Gov. Scott Walker Eyes 2016, But Can He Get Past Labor's Loathing?

Feb 2, 2015
Originally published on February 4, 2015 11:39 am

There is not a lot of love between the U.S. labor movement and those on the long list of potential 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls. But there is one name among the GOP prospects that labor truly despises — and fears. He is Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who weakened unions in his own state and appears ready to make his battles with labor a centerpiece of a bid for the White House.

Walker's approach on a recent Saturday in Iowa was telling. In a downtown Des Moines theater full of conservative activists, he spoke for 22 minutes. But right off the top, and at length, he told the tale of how he took on public employee unions in Wisconsin. That effort — largely successful — triggered massive protests at the state Capitol and brought years of turmoil, including a fractious attempt to recall him from office.

"You know all about the protests," he said at that candidates forum. "At one point there were 100,000 or more protesters in and around our state Capitol. They were banging on the drums [and] they were blowing the horns. They had signs and banners."

Walker, now fresh off re-election to a second term, walked back and forth across the stage. He said what people may not know is that protesters -- as many as 1,000 of them — showed up outside his home while his family was there. And, he told the Iowa crowd, there were death threats.

"Most of those death threats were ... directed at, me, but some of the worst were directed at my family. I remember one of the ones that bothered me the most was someone literally sent me a threat that said they were gonna gut my wife like a deer."

It was a line designed to shock the audience. And one that set Walker apart from the other speakers that day, including Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee and Chris Christie. Those are all GOP household names. Not so for Walker. In fact, it's likely few in the theater had ever seen him in person, even if they knew his record.

But he wrapped up his remarks to big applause and cheers.

Now for the reaction from a leading labor activist, who knows Walker's record all too well.

"Scott Walker is an extremely divisive guy. He created a war zone in Wisconsin, pitting families against families, neighbors against neighbors. That's how he won," says Steve Rosenthal, a former political director for the AFL-CIO who currently works as a Democratic strategist and organizer. His animus toward Walker — and his policies — is widely shared by labor activists all across the country.

"There were labor leaders who called him the poster child a few years ago, public enemy No. 1, who really went all out to try to beat him in Wisconsin and weren't successful," he says. "The fact that he is now potentially emerging on the national stage is really scary. And you could see a scenario where he could become the Republican nominee."

Back in Iowa, Dennis Goldford, who teaches political science at Drake University, attended the forum where Walker spoke. He notes that the Wisconsin governor portrays himself as a victim when he talks of huge protests at his home, and of death threats.

"He emphasized this sense of being under threat by opponents who oppose everything he stands for," Goldford says. "But the more important subtext was that he's tough enough to take on these elements that threaten the very way of life these conservative Republicans believe is under siege."

And Walker is staking out a lane for his expected presidential campaign. He ended his remarks in Iowa to more applause saying: "With your help I have no doubt we can move this country forward, we can have our own American revival. God bless you; thanks for letting me share with you today."

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On the list of potential presidential hopefuls is Republican Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. His is a name that the U.S. Labor Movement despises and fears. Walker weakened unions in his own state and appears ready to make his battles with labor the centerpiece of a bid for the White House. Here's NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Scott Walker's approach on a recent Saturday in Iowa was telling. In a downtown Des Moines theater full of conservative activists, he spoke for 22 minutes. But right off the top, and at length, he told the tale of how he took on public employee unions in Wisconsin. That effort - largely successful - triggered massive protests at the state Capitol and brought years of turmoil, including a fractious attempt to recall him from office. This is from that candidate forum in Des Moines.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

GOVERNOR SCOTT WALKER: You know, you all know about the protests. I mean, at one point, there were 100,000 or more protesters in and around our state Capitol. They were banging on the drums. They were blowing the horns. They had signs and banners.

GONYEA: Walker, now fresh off re-election to a second term, walked back and forth across the stage. He said what people may not know is that protesters - as many as 1,000 of them - showed up outside his home while his family was there. And he told the Iowa crowd there were death threats.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

WALKER: Most of those death threats were directed at me, but some of the worst were directed at my family. I remember one of the ones that bothered me the most was someone literally sent me a threat that said they were going to gut my wife like a deer.

GONYEA: It was a line designed to shock the audience. And one that set Walker apart from the other speakers that day, including Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee and Chris Christie. Those are all GOP household names - not so Walker. In fact, it's likely few in the theater had ever seen him in person, even if they knew his record. But here's how it sounded as he wrapped up his remarks.

(APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: Now for a reaction from a leading labor activist who knows a Scott Walker's record all too well.

STEVE ROSENTHAL: Scott Walker is an extremely divisive guy. He created a war zone in Wisconsin, pitting families against families, neighbors against neighbors. That's how he won.

GONYEA: That's Steve Rosenthal, a former political director for the AFL-CIO who currently works as a Democratic strategist and organizer. His animus toward Walker and his policies is widely shared by labor activists all across the country.

ROSENTHAL: There were labor leaders who called him the poster child a few years ago, public enemy number one, who really went all out to try to beat him in Wisconsin and weren't successful. The fact that he is now potentially emerging on the national stage is really scary. And you can see a scenario where he could become the Republican nominee.

GONYEA: Back in Iowa, Dennis Goldford, who teaches political science at Drake University, attended that forum where Walker spoke. He notes that the Wisconsin governor portrays himself as a victim when he talks of huge protests at his home and of death threats.

DENNIS GOLDFORD: He emphasized this sense of being under threats by opponents who oppose everything he stands for. But the more important subtext was that he's tough enough to take on these elements that threaten the very way of life these conservative Republicans believe is under siege.

GONYEA: And Walker is staking out a lane for his expected presidential campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

WALKER: With your help I have no doubt we can move this country forward. We can have our own American revival. God bless you. Thanks for letting me share with you here today.

GONYEA: Don Gonyea, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.