As Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker formally enters the presidential race, journalists in his home state say the national press should focus their reporting on his polarizing history fighting abortion rights, gay marriage, and public information disclosure, while also highlighting his push as a state assemblyman for mandatory prison time that has overwhelmed the state's prison system.
Many Badger State scribes also point to the state's poor economic record, while describing Walker as an “extreme” politician whose far-right approach may not work in a national race.
“He is not as charismatic as I think a lot of people think,” said John Nichols, an associate editor at the progressive Capital Times in Madison. “The drama, the excitement associated with Scott Walker is that he did some extreme things that scared a lot of people.”
“He's a pretty polarizing character,” said political reporter Kate Pabich of WMTV, the NBC affiliate in Madison. “If he gets the GOP primary nomination he is going to have a hard time appealing to a national stage. The things he's done, the ultra-conservative things he's done, the 20-week abortion, the stance on gay marriage, will be an issue.”
Pablich was referring to the state ban on abortion after 20 weeks, which passed in the Wisconsin Assembly just last week -- with no exceptions for rape or incest, reportedly at Walker's insistence -- and which is likely to get Walker's approval.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel capital reporter Jason Stein said the abortion ban is important because “that could be banned at the national level” if Walker is elected president.
Stein also said media should examine a so-called "right-to-work" law Walker signed in March that strips unions of vital resources by allowing private-sector employees to opt out of paying union dues, as well as his support for a severely restrictive public information overhaul that would have disallowed public access to many state records and documents.
“They were sweeping,” Stein said of the public information restrictions. “They would have exempted the vast majority of legislative documents” from review, allowing “the administration as well as any other state agency to withhold deliberative materials used to arrive at a policy decision,” he concluded.
After the restrictions were approved in the legislature's Joint Finance Committee, they were shelved following public outcry.
Stein, who co-wrote a book about Walker's 2011 collective bargaining battle with state unions, also urged national reporters to look at Walker's time as Milwaukee County Executive, adding, “There was much more gridlock and his not being able to accomplish what he wanted. He was head-butting a lot with a Democratic County board.”
Capital Times' Nichols said Walker's claims about a great economic record in Wisconsin are misleading.
“The Wisconsin economic story is not a particularly good story,” he said. “Wisconsin trails a lot of neighboring states in economic vitality; its job growth is not particularly good.”
He said Walker promised when he first ran in 2010 to create 250,000 new jobs in his first term. But that fell far short, according to Politifact, which estimates only about 146,000 new jobs created during that time.
“For all of his talk of becoming an economic savior, he is weaker on economics than a lot of people think,” Nichols said.
Andy Hall, executive director of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and a former longtime reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison, agreed.
“He did promise to create 250,000 jobs during his first term, the numbers show he got about half that goal,” Hall said. “The economy here continues to concern a lot of people. Yes, jobs are being created, but are they the right kinds of jobs?”
Hall also cited the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, or WEDC, which Walker created to spark job growth. A state audit in May by the non-partisan Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau found problems with its compliance and practices.
Jim Fitzhenry, a top editor for Gannett Wisconsin Media, which operates newspapers and websites in 10 cities, said few national outlets seem to know about Walker's support for tighter mandatory sentencing that has ballooned the state's prison population.
Known as “Truth-in-Sentencing,” the restriction, passed by the Wisconsin state legislature in 1998, requires that many inmates serve their entire sentences without parole and increased the length of prison time for others.
Walker co-sponsored the legislation as a state assemblyman and helped lead it to passage as chair of the state assembly's Committee on Corrections and the Courts, according to a lengthy report on his past prison reform actions in The Nation earlier this year.
“It took away quite a bit of judicial discretion in sentences,” Fitzhenry said. “Unlike a lot of his counterparts, Scott is still very much adamant for Truth-in-Sentencing.”
The Nation report detailed how Truth-in-Sentencing overburdens the Wisconsin prison system so much that it had to contract with a private prison operator, Corrections Corporation of America, whose executives have also contributed to Walker's campaigns.
A 2004 Journal Sentinel analysis of the law looked at data from Truth-in-Sentencing's first four years in existence and estimated that it would cost the state an additional $1.8 billion through 2025.