Solving the "mystery" of Scott Walker's college years and entry into politics
The story of Scott Walker’s rise to power from College Republican to head of Democrat-heavy Milwaukee County to a governorship that survived a massive recall drive is well known.
Yet as he gears up for re-election and raises his national profile, the story of Walker’s formative political years -- the student activism, his early exit from Marquette University and campaign debut at 22 -- remains surprisingly disputed.
Some Walker critics have engaged in a long campaign of unproven attacks, taking advantage of his reluctance -- until now -- to shed more light on this period. Walker has sometimes fueled the fire by shifting how he presents elements of his biography.
State Democrats cry the governor was "kicked out" of student elections at the Jesuit university in Milwaukee -- and maybe booted from Marquette altogether.
Walker, meanwhile, insists he left on his own just one semester shy of a degree as part of a career decision unrelated to any political future.
In this item we’ll examine what is known and unknown and what is perhaps unknowable regarding the statements made by both sides.
Walker enrolled at Marquette in the fall of 1986, a year in which he already was active volunteering for Tommy Thompson’s successful GOP gubernatorial campaign.
Just a few weeks later, he was a student senator investigating a scandal in student government.
The suit-and-tie-wearing College Republican was selected to lead a probe into "Pfister-gate," in which dinner at the Pfister Hotel’s English Room, flowers and a limousine -- all for student government leaders -- were charged to student government accounts during homecoming.
The Walker-led committee recommended impeachment, and several top student leaders resigned, earning Walker some deep enemies who continue to taunt him today.
It was a "McCarthyite investigation" in the eyes of Glen Barry, one of the student officials whom Walker’s panel had sought to impeach. Barry has written that he and others did not know student funds were used.
In February 1988, as a sophomore, Walker entered a fiercely fought campaign for Marquette student government president, running on a 19-item resume that ended with Eagle Scout. The winner would not only preside over the government, but get a scholarship and expense money.
The race divided the campus and broke voter turnout records.
Taking on Walker and relishing it was John Quigley, a liberal student from Chicago interested in aggressively pressuring the school’s conservative administration to divest from investments in South Africa and address racial equality. Quigley opposed the higher drinking age.
Walker, a preacher’s son, was painted as an establishment incumbent tied to an increase in student fees. He urged cooperation with administrators and criticized sit-ins and protests. Walker highlighted his anti-abortion position. On campus issues, he pledged safer streets and bringing in cool bands like INXS and REM.
To Quigley, it seemed Walker and his organization were campaigning as if the prize was the presidency of the United States. Walker blamed Quiqley for making the race partisan.
Both sides tripped over campaign rules that limited spending and how and where candidates could distribute literature and place signs on campus. Each side lodged complaints against the other.
An election commission found Walker guilty of campaigning a week early. A Quigley worker campaigned too close to polls. An unregistered Walker worker dropped literature at students’ doors. Walker lost campaign privileges in one Marquette facility, and lost a day of campaigning as another penalty.
The day before the election, the student-produced Marquette Tribune endorsed Quigley. That surprised Quigley, who expected that his rabble-rousing style would be frowned on. The paper, though, also said Walker was qualified.
That day’s newspaper became a limited edition, students told the Quigley campaign. They’d seen Walker workers and/or College Republicans emptying editions of the Tribune from racks in high-traffic buildings, according to Quigley. Administrators soon got involved in the dustup.
"I heard by mid-day that people couldn’t find it," Quigley told us. Tribune officials also complained to administrators.
Stung by the endorsement, Walker’s camp plastered campus with an election-eve flier criticizing Quigley’s political tactics.
It was gentle stuff, but the Trib took offense, publishing an election-day editorial headlined, "Walker unfit." It decried his "mudslinging" and said another factor in its reversal on Walker being qualified was the alleged theft of papers, which Walker’s camp denied.
The next day’s vote wasn’t close; Quigley won 1,245 to 927.
His tenure was short.
Within months, Quigley was forced from office when senators threatened impeachment following his arrest at a sit-in protesting a university decision to displace low-income residents of the central YMCA to make room for Marquette dormitory space.
