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Journalist Explores How Conservative Allies Paved Way For Walker's Candidacy


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is expected to officially enter the presidential race next month and to become a top-tier candidate in the Republican primary. According to an article in The New York Times, more than any of his potential rivals for the White House, Walker is a product of a loose network of conservative donors, think tanks and talk radio hosts who have spent years preparing the road for a politician who could successfully present their arguments for small government to a broad constituency. My guest, Patrick Healy, co-wrote that article about Walker and his conservative alliance. Healy is a political correspondent for The New York Times and is covering the 2016 presidential race. He covered Hillary Clinton's campaign in 2008 and reported from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Patrick Healy, welcome to FRESH AIR.

PATRICK HEALY: Thanks for having me, Terry.

GROSS: Do you think that Scott Walker is, in a way, a case study, an example of how now, conservative donors, think tanks and talk radio hosts are coming together to support politicians and also to nurture them every step along the way?

HEALY: Absolutely. What donors and think tanks were looking for in 2008, 2009, as the Tea Party movement was gathering force, were candidates, were politicians who were willing to go to - frankly, to extremes - to use Scott Walker's common phrase, to go big and go bold, to take on the establishment, to throw bombs - you know, rhetorical bombs, when they needed to - you know, someone who would run for office and who would reflect the energy and the ideas of the conservative movement. That was very much Scott Walker as a candidate in 2009, 2010. He was sort of a guy who they could sort of latch onto and champion. And on the other side, Scott Walker, who was a county executive at the time, very much needed money and endorsements that those conservative forces could bring.

GROSS: Scott Walker has had a strong relationship with Michael Grebe, who was the chair of both of Walker's gubernatorial campaigns. Grebe is the head of the Bradley Foundation, which is based in Milwaukee. And he's the former general counsel for the Republican National Committee. Can you describe the Bradley Foundation, which Grebe heads?

HEALY: It's one of the major financiers of conservative think tanks, of ideas, of professorships around the country. It gives money in - at the level of the Koch Foundations, of the Richard Mellon Scaife Foundations - large sums of money. But it's occupied a bit of a lower profile than the Scaife group and the Koch group. Those are just bigger names. But it's a major financier. Now, the Bradley Foundation doesn't involve itself directly in politics, but Mike Grebe occupies a very interesting space. He both sort of works with the board of the Bradley Foundation to direct these grants to conservative groups and ideas, and then he also has been a major figure in the Wisconsin Republican Party and the National Republican Party. And he's someone who spotted Scott Walker back in the 1980s at events for President Reagan and for state party events. And he saw him as a bit of a comer. You know, he didn't know what Scott Walker would turn out to be. But Scott Walker was a young student at Marquette University at the time, very conservative, loved Reagan. And he followed his career over time. And he came to see Scott Walker as the kind of Republican who believed in really going after Democratic issues and going after the establishment and not being interested in - necessarily - in compromise and uniting not dividing. Scott Walker wanted to very much go straight at the Democratic opposition and bring a very tough Republican agenda.

GROSS: So the Bradley Foundation can't directly fund a candidate. What has it been able to do to support Scott Walker?

HEALY: During Scott Walker's first race for governor in 2010, the Bradley Foundation was giving grants to conservative think tanks in Wisconsin to develop ideas and really kind of a platform for a Republican candidate for governor. Now, Mike Grebe, the head of the Bradley Foundation, which was giving these grants, had a Republican candidate in mind to be governor. It was Scott Walker, whose campaign Mike Grebe was chairman of. The Bradley Foundation was giving a million-dollar grant to one conservative think tank in Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, to develop ideas that ended up including sort of a real reform approach to public employee unions. Basically, the think tank was arguing that Wisconsin was stretched way too thin in terms of its budget, in terms of its use of taxpayer money, that it was giving far too much to cover health care and pension contributions for Wisconsin teachers and state and county workers, that this needed to change. And it really intersected well with Scott Walker's own feelings about unions when he was county executive in Milwaukee County, where he saw unions as sort of a big problem for the county budget, just sort of leeching money and being inflexible in terms of change.

GROSS: Is there a level of coordination between all these different groups, between talk radio and, you know, like, Tea Party type of groups and think tank - conservative think tank groups - that something new, that level of coordination?

