Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Thursday, December 8, 2016

Before there were public employee unions, there was Tonette.

Unintimidated is the title of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s book, the title of his SuperPAC, and the thematic spine of his presidential campaign. It is of course a reference to his knock-down, drag-out fight with state worker unions, and his subsequent triumphs in politics and policy.

The protracted showdown over collective bargaining rights revealed the small-town pastor’s son with the low-key manner to be unusually audacious and persistent, as well as undeterred by custom or convention. None of that would have surprised anyone familiar with the story of his marriage — a revelatory tale that should make smart Democrats nervous about Mr. Unintimidated.

Tonette Walker lost her first husband, her grandmother, and her brother (her only sibling) in the same year, when she was 30. Five years later, she exchanged glances with Walker on karaoke night at a barbecue restaurant and nearly threw out the paper napkin on which he had written his phone number. She thought he was handing her his trash as he walked out.

“He actually told my roommate that the night he met me [he knew] he was going to marry me. You can only imagine the laugh my roommate and I had over that,” Tonette said last fall in accepting the Margaret Thatcher Award from a conservative group called Right Wisconsin.

Her losses, she said, had made her cynical about men and dismissive of marriage. On top of that, she was 12 years older than Scott. “At first I thought Scott was just infatuated with an older woman. But you know with Scott, he had a counterpoint to every concern I raised. When I pointed out our age difference, he told me that his grandparents, they were 12 years apart and they were married for decades,” she said in her speech.

Walker, a conservative who had started running for office at 22, managed to convince not only Tonette but her Democratic, union-member parents. The age difference “was more of an issue to my family than him being a Republican,” Tonette told Brava Magazine in Madison just before Walker took office in 2011. Now, her Democratic upbringing long behind her, she is a full political partner to her husband and an effective public champion for him.

Walker’s dogged pursuit of an older woman bruised by tragedy is consistent with his damn-the-torpedoes conservative governance in a state that hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1984. A lot of people were shell-shocked, but in retrospect, they shouldn’t have been. His marriage was an early example of his disregard for the usual path and in fact a sign that he thrives on the challenges of going off-road.

The age gap that gave Tonette’s family pause — and which she recently told The Washington Post she herself would wonder about if her son brought home an older woman — could even work to the Walkers’ advantage in a campaign. Consider that just 2 percent of men marry or remarry women 10 or more years older than they are, according to a Pew Research Center poll last December.

In popular culture, there’s a stereotype of desperate “cougars” of a certain age going after younger men. But in politics, a man with an older wife can benefit from a halo effect. Admit it, until the whole thing imploded, didn’t you feel better about the impossibly attractive John Edwards because Elizabeth, his late wife, was five years older and looked her age?

Walker has been one long walking, talking, maddening provocation to Democrats. Even more annoying, there were few overt clues to his intentions. He did not campaign in 2010 on going after collective bargaining rights for public employees, but that battle defined him once he took office. Likewise, in 2011 he signaled disinterest in right-to-work laws that would affect private unions — but he signed such a law in March.

Democratic strategist Bill Burton warned his fellow Democrats more than once before the 2014 elections that they would have deep regrets if they didn’t oust Walker right then and there. “Scott Walker is a real threat in 2016,” he said on Bloomberg TV. “If we miss the opportunity as Democrats to take him out now, it could be a real issue for us.”

His alarms came months after the party had nominated a political novice, businesswoman Mary Burke, who proved not nearly up to the task of defeating a national conservative icon in a Republican year. Walker won in 2010. He won a recall in 2012. He won re-election in 2014. His coming announcement for president Monday in Waukesha is a formality. He has been firmly lodged in the elite top tier of the gigantic GOP field for months.

All of that was against the odds. Just like against the odds, he got the girl.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Illustration: DonkeyHotey via Flickr