Scott Walker’s 9-year tenure in the state assembly had been largely unremarkable. Then a pension scandal rocked Milwaukee County in 2002, and Walker, a little-known state legislator, jumped in the special election for the newly-opened county executive position. He won the competitive race for the traditionally non-partisan role by pledging to clean up the scandal-plagued office, catapulting him into a position with executive power. His victory in a competitive race was a rare feat for a Republican in the heavily-Democratic county.
But what happened next stunned both Democrats and Republicans. Once sworn in, Walker launched aggressive reforms that included privatization of government services, large reductions to county staff and deep budget cuts – proposals he said almost nothing about this during his campaign. Critics say it’s a pattern of campaigning and governing that Walker has maintained through his political career.
Walker is an aggressive politician who is deeply conservative and interested in far-reaching reforms, but he masks both in a dry, unexciting persona while omitting details of his platform during his campaigns. Democrats consider Walker’s approach sneaky, while Republicans admire it, even when they at times wish he would consult them first.
John Torinus, a center-right journalist-turned entrepreneur who has backed Walker and runs his own blog, wrote recently: "What does a campaign mean when almost none of the major policy departures contained in the budget were proposed or debated?"
In his book "Unintimidated," Walker says he inherited a bloated Milwaukee County bureaucracy. Shortly after he was elected, he instituted conservative fiscal priorities that included a 20 percent reduction in county employees during his eight years on the board. It was also his first of several major run-ins with public sector unions as they protested his layoffs and efforts to privatize government services, including building security, IT and maintenance at government buildings. Walker also asked each department for a budgets that comprised of 13 percent cuts each year while also closing public swimming pools and raising bus fares for riders with disabilities.
While the county government continued to shrink under Walker, he also instituted a freeze on property taxes, a significant portion of its revenue, forcing him to make deeper cuts to fill the budget hole without additional income.
After mostly going along with Walker’s budgets for three years, the county board of supervisors began to strongly push back by putting money back into programs that Walker cut and notably increasing property taxes that Walker vowed not to rise.
“The trend has changed,” board Chairman Lee Holloway said at the time. “People are feeling the pain. They are understanding the effects of (Walker’s) budget.”
Regardless of Walker's austerity measures, he proceeded to win his reelections in 2004 and 2008.
Looking back, those in Milwaukee saw his budget cuts as a shrewd move. They helped Walker gain acclaim among conservatives, which he would need in the future.
“You could always tell that Scott has aspirations to do bigger things and that he was a climber,” Peggy Romo West, a member of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors said. “Did I ever think he was going to run for president? I don’t think I did, but I didn’t put it past him.”
Walker, after four years as the county executive, opted to run for governor in 2006. But he faced Mark Green, a congressman at the time who had much of the GOP establishment behind him. Walker struggled to gain traction, eventually dropping out and endorsing Green.
That decision to support Green - who lost to Democratic incumbent Jim Doyle - in 2006 led Republican leaders in Wisconsin to consider Walker a team player. So when he ran 2010, party leaders were firmly behind him.
And, just like in 2002, his campaign platform was broad, vague and non-controversial.
"What he says publicly doesn’t necessary mean much."
Brown paper bags were the central image of his campaign, urging voters to join his “movement” while he held brown bag lunches throughout the state. It played into Walker’s clean image steeped in Midwestern frugality that he said translates into his anti-tax fiscal policy. His campaign talking points did not include some of the most aggressive measures he pushed as governor.
Walker sailed into office in a Republican wave election that also gave him Republican majorities in both houses of the Wisconsin state legislature. The circumstances allowed Walker to push through any priority he chose, and it's a mandate he did not let go to waste.
Critics point to the fact that he never talked about gutting public sector unions' on the campaign trail, which was one of his first major initiatives once he won his election that became known as Act 10. His proposal all but ended teachers' ability to collectively bargain - a central component of union organizing. (He excluded police and fire unions from his plan, however. They were big campaign supporters of his.)
Walker aides to his pre-presidential organization, Our American Revival PAC, referenced two 2010 campaign ads where he talks about the money the state would save if state workers and teachers contributed to their health care and retirement plans, but neither of the plans mentioned an end to collective bargaining, which was the most controversial part of Walker's Act 10.
Act 10 bitterly divided the state as massive protests consumed the state capitol for weeks. It also propelled him to national fame among conservatives and led to a recall election in 2012, which he won.
Critics also point to the voter ID law that he pushed through as another issue he never mentioned on the campaign trail. His campaign, however, points to the fact that Walker sponsored a voter ID bill when he was a member of the assembly nearly a decade prior and that when a Wisconsin journalist asked he did say that it's something he would support.
Rep. Peter Barca, the top Democrat in the Wisconsin Assembly, was highly critical of Walker's tactics.
"What he says publicly doesn’t necessary mean much," Barca said.
Lisa Graves, executive director of the liberal Center for Media and Democracy based in Wisconsin, said people knew Walker was conservative but had no indication of the policies he was going to push.
“He acts quickly on radical proposals without letting people know. When he’s got the numbers, he rolls through,” Lisa Graves, Executive Director of CMD, said.
The trend continued into his campaign for reelection. After refusing to address the issue during the campaign, within his first two months of his second term he said he intends to sign a 20-week abortion ban. An aide to Walkersays he has never shied away from being pro-life.
He also said he wouldn’t take up so-called right to work legislation, but when it reached his desk, he signed it into law. And he unveiled a $300 million cut to Wisconsin's higher education system, which is another proposal he didn't mention while campaigning.
Mary Bottari with the liberal leaning Center for Media and Democracy, which is based on Madison, said it’s like Walker governs “by constant sneak attack" - a term heard repeatedly in Wisconsin during conversations about Walker.
Walker also took people by surprise over a new Indian-owned casino and resort outside of Milwaukee. After more than a year of prolonging the decision and avoiding the topic during his reelection campaign in 2014, in February Walker opposed it - despite a majority of people supporting it, including Republicans.
Mark Belling, a conservative radio talk show host based in Milwaukee who supported the new casino, said that during the year he was deliberating Walker gave "the implication that this would be approved."
"There was almost a sense of betrayal," Belling said after Walker's announcement, even among many conservatives in the state.
Walker's short-on-specifics campaign style is concerning to some in Wisconsin as he's embarking on a presidential run. Looking at his past, they suspect he would make dramatic cuts to the federal budget while reducing the size of the government workforce. He has not yet laid out many specifics of what he would do as president, especially on the issue of foreign policy, which he has no experience with.
Walker observers are waiting to hear his plans as what he would do as president and are cautioning that there could be a lot more on his agenda that he's not saying.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story stated Walker had signed a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks. Walker said he intends to sign the bill.