HEALY: Coordination is a very dangerous word for some of these groups. The Bradley Foundation is a 501c3. It does not want to risk its tax-exempt status by being seen as coordinating with, say, Scott Walker's political campaign or even coordinating with political groups like Americans for Prosperity, which has been financed by Charles and David Koch and for years has also been in Wisconsin supporting Scott Walker's agenda. So I was struck, in some of my reporting, in talking to some of the different groups - Americans for Prosperity, Mike Grebe at the Bradley Foundation - how they just emphasized over and over again that they were not directly coordinating. It was more of a like-minded movement, a like-minded set of groups that were sort of aligning in response to a set of ideas and response to a candidate to support them. But, you know, there's real concern about being labeled as - let's use a phrase from not too recent past - a vast right-wing conspiracy to, you know, elect Scott Walker as governor, to elect Scott Walker as president. The interest is more about being supportive of ideas, of conservative principles and getting behind those. It's safer and doesn't create as many legal headaches.

GROSS: And what are those principles?

HEALY: Free market reforms, right to work, eliminating the power of public unions, school choice programs, whether it be a greater number of charter schools or vouchers, supporting the Second Amendment and rights of gun owners, in some instances, pro-life legislation. But it really tends to focus mostly on economics, on kind of a free market and what they call a sort of democratic capitalism approach to government's role in the economy, which should be, from their point of view, as limited as possible.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Patrick Healy. And he's a political correspondent for The New York Times and is reporting on the 2016 presidential campaign. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Patrick Healy. He's a political correspondent for The New York Times and is covering the 2016 presidential campaign. And we're talking about an article he recently co-wrote called, "Behind Scott Walker, A Long-Standing Conservative Alliance Against Unions." And the article was about the conservative groups that have been nurturing and backing Scott Walker, both in his gubernatorial races and now in what is likely to be his presidential bid.

So one of Scott Walker's issues which has been very popular on the right is limiting the right of unions - in this case, limiting the right of public employee unions in the state of Wisconsin. And after he successfully pushed through that bill, there was a recall campaign. Scott Walker won and remained in office. And you write that two-thirds of the money that he raised - two-thirds of the $37 million that he raised came from outside Wisconsin. Where did it come from?

HEALY: All over the country, Terry. And this is a very important point about Scott Walker. The single greatest reason why he is a credible contender for the presidency, a top-tier candidate likely to announce in early July for the presidency, is because of this fight against the unions and then his survival in the recall election. And the donor base that it allowed a governor of Wisconsin in his first term in office to build. Conservatives across the country watched for weeks on cable television, heard on the radio, about these incredible protests in Madison, Wis. Demonstrators were fighting against Scott Walker's bill to strip collective bargaining for unions. It was an intense fight that lasted far longer than anyone expected. And it turned him into a hero among so many conservatives across the country because he stood his ground, he didn't compromise, he took money that donors were giving and instead of being wishy-washy once he was in office, he shoved that money down the throat of unions, and he won. And that was so inspiring to a lot of conservatives who feel that once their candidates get in office, they sell out their principles. So during that recall race, he amassed a donor list of about 300,000 donors, which rivals what Mitt Romney put together for 2012 for a presidential race. And this guy was getting money - Scott Walker was getting money from all 50 states. You know, he raised something like $37 million himself plus had outside groups coming in to help finance ads and mailers. It was a sort of a huge operation he was able to put together that he now is able to bring to a presidential race.

GROSS: So the recall movement actually really worked in his favor in the long run?

HEALY: It's so interesting, Terry. Democrats in Wisconsin now acknowledge that over and over again, their actions had unintended consequences of empowering Scott Walker and raising his profile during the fight against the unions. The Democratic senators sort of famously left Wisconsin so they would deprive the Republicans in the Senate a quorum to pass Scott Walker's bill. That had the effect of letting this fight go on for weeks and weeks and getting Scott Walker even more media attention, media coverage. And then later on, the Democrats rallied to try to recall Scott Walker as governor setting up that race and, sort of contrary to their expectations, leading to this outpouring of support for Scott Walker from Republican donors nationwide and Republican voters in Wisconsin. So it's just had that effect of raising his profile further and further.

GROSS: Let's look at the Koch brothers, who give a lot of money to right-wing causes. They're not endorsing a candidate in the primary. What is their relationship to Scott Walker? How have they helped him in the past as governor?

