The Rock in Scott Walker's Pocket
It's not everyday you see a governor blush, rarer still when your grandmother is the cause of it.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker commemorated the 20th anniversary of Family-PAC's Boat Cruise in Chicago on Tuesday and I had an opportunity to sit down with him. I invited my grandparents down from Sauk County, Wisconsin to meet the man they had voted for.
My grandmother was ecstatic. Upon greeting Walker, she couldn't resist saying, "You are so much more handsome in person than on television!"
The normally quick-witted Walker was caught off guard. Blood rushed to his face. He was happy to chat with his constituents about their hometown and their mutual love for motorcycles. After a picture, my grandmother had one more question for the Governor: "How did you ever get through all of it?" -- "it" being the budget battle in Madison some months ago.
This time Walker didn't blush. "I pray a lot," he said.
"I start the day out on my knees," Walker told my swooning grandmother, "and end up there, too." Walker reached into his pocket and pulled out a small metal cross from his wedding, and a pebble. The pebble was a gift from a friend who runs along Lake Michigan and picks up two pebbles from the shore each day. Walker's friend puts one in a jar and gives the other to someone else. The jar filled with pebbles helps his friend remember who to pray for.
"Whenever I have a moment, before a press conference or what have you, you may see me with a hand in my pocket," Walker said, "I touch the pebble and am reminded of the people praying for me."
Raised by a Baptist preacher, Governor Walker's childhood was formative for him. He told a group of Christian businessmen in 2009 that he realized he "had to trust in Christ and obey what he calls me to do." Any religiously alert person can notice how Walker's "trust in Christ" appears often in his political philosophy, one that has motivated Walker to accomplish quite a lot for his short tenure.
While other Governors, Walker told me, "had barely moved into their offices," he called the legislature into a special session to begin to tackle Wisconsin's deficit and to focus on "getting government out of the way." Walker signed bills that cut corporate tax rates, repealed the tax on health savings accounts, addressed burdensome lawsuit costs, and reduced "onerous" regulations on businesses.
It seems to have worked. In the first six months, Wisconsin saw double the amount of jobs created nationally in the private sector. The Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce recently reported that 88 percent of job creators thought the state was headed in the right direction -- last year only 10 percent thought so.
Still, Walker believes "unemployment levels are too high," especially in certain parts of the state. And so he has begun an aggressive campaign to attract out-of-state businesses to move to Wisconsin.
In Chicago, Walker said that Illinois' Governor has "cut [his] marketing budget in half because while Illinois was looking at about a two-thirds increase in individual income tax and nearly a 50 percent increase in business tax, [Wisconsin] lowered the tax burden." In fact, Walker joked, perhaps someone ought to make a bumper sticker for his campaign that simply reads: "I AM NOT PAT QUINN."
It shows. As an incentive for all new-to-Wisconsin businesses, Walker gave them a two-year reprieve on corporate income tax. Now, "almost every other week," Walker welcomes a new company to Wisconsin.
Families, Walker said, will have two opportunities to judge the success of the reforms: one, in the beginning of September when parents "send their kids back to school and find that the schools are the same or better;" and two, in December when families find that their property tax bills are the same or lower.
Given Walker's reputation, I expected a good deal of Obama bashing. But he largely declined to go there. Sure, he argued that the president's policies have been a "big wet blanket on the economy," but he called it counterproductive to focus on "problems [Wisconsin] inherits from the federal government."
"When I interviewed for the job of Governor," Walker said, "I told the people that I would work to solve the problems of the state." Who was to blame was not a question in that interview.
Walker did have some advice that our president will likely decline to take. He said, "If you put more money back in the hands of American entrepreneurs and American families, I think that's the best stimulus out there."
Walker's notion of the centrality of family, and "caring about the next generation rather than the next election," recalls his religiously informed political philosophy. He reminded Wisconsinites in his inaugural address that God "is the one from which our freedoms are derived, not the government."
Just rereading those words, I thought, perhaps grandma was onto something.