By James Rowen, for   Published Jun 14, 2005 at 5:14 AM

{image1}Knowing when to make a strategic change in thinking or action has always been crucial to politicians' successes. Richard Nixon's surprising opening of diplomatic contact with The People's Republic of China is one of the better examples of a politician who boldly set off in a new direction and got a lot of credit for it.

By contrast, the political landscape is littered with wrecked careers when politicos stubbornly stuck to their guns, or their old ways.

Former city of Milwaukee alderman Tom Nardelli's losing runs for both Milwaukee County executive and Milwaukee mayor come to mind, as does the run for Congress that Matt Flynn made against former state Sen. Gwen Moore -- a race that Moore was absolutely going to win.

Which brings us to the floundering gubernatorial run that Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker is making -- a campaign that is going nowhere because Walker's county government and the political environment in which his administration is operating is generating almost non-stop negative publicity.

Throw in Walker's recent tour around the state on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle -- an ill-timed stunt already turned into cliché by former Gov. Tommy Thompson -- and you get the sense that the Walker for Governor campaign doesn't even have a roadmap.

All in all, it wouldn't be surprising if Walker pulled the plug before more time and money gets thrown into what is traditionally a shaky proposition -- running statewide from a Milwaukee base.

Not everything that the Milwaukee County government does, or is associated with, is necessarily Walker's fault, but unless there is a dramatic turnaround in the county's fortunes, Walker will be forced to convince voters from Superior to Kenosha that he is the correct Republican to lead his ticket and is the best politician to run the state, while headlines keep saying that things back home are going to hell in a hand basket.

The fiasco now threatening the Milwaukee Public Museum is a perfect example. Walker didn't drive the museum into insolvency, but the debacle has happened on his watch.

In politics, the person at the top gets the praise or the blame, and there's no way Walker comes out of this mess with more praise than blame.

Walker's budget people have said they were misled. Even if they were, their self-serving spin and finger-pointing brings to mind the same question that was asked during the infamous county pension scandal that swept Walker into office:

How much of the blame lies with deceptive people and how much belongs to the officials who weren't plugged in well enough, and failed to ask good questions?

Walker and the county have other problems, too. There are parks budgets set up with revenue estimates that cannot support the county's priceless parkland assets. There is deterioration at the Domes. There is sagging bus ridership. The entire operation sags under what seems like endemic incompetence.

And there is major pollution at Bradford Beach, the county's signature Lake Michigan destination.

UW-Milwaukee scientists say the major pollution source is a series of county-owned sewage drains that are in plain view off Lincoln Memorial Drive, a county road. The drains put so much E. coli bacteria and other contaminants directly on the beach sand and into its shallow swimming areas after heavy rains that the beach has been, and will continue to be, closed frequently in the summer.

Walker will have been at the reins as Milwaukee County executive for four years by the time the 2006 gubernatorial campaign is in full swing. It is a job that he ran for aggressively, so continuing to blame the failed Ament administration for his problems, or failing to find innovative solutions, won't be good enough.

Voters will want to know what has he done to fix these problems, and the answer right now is, "well, not much." That's not a plan either for a successful run for governor or service as the county's top official.

The peril for Walker is that both Gov. Jim Doyle, or Walker's GOP challenger, U.S. Rep. Mark Green, could keep Walker on the defensive with TV commercials filmed at Bradford Beach in front of a "closed" sign, or in a county park overrun with weeds, and ask if this is the leadership that should be rewarded with four years in charge of state government?

Those ads could run for two summers.


The county's fiscal and administrative needs are concentrated in good stewardship of basic services. Protecting the common ground and the public's resources is the essence of governing, and right now, Walker's leadership isn't much to brag about.

His strategy for winning his party's nomination and the Governor's Mansion has always been based on winning close to about 50 percent of the turnout in Milwaukee County, both to outpace Green, who is from Green Bay, and to diminish Doyle's vote in what has always been a Democratic stronghold.

Walker's winning two countywide elections lent some internal logic to his strategy, but the county's cascading fiscal and managerial problems suggest that being from Milwaukee will be more of a negative.

And there could be a backlash among local voters the longer the public museum debacle stays on page one, or beach closings could become repetitive and further minimize Walker's chances of winning.

Politicians can get tripped up by their own reflexive opportunism. A higher office opens up (for Walker, county exec was bigger than being a state legislator) so they run for it and hope it leads to yet another promotion later.

Walker made no secret of wanting to use the county executive's office as a platform to seek the governorship, but that may have looked more achievable in 2002 as a long-range plan than it does in the short-run today.

The need for self-preservation and strong legacies are usually just as strong as ambition in the politician's mentality: Walker should think long and hard about the implications of a primary loss to Green, which would leave Walker weakened as he tries to solve the county's substantial difficulties.

A better plan is the strategic, early end to his campaign. There'd be no shame in it, and only smart politics.

Walker's stepping aside would spare Republican voters the need to choose among two almost identical right-wing opponents, open the way to a simplified partisan and ideological choice between Doyle and Green, and give Milwaukee County taxpayers what they really need and are paying for:

The full-time attention of a full-time county executive.

Rowen is a veteran journalist and policy adviser who used to work in the administration of former Mayor John Norquist.

The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of, its advertisers or editorial staff.

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