HEALY: Sure. In Scott Walker's first governor's race in 2010, Koch Industries' PAC gave him $43,000 to his campaign, which was meaningful. After that, Koch-related groups helped finance mailings and advertisements to support Scott Walker's agenda during the fight against the unions, and then during his recall election, some of those Koch-related groups were some of the major sponsors of advertising during the recall. Americans for Prosperity provided about $3.7 million for ads supporting Scott Walker's agenda. So they have been sort of increasingly involved in Scott Walker's political future, so much so that recently, David Koch made remarks at a private gathering where he suggested that Scott Walker probably would be the Republican nominee in 2016 and sort of indicated that there would be support within sort of the Koch network for a Walker presidential campaign. They walked those remarks back a little bit afterwards, sort of saying that Charles and David Koch hadn't decided to endorse anyone, that money - major donations, you know, wouldn't be going to just one candidate right away. But it was seen as sort of a tip of the hand.

GROSS: Do you know if the Kochs feel any more of an affinity to Scott Walker than to the other Republican candidates in the field?

HEALY: Scott Walker's agenda in Wisconsin lines up quite closely with the Kochs's agenda, both in states and nationally - quite, quite closely. Jeb Bush was a champion too of school choice programs and education reform in Florida when he was governor. He certainly championed lower taxation and kind of a pro-business agenda in Florida. But you haven't necessarily heard as many, kind of, positive words coming out of sort of the Koch network for Jeb Bush. Marco Rubio also kind of says some of the right things that the Kochs like, but he hasn't necessarily taken on the same kind of battles that Scott Walker took on and won in Wisconsin. I think the question probably - one of the questions for the Kochs and their network will be, you know, which guy becomes most electable, you know, which Republican candidate most reflects what the party base wants, what maybe swing voters or voters in some of those key states like Colorado and Florida and Ohio want. And I think they've sort of sent the signal it's sort of too early yet. You know, Scott Walker hasn't even declared his presidential candidacy, and frankly, he hasn't really been under the glare of the spotlight yet. He's sort of taken a bit of a lower profile this spring and let Jeb Bush kind of occupy the spotlight and stumble in it. But once Scott Walker gets into those presidential debates - televised debates starting in August, I think a lot of America's going to see, OK, is he kind of a real-deal candidate for Republican voters, or, you know, is he more of this kind of partisan guy who takes on fights but isn't necessarily ready to go national?

GROSS: Scott Walker is the son of a Baptist minister. Does he have a following in the Christian right?

HEALY: He does. He talks about prayer a great deal on the campaign trail, and he brings it up sort of artfully in the context of his fight against unions and his fight against Democrats. What he does in his stump speeches, he basically thanks the audience for their prayers during the fight against the unions in 2011 when Scott Walker and his wife, Tonette, and their family were getting death threats, were getting harassed, you know, sort of bullied on sort of the left talk radio. And he said that the power of prayer was very sort of inspiring and reassuring to their family. He also talks about praying about whether to run for governor, whether to now run for president. But he very much sort of believes in the idea that prayer is an exchange, a connection between human beings. He's a big believer that when someone reaches out and touches him on the campaign trail and talks about prayer, that it's very important for him - Scott Walker - to reach out and physically touch that person back, that there's an amplification of a connection. So he talks about it quite a bit, and he certainly talks about his humble origins sort of - maybe not so subtly - vis-a-vis, let's say, Jeb Bush coming from, you know, the very wealthy Bush family.

GROSS: So it's expected that Scott Walker will announce his presidential run in July. Why July?

HEALY: He is in the middle of a pretty tough budget fight in Wisconsin that will be playing-out probably until the end of June when a state budget is due. He's got issues around public funding for a new basketball arena in Milwaukee that has actually turned-off some conservatives in the state. There are budget cuts that he's proposed to the University of Wisconsin system that have been deeply controversial with people in the state. So many people have some kind of connection to a campus in the UW system. So he's got to sort of focus on dealing with the budget and getting that done. That'll probably be done late June. Then you've got July Fourth - you don't want to usually announce over a holiday. So it'll probably be soon after that.

GROSS: My guest is Patrick Healy, a political correspondent for The New York Times. He's covering the 2016 presidential race. After a break, we'll talk about Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders's campaigns. Also, rock critic Ken Tucker will review an album he calls one of the year's most striking collections, and linguist Geoff Nunberg wonders if the National Spelling Bee has strayed from its purpose. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Patrick Healy, a New York Times political correspondent who's covering the 2016 presidential race. Earlier, we were talking about the article he co-wrote about Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the conservative funders, think tanks and talk show hosts who support him. Walker is expected to announce his run next month.

