They loved him indoors. They hated him outdoors.
Blossoming Republican star Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has that polarizing effect on people.
About 300 people — including a large number of union workers — picketed outside the downtown Seattle Sheraton late Thursday afternoon to protest Walker speaking at the Washington Policy Center's annual fundraising dinner. The center is a conservative-learning Seattle-based think tank. Another rising conservative political star, neurosurgeon Ben Carson also spoke, but eluded the protestors' radar.
Walker, very conservative on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, became Wisconsin's governor in 2011, and tried to cut education spending there. He sparked national controversy when he pushed through legislation to cut most state union contracts to one year in duration, dramatically increased workers' contributions to pensions and health insurance, and removed most collective bargaining rights except for wages. That led to a recall election in 2012, which he won by a 53 percent to 46 percent margin, a smidgen better than his showing in the 2010 election. Walker said that an NBC exit poll on the recall vote showed he received support from 40 percent of Wisconsin's union households.
"Scott Walker is the most consequential governor of any state in the 21st century," said former Republican U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton when he introduced Walker to roughly 1,200 people at the Washington Policy Center dinner. Another 600 attended a similar dinner in Spokane, which was linked by video to the Seattle event.
The picketers included Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, his mayoral challenger state Sen. Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine.
"We had huge budget cuts like Gov. Walker. But we sat down with our unions. We didn't attack them," McGinn said. Murray said, "Scott Walker's ideas are dead in Washington state, and they're dead in Seattle."
Picketer Uly Ruiz, a Boeing machinist from Mukilteo speculated that Walker is using the Seattle stopover on his way to a trade conference in Tokyo to lay groundwork for a possible future run for a national office.
David Freiboth, executive secretary of the King County Labor Council, contended the Washington Policy Center crowd represented a minority among Washington's voters. "They're probably having a little fun at our (the protestors') expense," he said of the dinner guests passing the picketers.
Gorton told the crowd awaiting Walker's speech, "The picketers you ran into tonight is the reaction of losers."
Besides Gorton, major politicians at the dinner included former Republican Gov. Dan Evans; Democratic Lt. Gov. Brad Owen; Washington Senate Majority Coalition Caucus Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina; and Senate Republican Caucus Leader Mark Schoesler, R- Ritzville. Republican former U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt attended the Spokane dinner.
Walker did not talk much about specific policy details, and how they could relate to Washington and the rest of the nation. Instead, he gave mostly a general pep talk punctuated frequently by applause. "Real reform happens in the states. ... We have to reclaim our country one state at a time," Walker said, without elaborating on what needs to be reclaimed.
Walker cited his Wisconsin record in that unemployment dropped from 9.2 percent to 6.8 percent during his term (A Wisconsin paper's PolitFact analysis in June critiqued his unemployment boasts as "mostly false.) And he touted the replacement of seniority with merit in how Wisconsin teachers are laid off. He blasted the idea of more people are getting on Medicaid; in fact, he rejected Medicaid expansion for Wisconsin. "I asked: 'Why is having more people on Medicaid a good thing?' " Walker said.
And he pushed for stricter job-hunting requirements for people receiving food stamps.
Walker briefly touched on only one local Washington issue — an effort to raise the minimum wage in the city of SeaTac to $15 an hour, with rumblings in Seattle about exploring that same measure. Walker said he and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin and the GOP's vice presidential candidate in 2012, both worked at McDonald's as teens. "We didn't seek $15 an hour to do our jobs," Walker said.
Behind the scenes, Walker did talk with State Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, about how to push for right-to-work legislation. Baumgartner said he plans to introduce such legislation in the 2014 session in Olympia, not expecting it to go far. Baumgartner said he plans to take a page from Murray's playbook when he and Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, took several years to get gay marriage passed through a series of incremental steps aimed at making legislators comfortable with the idea. Baumgartner said he figures it will take three to four years to get a right-to-work law through a legislature that is greatly influenced by labor interests.
Meanwhile, Dr. Carson gave a conservative-oriented talk sprinkled with some of his political beliefs. He is a retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon and medical school professor who gained prominence last February with a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast attended by President Obama Barack Obama. That led to his becoming a sought-after speaker on the conservative circuit, and part of his Thursday speech mirrored what he said in February.
He cited his own pull-himself-up-by-his-bootstraps life from a poor child to a cutting-edge neurosurgeon, preaching stick-to-itiveness. Carson slammed the education system, contending middle schoolers from decades ago knew more than young people entering college today.
Carson wants a tax system in which everyone pays the same rate. And he wants third party roles greatly diminished in the health care system. And "we've gotta fight the secular-progressives who are trying to erase God from our society," he said.