given him a lump-sum payment of $2.3 million and $136,000 a year for life.
To fight the recall — during which opponents disrupted Walker’s appearance at a Special Olympics event, and squeezed Super Glue into the locks of a school he was to visit — Walker raised more than $30 million, assembling a nationwide network of conservative donors that could come in handy if he is re-elected next year. Having become the first U.S. governor to survive a recall election, he is America’s first governor to be, in effect, elected twice to a first term. When he seeks a second term, he will likely face a wealthy opponent who says her only promise is to not make promises. This is her attempt to cope with an awkward fact: She will either infuriate her party’s liberal base or alarm a majority of voters by promising either to preserve or repeal Act 10.
Walker is politely scathing — a neat trick — of Mitt Romney’s campaign, especially of Romney’s statement that “I’m not concerned about the very poor” because “we have a very ample safety net.” The imperative, Walker says, is to “help them escape the safety net.”
“Outside the Washington beltway,” he says, “big-government liberals are on the ropes.” No incumbent Republican governor has lost a general election since 2007. Since 2008, the number of Republican governors has increased from 21 to 30, just four short of the party’s all-time high reached in the 1920s. He thinks Republican governors are in tune with the nation. If re-elected, he probably will test that theory.
George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post.