I want to ask you a few questions about Hillary Clinton and her campaign finances. You covered her when she ran in 2008 in the Democratic primary. What are some of the questions surrounding her campaign finances and her finances in general now?

HEALY: Right. In 2008, she ran kind of a big-money campaign. She had a series of donors who were bundling large checks for her to sort of create a image of - frankly, of inevitability, of such dominance that she would be able to sort of bring the party together and defeat Barack Obama and John Edwards. Now she's - this is sort of more humble Hillary now. She's been really focused on sort of small-dollar donors, small checks, having house parties and fundraisers that she appears at where people are being asked to give just money for the primary election so that she doesn't appear to be taking the nomination for granted. So, you know, checks of $2,700 as opposed to, you know, massive amounts of bundled cash. So she's sort of taken a different approach there. Her campaign manager is running a pretty austere, lean and mean, you know, campaign so far while staffing up in the key early states. I think the issue is that as much sort of humility as is going on with the Clinton campaign now - sort of the lack of presumptuousness - you know, Secretary Clinton is still kind of dogged by media reports and, you know, records that indicate that there were, you know, significant foreign nation contributions to The Clinton Foundation certainly, very large sums of money given to Secretary Clinton as well as former President Bill Clinton for speaking fees, so sort of a - a kind of a humble approach on the campaign but an approach with sort of their personal finances, at least in terms of the speaking fees, that appear, you know, to, you know, to be much more favorable than what a lot of Americans would experience.

GROSS: You went on the campaign trail with Bernie Sanders of Vermont after he announced his presidential run in the Democratic primary. What surprised you about watching him perform?

HEALY: His authenticity was just so evident. He wasn't trying to be anything different than the, you know, sort of slightly rumpled, tell-it-like-it-is, slightly long-winded senator that he - that he can be. You know, at some rallies, he would say, toward the end of the speech, and one more thing I want to talk about, and then one more thing I want to talk about and then the last thing. And he went on at one rally for sort of - there were six one more things. I mean, this is not a scripted, typically packaged politician. He sort of knows what he is. And that's, so far, what he's delivering. He's gotten significant-sized crowds in Iowa and New Hampshire. Now, I remember when I was covering the presidential race in 2004, Howard Dean was getting these huge crowds early in 2003. And then John Kerry was getting, you know, 15 people in Iowa. So, you know, you can't really base too much on crowd size, but Senator Sanders wants it. He doesn't just want to play a foil to Secretary Clinton. He doesn't want to be seen as a liberal proxy for Elizabeth Warren. He has a set of ideas that he's been advocating since he got into Congress in the '90s and even before that, when he was mayor of Burlington, Vt. And that's what he wants to talk about.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Patrick Healy. He's a political correspondent for the New York Times and has been covering the 2016 presidential campaign. There's something that seems to be quite an anomaly in your journalism career (laughter). You know, you've been a political correspondent. You've covered campaigns. You've covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And you've covered Broadway. So...

HEALY: (Laughter).

GROSS: What is Broadway doing on that resume? I love Broadway, but what's it doing on your resume?

HEALY: It's interesting. When I was a college student, I went to NYU for playwriting for a year. Theater has always been a real personal passion of mine. I loved theater for, you know, the ideas that it conjured up but also the - kind of the allusions, the escapism. You know, there was a real kind of thrill in it. So after Hillary Clinton exited the presidential campaign in 2008, I helped cover the general election for the Times and then had some choices to make about whether to continue with politics, move to Washington, pursue other opportunities. And as it happened, the theater job opened up at the Times covering kind of the Broadway industry and off-Broadway and national theater. And I thought, well, this would be interesting. And one of the great things about The New York Times is that they really support you in taking some zigs and some zags in your career and, you know, trying out new things rather than covering, let's say, sort of one topic for, you know, an entire career.

GROSS: So when you cover the presidential campaign, do you see that as theater?