"Father Raynor, hollow be thy name," read a sign Quigley carried, referring to John Raynor, Marquette’s president from 1965 to 1990.
That left an opening in spring 1989.
But Walker sat it out and disappeared from the student government scene.
Party lacks proof
Twenty-five years later, the state Democratic Party’s website alleges that "Scott Walker was kicked out of student elections at Marquette University after masterminding a scheme that destroyed newspapers critical of him."
The post adds: "Walker either dropped out or was forced out not long after."
Let’s start with "forced out" of school.
Mike Tate, chairman of the state Democrats, told us the party based its post on unnamed sources who he said had privately passed on information about possible "nefarious activity" that Tate did not describe.
Those parties would be reluctant to talk to a reporter, he said. The allegation is defensible, said Tate, because the party is trying to raise questions about the "mystery" of Walker’s departure.
That’s a flimsy case, at best. At worst, it suggests a possible fictional smear.
Others who have publicly pushed theories of a cheating scandal or of Walker flunking out also provide no proof or admit they have only questions.
"I wish I could say definitely why he never graduated," wrote Glen Barry in an often-quoted May 2012 blog post in which he endorsed the "caught cheating" theory of Walker’s exit.
We asked Walker if he was "forced out" of Marquette for any reason.
"I can say unequivocally that isn’t true," Walker said.
Many of Walker’s friends from the period declined interviews for this story, but we spoke with Quigley, Walker and other students, teachers and administrators -- Walker critics and backers alike -- and examined volumes of university files on the election and other matters from the period.
We heard nothing -- and found no evidence -- suggesting Walker was pushed out of the university.
But publicly available documents cannot fully resolve the question, in part because a federal privacy law blocks release of information on former students unless the person consents. In addition, Walker told us he was sticking to an earlier decision not to release his transcript.
With that in mind, we asked Walker if he would allow Marquette to comment on his academic and conduct record. He did.
"Gov. Scott Walker was a student at Marquette from fall of 1986 until spring 1990 and was a senior in good standing when he voluntarily withdrew from Marquette," the university said in a statement.
That means that no conduct issues, academic or otherwise, blocked Walker from continuing in school at the time of his departure, MU spokesman Brian Dorrington told us in early December 2013.
When we asked Dorrington whether any conduct issues were on Walker’s earlier school record, he said Walker would have to permit release of that information. Walker did so in response to our request.
"Governor Walker was in good standing each term while he was enrolled at Marquette University and when he left Marquette University," Associate Vice Provost Anne Deahl said in a letter. "Governor Walker was not expelled or suspended from the university at any time."
Finally, there’s another problem with the Democratic Party’s claims.
According to MU, Walker left school after the spring semester in 1990. That’s more than two years after the 1988 election, instead of the "not long after" the Dems claim.
Theft of newspapers alleged
We did find evidence that the alleged newspaper confiscation got the attention of top university administrators, one of whom ordered an investigation.
"I have requested the Department of Public Safety to investigate the reported destruction/theft of a large number of Marquette Tribune newspapers on February 23, 1988," Dean of Students James E. Moore wrote to College Of Journalism Dean Sharon Murphy on May 9, 1988. "If the inquiry indicates a conduct policy violation on the part of the identified individuals, a disciplinary process will be initiated."
Murphy had written to Moore saying the trashing of the Tribs "could be considered just an election-year prank," or "an attempt to muffle the press and prevent readers from getting the message somebody didn’t like."
A faculty adviser to the newspaper told Murphy a similar incident at the University of Florida led to discipline and criminal charges against student offenders.
We sought out Murphy and Moore to learn what became of the law-enforcement probe.
"Federal law (FERPA) prevents me from disclosing any student education records, which includes conduct records, without a student’s specific consent," said Moore, now dean of students at LaSalle University. "Therefore, I am not able to respond to your inquiry."
Murphy, who is retired, told us she didn’t recall the outcome.
So we sought files regarding the case from Marquette.
Marquette officials told us that even if they once existed, records regarding disciplinary actions unrelated to academics are destroyed two years after a student or his/her class graduates, per the student handbook. Students who have completed a penalty for non-academic discipline are returned to good standing.
