MADISON, Wis. (AP) — As Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker fights for his political life, some of the most devastating attacks aren’t coming from Democrats. They’re coming from a handful of former top officials from his own administration.
Three former Walker Cabinet secretaries have blasted the two-term Republican incumbent publicly — not through anonymous editorials or off-the-record comments.
Former Corrections Secretary Ed Wall writes in a tell-all book that he was driven to the brink of suicide by the way Walker and others treated him. Former Financial Services Secretary Peter Bildsten said Walker was beholden to special interests and consumed by his political standing. And former Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb said Walker isn’t telling the truth about road funding.
Even former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, long a supporter, distanced himself from Walker on prison overcrowding. Thompson said he regrets expanding the prison population as governor, even as Walker looks at building yet another prison and making his Democratic opponent’s plan to reduce the number of inmates a campaign issue.
“I have never seen a situation like this where there seems to be a building insurrection for a governor running for re-election,” said Dale Schultz, a former Republican state senator who spent 32 years in the Legislature. Schultz has been highly critical of Walker and other Republicans since retiring in 2015.
The criticism comes as polls show Walker is in a tight race with Democrat Tony Evers. Walker is seeking a third term after beating back a recall attempt in 2012 and a failed presidential bid in 2016. The race is being closely watched as a signal of GOP strength in Wisconsin after President Donald Trump put the state in the Republican column for the first time since 1984.
For now, Walker is shrugging off the attacks, saying he doesn’t think they will be a political liability.
“I don’t put yes people around me,” Walker told The Associated Press. “I put people who give me a variety of different views and opinions.”
Evers is rushing to capitalize on the family feuding. He has already cut two digital ads featuring Wall and Bildsten blasting Walker.
“I just think it is pretty powerful,” said Democratic U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, a former state lawmaker who has sparred with Walker for years. “Usually if someone does it they’re about to switch parties and run for office, or something self-serving. In this case, I don’t see that. These are people who are just seeing a wrong direction for Wisconsin. … Scott Walker’s starting to make Donald Trump look competent.”
Wall was fired from his job as head of the Corrections Department for asking that a public document be destroyed. He is the most outspoken of the three, and his recent book accused Walker of mismanaging the state’s juvenile prisons , which have been under federal investigation for more than three years.
“People need to pay attention to what former administration people are saying,” Wall said. “My purpose in writing the book is not grinding an ax but to tell the truth. … There was a pattern of mistakes and dishonesty going on with this administration you should know about.”
Bildsten once was such a Walker believer that he joked at Walker’s first Cabinet meeting that he was going to tattoo Walker’s promise to create 250,000 jobs on his shoulder. But Bildsten left in 2015 amid what he said was a dramatic shift away from doing what is best for the state toward doing what is best for Walker politically.
“I became very frustrated with the influence of special interests,” Bildsten said.
Bildsten, who is semi-retired, said he’s voting for Evers.
Gottlieb was a Republican leader in the state Assembly before joining Walker’s administration in 2011. He left in 2015 and recently said that Walker was “not truthful” and “increasingly inaccurate” in comments about transportation funding, another hot topic in the race.
Gottlieb chaired a task force that in 2013 recommended considering gas tax increases to help pay for roads, a position that put him at odds with Walker, who has refused to consider the idea without a corresponding cut elsewhere.
Republican state Sen. Tom Tiffany derided Gottlieb as a “status-quo secretary in a reform-minded administration.”
But Walker, when asked about Gottlieb, said “he served us well” and helped save $600 million on an interstate project in Milwaukee.
“He has his opinion now; he’s in a different world than before,” Walker said.
Thompson, who was the state’s longest-serving governor, in office from 1987 to 2001, said he “would have felt terrible” had he faced the type of internal criticism Walker has experienced. But he also doesn’t think it will hurt Walker politically.
“Everything negative has an impact on a race,” Thompson said, “but I think it’s not something that’s lasting.”