HEALY: I do, Terry. It's probably a little inevitable, after covering theater for six years, to look at candidates as performers, to see their stump speeches as a monologue, the way that successful monologues build, whether it was by Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, Tom Stoppard, you know, some of the great playwrights. You know, to see engagement - you know, I covered John Kerry's presidential campaign in 2003, 2004. And the fascinating thing about John Kerry was how much better he got as a candidate doing six events a day in Iowa when he was getting just little tiny crowds. And it was as if he was sort of like a show in preview performances before opening night on Broadway. The actors get better; they hone moments. They find the kind of the grace notes in a speech. They know how to start making emotional connections with the audience. Some of those things were so hard for John Kerry. They were very challenging for Hillary Clinton in 2008. People say Barack Obama's a natural; Bill Clinton was a natural in terms of political skills. And part of it was that they, like Ronald Reagan, they had some acting quality. You know, they were able, in a moment when they might be exhausted, when they might be irritable, when they might be so frustrated with campaign headquarters and how things were going back there, to kind of wash that out of their system and go out and perform at a high level.

GROSS: Do you have any favorite theater moments from this campaign, whether they're successful moments or just kind of gaffes?

HEALY: The stumbles that Jeb Bush took on Iraq and saying whether he would have ordered the invasion of Iraq in 2003 like his brother did was sort of high theater to me. And frankly, I think for a lot of people, maybe it raised eyebrows or made them frustrated. But it also may have created, you know, I think some degree of empathy among some people. This is his brother; he loves his brother. He made very clear that he didn't want to be going into the media and second-guessing or critiquing his brother. You know, people have such strong feelings about the Iraq War. And to see sort of Jeb Bush trying to answer the question without wholly answering it and kind of dancing around the formulation that, you know, the - sort of the press corps almost came to start demanding of him and some Republicans felt like he very much needed to say, and then he finally gave the answer. And there was sort of this slightly kind of cathartic moment. OK, now he's said what he needs to say. But then it's sort of like the next scene in the play, you know, is a consideration of boy, what does that long series of gaffes or stumbles say about this main character? You know, is he capable of being, you know, the protagonist in his own story? Or is he just, you know, going to be someone who's on the ropes, who's sort of muddling through or struggling? You know, it was revealing. Jeb Bush was the shock and awe candidate, you know, for the presidency. He was going to scare off everybody. And now he's about to announce a campaign, and he's got 10 other people running against him. And he looks much more vulnerable.

GROSS: So as a political correspondent who formerly covered Broadway, how do you think Scott Walker performs as a candidate? How does he come across?

HEALY: He's performing pretty well so far, Terry, because he's not really trying to be something other than he is. He's sticking to the kind of language that he's most comfortable with. You know, in a big speech or let's say a dramatic monologue about, say, national security, he's pretty blunt in saying that he doesn't like the phrase national security, that he feels like that's some phrase that the elites use, that he prefers to talk about safety. And he uses this kind of fairly simple, straightforward language to talk about how we need to deal with America's enemies through a lens of keeping America safe and protecting the safety of Americans here. And I know some people in his campaign were a little worried about that language at first, that it might come across as simplistic or naive. But I've seen audiences of Republicans really sort of connect to it, like they get safety as opposed to national security theories. So kind of as an actor, he's done what a lot of actors do best, which is - which is sort of stick to their wheelhouse and not try to be something more than they are. You know, if he started trying to come off as a smarty-pants ready to lecture America about what its, you know, foreign policy should be in the Middle East, you know, a lot of people would be like, you know, who's this guy? What's he talking about? You know, what does he know about these issues? So, you know, sort of so far so good.

GROSS: Are there any events coming up in the presidential primary campaigns in the near future that you are looking forward to?

HEALY: Yeah, you're going to see a big rally this Saturday that Hillary Clinton is having in New York, where she tries to take her campaign up to the next level in terms of crowd size and energy and hopefully where she's going to start talking more about specific policy ideas that she has and kind of the rationale for her campaign. On Monday, you're going to see Jeb Bush formally announce for president. And you're - going to be interesting to see if he talks about sort of his campaign, his ideas, his plans in any kind of new or different way. And then eventually, you're going to have Scott Walker jump into it as well and some campaign-finance reports coming out to show how the candidates are doing on the money front. And then the big one is going to be when the presidential debates start on cable and television in August. You know, those televised debates are going to be so important, Terry. I mean, that's where you see kind of whether these guys have what it takes to perform at a high level in which they're trying to just connect to voters in the few minutes that each of them are going to have.

GROSS: Well, Patrick Healy, thank you so much for talking with us.

HEALY: Thanks for having me on, Terry.

GROSS: Patrick Healy is a political correspondent for The New York Times. Coming up, does anyone really know how to spell scherenschnitte or even what it means? Our linguist Geoff Nunberg has some thoughts about the National Spelling Bee. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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