Records of suspensions or expulsions are not destroyed, the handbook says.
The bottom line: Details of the alleged purloining of the papers are not readily available in the public record, such as it is, much less evidence of who may have "masterminded" it.
Overall, we turned up no proof that Walker was barred from elections.
"These allegations are false," Walker spokesman Tom Evenson told us.
Quigley firmly agrees.
"I don’t believe any disciplinary action was taken against him for anything that happened in that election," said Quigley, who is now a Democratic political consultant.
Coming up short
That still leaves the question of why Walker left school.
One thing is clear: The loss in his bid for student body president left Walker reeling and questioning himself.
He lost, Walker later told the Hilltop yearbook, because he "focused on personalities and egos."
"I’ve still remained very political," he said in that 1990 interview, "but my reasons for being political have changed dramatically."
Walker also focused on campus volunteer work and a part-time job at a local IBM office instead of campaigning for student leadership again.
Even one of his harshest critics then and now saw a change through his anti-Walker lens.
"In his junior year, after being pummeled in student politics, Walker seemed a reformed and humbled man, and tried to make amends," Glen Barry wrote.
Barry, now a nationally recognized environmental activist who founded Ecological Internet, recalled "fond memories of drinking beers with a more humane Walker, as friendly adversaries." He did not respond to an interview request for this story.
By his own account an average student who was indifferent to some classes, Walker was not on track to graduate in four years.
Today, he tells national interviewers he was just one semester short of completion, and left for a career opportunity in the private sector without thought to a potential career in politics -- a sort of reluctant warrior entering the public arena.
"Not long after Tonette and I were married (in 1993), there was an opening in the state Assembly," Walker said in an expansive book-promotion interview at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia with talk radio host Chris Stigall on Nov. 21, 2013. "A number of my friends said, you talk about this stuff all the time, why don't you run?"
But his account is incomplete and at odds with itself on several counts.
Walker actually has about a year left in school, maybe more, based on Marquette records and available evidence -- considerably more than the 15 to 17 credits he mentions to interviewers.
He earned 94 credits and had senior status, accumulating a 2.59 grade point average, the Walker campaign for governor said in 2010.
His credit total is 34 short of the 128 minimum needed to graduate in one major, a total that requires an average of 16 per semester. Walker told the 1990 yearbook interviewer he was triple majoring in political science, philosophy and economics; that likely would have meant an even heavier load.
Asked now about the apparent discrepancy, Walker told us he wasn’t sure exactly how many credits he needed because he hasn’t looked it up.
Demands on his time
Walker’s decision to drop out coincided not just with a job offer, but with his first state political race -- one he now often omits from his narrative.
Walker, still living in the campus area but having quit school, took on Democratic state Rep. Gwen Moore in fall 1990 though he had little realistic chance to knock off the incumbent in the north side district.
In his interview with us, Walker described that run as a lark and a ballot-filling favor for the local Republican Party.
"I had no master plan," he said.
Moore, looking back, recalled differently. She told us that GOP sources had warned her young opponent it "wasn’t the right race, the right seat."
Walker took the race seriously, planning it while still in school.
He knocked on 13,000 doors, distributed anti-crime literature, bought print advertising and brought on as treasurer John Hiller, who became one of his closest political aides through his county and Madison years. He got 31% of the vote.
"I really think there’s a reason why God put all these political thoughts in my head," Walker told the yearbook about his 1990 campaign plans.
"He got bitten by the bug," an aide to Walker at Milwaukee County said of that 1990 race, in an interview.
In February 1990, shortly before dropping out, Walker took a job with a nonprofit, the local chapter of the American Red Cross.
Was it the type of job a young man who believed he was fated to be in politics would have targeted as a career starter, as he has said?
That, too, is up for debate in some respects.
"Certainly I wanted an education for more than just a job," Walker said in the 2013 book-tour interview in Philadelphia, "but my primary purpose was to get a job, and so I left school before finishing my senior year."
Walker said in that interview that the Red Cross in 1990 offered him a job in "finance and development." Red Cross records from the southeastern Wisconsin office describe his initial position as in marketing and fundraising.
