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Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker's now-infamous "lipstick-on-a-pig" wisecrack at an October talk to the Milwaukee Rotary Club was more than an ill-timed, throwaway cliché.
Speaking to area business and civic leaders, Walker ended up denigrating their efforts to organize a $12 million, five-year Milwaukee-area regional development and promotional plan rolled out with much fanfare and optimism less than a month earlier.
Complaining about the area's high taxes, health care costs and other difficulties, Walker opined to the group that without basic changes -- and change, after all, is the goal of the new regional effort -- the initiative was doomed because "you can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig."
Seems that Walker's been so busy campaigning around the state for the 2006 GOP gubernatorial nomination that he forgot a few things when he accepted the Rotarians speaking invitation, like:
Who he was. After all, he is the Milwaukee County executive, which means if he thinks that a blue-ribbon plan to promote a Milwaukee-centered regional economy is hopeless, then he's really in the wrong job. And hardly the right guy for an even bigger one. (More about that in a moment.)
Where he was. Walker must have thought he was on the stump outstate, where "stick-it-to-Milwaukee'' rhetoric is red meat for the locals.
To whom he was talking. Rotary includes the very people advancing regionalism as the road to greater prosperity -- for Milwaukee, the region and the state. These community leaders, generally a Republican crowd, too, looked to Walker as an ally. Surely they didn't figure their invited guest would dump on them at their luncheon.
Imagine being Julia Taylor, the president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee and a key figure organizing the new regional initiative, having to comment to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after Walker's talk this way: "I don't think he meant the region is a pig."
Now it's true that people use clichés and idioms as rhetorical shortcuts to emphasize a point.
Which brings up another issue for Walker -- is he aware enough to see the ironic self-referencing in his remark?
Consider these two meanings for the "lipstick-on-a-pig" tagline offered on the Web site www.clichesite.com:
Trying to dress something up.
Making something appear better than it is.
Now ask yourselves: where else might these definitions fit when it comes to Scott Walker and the office of Milwaukee County executive?
How about Walker's purportedly balanced 2006 executive budget, the one that "balances'' through his withholding of a $27 million pension system contribution that is more than half the required 2006 payment?
See how long you'd get away with "balancing'' your accounts by making less than half your required mortgage or credit card payments.
The pension fund will most likely make the $27 million payment on its own through a borrowing -- dunning Milwaukee County taxpayers with an even larger bill that includes the interest.
Or take Walker's 2006 budgetary elimination of more than 70 courthouse positions, including courtroom bailiffs, and other positions required by those pesky state laws?
Or look back at his 2003 budget -- the one that led to departmental deficits, along with early pool closings during a heat wave and emergency parks' layoffs, because revenue estimates to fund those public services were so far off the mark.
Is this responsible budgeting? Or is it lipstick-on-a-pig definition No. 1 -- trying to dress something up?
In fact, let's go back to the beginning of the Walker era. That's when he jumped into the Ament recall frenzy as a reformer. Great word, reformer. Lots of Wisconsin history wrapped up in it. Made good ad copy, too, since reform was definitely needed in county government after the pension benefits fiasco.
It turns out that reformer Walker failed to keep his promise to obtain timely signed waivers from dozens of his appointees, so they, too, would give up eligibility for the excessive pension benefits.
And while his administration still faces an unresolved legal complaint over the withholding of records in that matter, the Wisconsin Elections Board hit Walker's campaign organization with a $5,000 forfeiture for separate disclosure violations over mass telephone calls made to gin up support for his 2005 budget.
Is this reform? Or is it lipstick-on-a-pig definition No. 2 -- making something appear better than it is?
The greatest gap between Walker-the-reform-minded-county executive and Walker-the-real-world-politician has been his unashamed use of his position to run against incumbent Gov. Jim Doyle.
It's a longshot candidacy to begin with because: A) Milwaukee candidates generally have a hard time running statewide because outstate, that pig subtext is so commonplace; and B) Doyle, a Democrat, is likely to run more strongly in Democratic Milwaukee County than Republican Walker -- even if Walker is the incumbent Milwaukee County executive.
Walker's strategy, should he defeat fellow Republican primary challenger U.S. Rep. Mark Green, requires that Walker whip Doyle in Milwaukee County -- a task that Walker has made darn near impossible by his telling Milwaukee county residents that they're pigs, or are living in a pigsty.
Walker defended his remark by saying that taxes, health care costs and other issues restrain the region's economy. And there's a lot of truth to that.
But insulting Milwaukee-area leaders over coffee and dessert is a strange way of suggesting you are the right person to move up to governor.
All of which presents Scott Walker and his campaign staff with the need for a political makeover that is going to require a lot more than a fresh application of lipstick.
James Rowen is a Milwaukee writer and a former Milwaukee mayoral aide.
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