On Wisconsin: Newly revealed e-mails, and reminders of old missteps, cast Gov. Scott Walker in an unflattering light

March 6, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 6, 2014

When thousands of e-mails sent by Scott Walker’s staff were released last month, I doubted that they’d have much of an impact on the Wisconsin governor who has aspirations of being elected president on the Republican ticket.

The messages had previously been secret because aides to Walker, who was then the elected leader of Milwaukee County, had set up a private network in the county executive’s office. This arrangement, which made it easier for staffers to communicate about the gubernatorial campaign, was part of an unsuccessful attempt to evade laws barring employees from electioneering when they’re supposed to be working on behalf of the public.

Six Walker associates have been found guilty of wrongdoing, three of them top Walker aides. But a lengthy investigation, now closed, hasn’t resulted in any charges against Walker. Employing staff members, even highly placed ones, who engage in politics on the taxpayer’s dime just doesn’t seem likely to tarnish Walker for a substantial number of voters.

Still, there has been a stream of unflattering revelations since the e-mails were released. And while these revelations have been more about Walker’s employees than the politician himself, they’re certainly not helping the official’s image.

So over time, I’ve changed my mind; I now think that Salon’s Joan Walsh is probably right when she argues that Walker may now be too tarnished to run for president successfully. Ironically, it was a recent Walsh piece that was only tangentially related to the formerly secret e-mails that made me think that Walker’s presidential aspirations are toast.

On Monday, Walsh wrote about Walker handing over Milwaukee County social services to state control. The takeover, which happened in February 2009, was an unprecedented move at the time. It followed persistent problems, including lawsuits prompted by the county’s chronic mishandling of assistance programs. Steve Schultze of Milwaukee’s Journal-Sentinel reported that “the move was prompted by administrative bottlenecks resulting in unfair benefit denials,” according to Karen Timberlake, Wisconsin’s health services secretary.

“Milwaukee County has demonstrated a sustained inability to successfully provide services to its (poor) customers,” Timberlake said in a letter to Walker.

She disputed Walker’s assertion that the problem has been the state underfunding the operation, or due to the souring economy.

The state “has in fact expended millions of additional dollars and thousands of hours of staff resources to assist your county over a period of years,” Timberlake wrote. “Despite these efforts, Milwaukee County’s performance fails national and state standards and is failing the people of the county.”

One study showed that as many as 99 percent of calls placed to Milwaukee County’s assistance center went unanswered. (Although the county budget authorized two dozen call-center workers, many positions were left vacant for some reason.) State audits repeatedly found problems with the county’s processing of applications for food or health-care benefits; for example, in one year, a fifth of eligible applicants were cut off from food assistance.

Milwaukee County’s problems weren’t limited to public aid programs. As Walker ran for governor in 2010, reports kept on surfacing of sexual assault, violence and other problems at the county Mental Health Complex.

Kelly Rindfleisch, then Walker’s deputy chief of staff, referred somewhat flippantly to the division’s troubles in a September 2010 e-mail to a friend.

“Last week was a nightmare,” she wrote. “A bad story every day on our looney bin. Doctors having sex with patients, patients getting knocked up. This has been coming for months and I’ve unofficially been dealing with it. So, it’s been crazy (pun intended).”

Even so, in an message from around the same time, Rindfleisch dismissively assessed the political acumen of Walker’s Democratic opponent, who made problems at the mental health complex a central point of his campaign. “Nobody cares about crazy people,” Rindfleisch wrote.

Certainly Rindfleisch didn’t seem to. Nor was she attentive to the ethics of raising money for the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor from her office near Walker’s in the county executive’s suite; Rindfleisch pleaded guilty to doing so in 2012 but is now appealing her conviction.

Again, the wrongdoing here seems to be confined to Walker aides — the governor himself hasn’t been charged. But the problems, and glibness, exposed here certainly seem like things for which the then–county executive deserves some measure of responsibility. And the victims weren’t just lazy or undeserving welfare applicants. They were individuals who were eligible for help, people who were vulnerable to — and often harmed by — government misconduct and negligence.

The conservative creed of self-reliance is an important one, and one that Republicans prescribe for a wide swath of society, but it certainly doesn’t apply to mentally ill people. The callousness and outright bungling seen in some sectors of Walker’s county administration shouldn’t endear him to voters who might otherwise be friendly to the Wisconsin official.

Walker may yet win re-election to the governor’s office this year, and he might even — somehow — secure the Republican nomination to run for president in 2016. But Walker, perhaps more so than other mainstream Republicans past and present, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and embattled current New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, has already shown himself to be very conservative. His ideology and the blots on his record — newly known or otherwise — that are now showing up under the media’s spotlight will likely sink Walker’s crossover appeal among Democratic and swing voters.

Yes, Walker will have time to try to repair his image, and time in which the public might forget about his miscues. I just doubt that any amount of repairs, or forgetfulness, will be able to restore the governor’s mass appeal.

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