Melissa Gollakner, a human resources official speaking for the southeastern Wisconsin Red Cross office, said records from 1990 don’t show whether the job was full-time or part-time. The title, though, suggests full-time, she said.
Walker told us it was "quasi" full time at first, allowing him the flexibility of leaving for afternoon classes. Shortly after, he dropped out, saying the job required his full-time attention.
He was there from February 1990 to March 1994, about nine months after winning election to the state Assembly from Wauwatosa in 1993.
Return to school?
On the national speaking circuit in 2013 while exploring a 2016 presidential bid, Walker got questions about what Time magazine called "the surprising gap in his resume."
It’s not a new topic in Walkerland, which is heavily populated by Marquette graduates.
Several of Walker’s top aides past and present urged him for years to follow through on his stated intent to go back to school.
One told the Journal Sentinel that Walker was so engrossed in his legislative work at the Capitol and as Milwaukee County executive from 2002-2010, and by family matters, that he did not want to take time for school.
Walker, for his part, has emphasized how marriage and fatherhood strained his available time and finances.
Critics don’t argue that point, but they have cried foul at how he frames it.
In January 2013, Walker said in his annual "state of the state" speech that, "I thought I would squeeze in a course here or there and finish things off in a year or two, but then Tonette and I got married."
A story in Time made a similar point after its reporter interviewed Walker. After taking the Red Cross job in 1990, the story said, "at first he tried to be a part time student, but quickly the births of his children took that option off the table."
In reality, Walker didn’t marry until 1993, and his first of two sons arrived in 1994.
That gave him several years to take classes before family obligations or his government career began.
Walker told us he did not compress the timetable the way it sounded as if he had in the Time piece.
It was always in his mind, Walker told us, that he would return someday to get his degree, so he had no immediate regrets. He explored enrolling at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee at one point, a former aide told us, and there’s talk that Marquette tried to work with him on a way to complete his bachelor’s degree.
By 2002, he told the Marquette Tribune that leaving school was one of his biggest regrets.
He may still finish, thanks to a new program he helped establish, as governor, in the University of Wisconsin System. It awards adults credits for work experience in certain fields, though not yet one that fits his background.
"Someday, maybe in the next few years, I’ll embark on finishing my degree," Walker told national reporters.
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(Editor's note: After this item was published, the state Democratic Party removed the accusation Walker was kicked out of Marquette University and student elections from its website. )
WALKER'S COLLEGE TIMELINE
August 1986 -- Enters Marquette University.
Fall 1986 -- Elected to student senate from YMCA dorm. Appointed chairman, Select Senate Committee on Investigation. College Republican and member of Marquette Students for Life.
Spring 1987 -- Loses race for Inter-Residence Hall Council president to write-in candidate Michele Albers. Listed as arts and sciences major.
February 17, 1988 -- Finishes second, as a sophomore, in four-candidate primary election for student government president. Advances to general election.
Feb. 23, 1988 -- Marquette Tribune endorses John Quigley for student president, but says Walker qualified as well.
Feb. 23, 1988 -- Walker responds to editorial with campaign literature criticizing Quigley’s tactics and listing endorsements from 49 students.
Feb. 23, 1988 -- Reports circulate on campus that Walker supporters confiscated and destroyed stacks of Tribunes containing the endorsement.
Feb. 24, 1988 -- Marquette Tribune editorial board revises endorsement, saying Walker is "unfit" because of negative campaigning. Also mentions the alleged theft of the papers.
Feb. 24, 1988 -- Loses general election to Quigley.
Fall 1988 -- Starts part-time job in sales support at IBM office in Milwaukee; later sold warranty agreements on mainframe computers.
February 1990 -- Hired by Greater Milwaukee chapter of American Red Cross in marketing and development department.
May 1990 -- Dropped out of Marquette after completing spring term 34 credits short of minimum needed to graduate. Studied political science, economics and philosophy.
November 1990 -- Lost a long-shot campaign for state Assembly on Milwaukee’s near north side to incumbent Democrat Gwen Moore.
June 1993 -- Won a special election in suburban Wauwatosa for 14th Assembly District seat over Christopher Ament.
March 1994 -- Left American Red Cross.