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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Aug. 22, 2014

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In Milwaukee Buzz Commentary

Walker: "Governors should be defined not just by what they do and say, but who they surround themselves with." (PHOTO: Gage Skidmore)

Walker's way: not the way government should be


In an interview earlier this year to promote his 2013 book, "Unintimidated," Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told conservative website The American Thinker, "Governors should be defined not just by what they do and say, but who they surround themselves with."

The context was different from what you might be thinking, based on last week's news, the multitude of revelations contained in nearly 28,000 pages of emails and documents related to the John Doe investigation released by the courts. That John Doe investigation led to six convictions, including of close Walker aides (two deputy chiefs of staff, for example) and grants of immunity to others (his spokeswoman, for example) who might otherwise have been charged or convicted of crimes.

No, Walker's statement about defining a governor by those around him was made in response to a question on presidential foreign policy--governors usually don't have a lot of foreign policy experience, but they like to run for president. That means they need to pick good people to work for them, "making sure to have the smartest person for a particular task or to head a specific agency," Walker went on to say."They should be judged on that basis and who they take advice from."

He goes on to attack President Obama for his cabinet selections: "The president has based his decisions, whether for the military, foreign policy, or Obamacare, on the political realm."

Walker's own implication, I think, is that when your closest advisors are thinking about the politics – Will this help get us elected? How's it going to play in Peoria? – rather than the policy, you're doing it wrong.

That implication, that policy should take priority over politics, is far more damning for him than what opponents might try to make stick, that his associates broke the law. In the released emails, we see clearly, from Walker and his staff alike, that priority was given to politics far more so than policy. The people he takes advice from and appoints to key positions are not "the smartest," but rather the most loyal and most willing to fight his political battles.

There are plenty of examples in the released documents, from Walker asking his taxpayer-funded county staff to make comments on news stories to the explicit instructions that all county response to reporters about county business be cleared through the campaign office first. The way his aides referred to the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex as a looney bin and said no one cares about crazy people. The county staff coordinating with lowly bloggers and high-powered journalists to gain positive candidate press and evade public records requests. The list goes on.

Walker supporters (and Walker) love the fact that Walker himself was never charged with anything illegal, and as I write this, no one has yet to find the email or document in the release that could legitimately be identified as the one showing Walker broke the law. But there are plenty to suggest he knew lawbreaking was happening, and enough to put the lie to his public denials throughout the John Doe that he knew about any of this going on. That the governor was not charged is hardly a defense, and does nothing to clear Walker's name.

Walker supporters also argue that when it comes to putting politics ahead of governance, everyone does it. If "Scandal" or "House of Cards" has taught us anything, it's that politicians and their staffs often find actually governing to be something of a distraction from their true calling, which is running a political machine.

Kelly Rindfleisch, whose emails the courts dumped last week, was a key figure in what's known now as the "caucus scandal," a criminal probe of legislators and their staffs in Madison for campaigning on government time that sent many staffers and actual legislators to jail. Chuck Chvala, former Democratic leader of the state senate, got nine months; Scott Jensen, a former powerful Republican assembly leader and now-lobbyist, barely escaped jail time.

The caucus scandal is perhaps the epitome of "everybody does it" in Wisconsin – that was even a key part of Jensen's defense strategy. For her part, Rindfleisch was granted immunity in the caucus scandal, testifying against others to avoid prosecution. In other words, she knew the work she did – flacking for Walker's campaign and fundraising for the campaign of Lt. Governor candidate Brett Davis on government time – was illegal. She told a friend when she was hired to be Walker's full-time deputy chief of staff at the county that half her time would be fundraising for Davis.

Indeed, many of the emails getting the most attention are all about how Walker's county team got around detection of their campaign work or distanced themselves from people who got caught, since – as Walker Chief of Staff Tom Nardelli put it in one email – they didn't want another "Scott Jensen" situation.

But that email came too late. It came long after Walker had decided to use his county office to facilitate and further his campaign, long after explicit daily conference calls between county staff and campaign staff had begun, long after Walker himself asked his county staff to, essentially, campaign for him.

And that is the root of the problem, Walker's seeming belief that abusing the public trust for your own gain is okay as long as you don't get caught. It's certainly not true not that everybody does it anymore – no one has dug up evidence that Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, in an equal number of runs for the governor's mansion, had his city staff engage in anything like what Walker's county staff did. Barrett didn't hire a ringer for his chief of staff's office to raise money for himself or allies, for example, and he did not actively use his city staff to bury negative stories about the city or anonymously rebut them on comment boards.

The problem is not that Walker is a criminal (he legally is not). It's that he and those who support him believe that the Walker way of governing, politics over policy, is okay, using tax-funded time to advance political ambition. This is not the kind of government we need, nor even what we deserve.

In that American Thinker interview, just before saying that we should hold a governor accountable for whom he surrounds himself with, Walker said governors "know how to run things." What Walker ran in Milwaukee County was not a government, but a campaign. This is not what government should be – and we should, as Walker insisted, hold him accountable. There's an election this fall.


Talkbacks

AndrewJ | Feb. 25, 2014 at 8:37 a.m. (report)

Paging Mr. Tarnoff please dont make your loyal readers traverse web-space over to the Journal Sentinel *puke* for facts, its unsightly. Jay you really have to put down that Left Wing branded Kool-Aid and take off your Liberal Ray Bans. Everything you prattle on about in your novel there has already been discussed ad nauseam in the press, vetted by a Liberal D.A. from Milwaukee Co., and consequently debunked or labeled as straw grasping by your ilk. For your enjoyment: Engaged in illegal caging? Wrong type of caging, buckaroo. Progressive.org has already apologized for what you just regurgitated. Will you? http://www.jsonline.com/blogs/news/246883201.html No one has dug up evidence on Tom Barrett engaging in anything like this? Semantically, youre right. Nobody on his staff did. But his wife sure did while on MPSs dime. Is that better, or worse in your book? http://www.jsonline.com/news/statepolitics/emails-from-barretts-wife-violated-mps-policy-f35dnri-151439775.html Walker asked tax-payer funded county workers to say positive things about him online I wont even bother posting links in here from the last 100 years of people running for office and asking people to support them. If that was a crime, wed have approximately zero elected officials. What I dont see you pointing to is a specific email from Walker himself, once made aware of the situation in his offices, directly emailing his staff and telling them to put away laptops and stop taking time away from work. Which, you know, is something that a boss would tell his direct reports to do when he finds out theyre not doing their jobs fully. For some reason you find that incriminating, whereas others would call it appropriate leadership. I fully understand that leadership is a term the Left isn't terribly familiar with these days, but try to grasp the concept if possible. What I also dont see you mentioning is, of course, the obvious. Every word of every email was scoured by a Liberal D.A. in Milwaukee and his staff. What you are implying here is that they in fact had an opportunity to skewer Walker, but chose to pass. Really? A career case an opportunity to take down a sitting Governor, not to mention a guy he had an axe to grind with and he passed it up. Probably not. The simple fact is that there was nothing there other than a chance to deflect some embarrassment onto the campaign which landed Walker in office. Criminal charges were not available, so it was decided to hold a trial of public opinion via the press. Sadly, you've taken the bait and have foolishly become another Liberal talking head, gorging on a buffet of hearsay. Be better than that.

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