Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker grants significant access to companies, donors

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Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks Jan. 3, 2011, at an inauguration ceremony at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis.

Morry Gash/AP

You don’t have to be a campaign donor or corporate executive to get an audience with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. But it doesn’t hurt.

Walker received contributions from employees or political action committees at more than half of the 130-plus companies that appear in his official calendars, according to an analysis by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

These employees and PACs gave Walker at least $1.5 million since May 2009, just after he declared his candidacy for governor.

“Wisconsin is Open for Business,” the Republican governor proclaimed in a press release on the night he was elected. His calendars from January 2011 through January 2012 bear out this stance, revealing a steady stream of contacts with top company officials.

Walker’s spokesman, Cullen Werwie, said the governor’s calendars reflect his priorities.

“Gov. Walker has been working hard to encourage job creators to expand in Wisconsin,” Werwie said in an email interview. “It should be no surprise that those interested in creating jobs in Wisconsin would meet with the governor.”

Center reporters pored through more than 4,400 calendar entries during this 13-month period to tally Walker’s contacts.

The analysis suggested that big donors got more access. Three-quarters of all PACs that have given Walker at least $20,000 are associated with companies that show up on his calendar. In contrast, about a quarter of the PAC donors that gave under $20,000 are listed.

Companies and their executives appear in Walker’s calendars in jobs announcements, factory tours, check presentations, phone calls and private meetings — sometimes labeled “no media,” as with 3M and Caterpillar Inc.

The list includes many big businesses, such as Harley-Davidson, IBM, Northwestern Mutual, Johnsonville Sausage, Walgreens and Uline. No one company dominated Walker’s time: Leading the list, with four contacts, was Ashley Furniture, based in Arcadia, Wis.

“This governor has long been known as being pro-business, which led to business people giving money to his campaign,” said Joe Heim, a political science professor at UW-La Crosse. “Whether the money was related to the access remains to be seen.”

Heim noted that, according to the Center’s analysis, Walker hasn’t received campaign contributions from two-thirds of executives who spent time in person or on the phone with him.

“You can have access to the governor without contributing, to be blunt,” Heim said.

Mike McCabe, executive director of the nonpartisan watchdog Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, disagreed, noting that just 1 percent of the population contributes to political campaigns. He said Walker’s calendars lend credence to citizens who believe that “politics is just a rich person’s game, and you have to have a lot of money to have a voice.”

McCabe added that direct giving to candidates is only a small part of the cash that major players pump into campaigns, with much of the rest coming from outside special interests.

“I guarantee you that the numbers you describe understate the companies’ involvement,” he said.

Does money equal access?

Former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle was once billed as a participant in a “Meet and Greet” breakfast with the Dairy Business Association “exclusively for DBA members who have contributed to the DBA Conduit or Political Action Committee.”

In Walker’s calendars, the connection between money and access is never so explicit. And they rarely say what’s discussed.

For example, the calendars show Walker visiting roofing distributor ABC Supply Co. Inc. on Jan. 18, 2011, for a meeting of a Rock County economic development group.

Recently released video footage shows Walker at this meeting talking to Diane Hendricks, the company’s executive vice president, about his plan to curtail collective bargaining for public workers, which he described as the beginning of a “divide and conquer” strategy.

Hendricks later became Walker’s largest contributor. She gave Walker contributions at or near the maximum $10,000 limit in each of the last two election cycles, then last month wrote him a $500,000 check, taking advantage of a state law that removes the limit for officials facing recalls. Walker also met with Hendricks twice in April 2011, at least once in her capacity as a board member of WisconsinEye, the calendars show.

Another donor, John Bergstrom, who owns the state’s largest car dealership and has given Walker $4,000 since January 2010, received a call from Walker on Jan. 20, 2011, according to the calendars. It was the day after a state Senate committee introduced a bill at Walker’s request that would exempt a single parcel of land owned by Bergstrom from state wetlands rules. The exemption passed, in advance of a bill that eased restrictions on infilling of all wetlands.

Georgia Duerst-Lahti, a professor of political science at Beloit College who signed the Walker recall petition, said the governor’s meetings with corporations and donors “reflects the Republicans’ pro-business ideology, but also the governor’s astounding fundraising.”

Walker has raised more than $25 million since taking office. “How’s he going to raise that kind of money without courting corporations?” she asked.

Heim cited an example — Walker’s acceptance of a phone call in February 2011 from a blogger posing as billionaire supporter David Koch — to illustrate his belief that while money buys access, it does not always buy influence.

“Walker promised nothing,” Heim said. “It was simply a friendly conversation. I bet if I called, he wouldn’t answer. But access is not necessarily influence.”

Few union contacts

While the calendars documented many corporate encounters, the Center found scant evidence of contacts between Walker and organized labor. On April 21, 2011, Walker met with Terry McGowan and Robb Kahl of Local Operating Engineers 139, a union that endorsed Walker for governor and made $12,000 in PAC contributions to his campaign.

McGowan has since expressed discomfort with Walker’s remarks to Hendricks. The union is not endorsing a candidate in the current recall election.

Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers union, confirmed that she spoke briefly with the governor on Feb. 9, 2011, as his calendar reflects. But Bell said the requested follow-up meeting never happened. She accused Walker of being more interested in “putting up a front than trying to work with us in a productive way.”

Spokesman Werwie declined to comment on why Walker has seldom met with union officials. But he did say the governor’s schedule “is set and based on how to best create private sector jobs in Wisconsin, which is why (he) met with private sector union representatives, who have largely been a partner in economic development.”

Walker faces Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett on June 5 in a nationally watched recall election.

This three-part series, The Walker Calendar Files, including an interactive graphic of calendar entries, is available at: wisconsinwatch.org/walkercalendars.

The nonprofit and nonpartisan Center (WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio, other news media, MapLight and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or its affiliates.