It has been 25 years since Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker sought the student body presidency of a large private university. Just days before what could become only the third successful gubernatorial recall in U.S. history, UW Election Eye wondered whether polarizing perceptions of Walker were as prevalent back then as they are now.
MILWAUKEE — Polite. Dishonest. Respectful. Conniving.
Depending on whom you ask, the embattled Tea Party hero fighting for his political life was either an average, well-intentioned student at Marquette University — or a disillusioned, narcissistic buffoon devoid of any moral compass as he walked over friend and foe alike in repeated failed efforts to become student body president.
“Scott would always come to class in a three-piece suit and tell me he was working in a bank — ‘working in the private sector,’ he would say. It was like teaching a real-life Alex Keaton,” said Walker’s urban politics professor, Janet Boles, referring to Michael J. Fox’s eccentric character on the old TV sitcom Family Ties.
Tucked away in a corner of Boles’ upstairs closet, the professor proudly held up a stack of grade books with dozens of pages full of names and scores for every student she taught in her 29 years there — including Walker and the current Democratic Mayor of Phoenix, Greg Stanton. Boles beamed as she told me how Stanton scored 97 out of 100 in her urban public policy course.
On the other hand, Boles hid neither her soft spot for Walker, the student, nor her disdain for Walker, the governor. “He turned in all his assignments on time, he took all of his tests on time, and he never showed me any disrespect,” said Boles, who retired in 2009 from the private Catholic school in downtown Milwaukee. “I just hate what he’s doing to our state.”
Boles’ grade books also confirmed a public pronouncement by Marquette that Walker’s grade point average was 2.56. For its part, the university has said only that he left in “good standing.”
There are countless skeptics who simply don’t believe Wisconsin’s incumbent governor left Marquette under anything but a dark cloud. Dr. Glen Barry attended Marquette with Walker in the late 1980s. Barry graduated. Walker did not.
“[Walker] was a laughable dork — dumb, full of himself, and authoritarian,” said Barry, who implied Walker was expelled for unethical behavior despite having no proof.
Barry saved his harshest vitriol for what UW Election Eye has confirmed was a series of campaign violations ranging from premature distribution of literature, to the systematic disposal of school newspapers endorsing his opponents, to the removal of opponents’ campaign signs that multiple sources told me this week was common knowledge on campus.
“Thus began [Walker’s] 25-year record of bullying to get what he wants … at the expense of others — all for personal self-aggrandizement and without an ounce of either personal or political virtue,” Barry said.
“What’s remarkable is that none of the big newspapers and TV stations reported on any of his youthful indiscretions [as a student] when Walker first ran for governor,” said Athan Theoharis, another retired Marquette professor who taught history from 1969 to 2006. “Here you have the son of a Baptist pastor attending a Catholic university, and he doesn’t finish? It clearly raises questions about his integrity.”
The governor’s one-time political science professor John McAdams, a gregarious conservative quietly rooting for Walker to win, finds no such integrity gap in one of his favorite students.
“Scott came to class with a curiosity liberal professors dismiss when the curiosity comes from a conservative,” said McAdams. “Oh gosh, he would wear those three-piece suits and always treated me with the polite respect I didn’t always show my professors when I was an undergrad.”
McAdams refused to share even the hint of a detail about Gov. Walker’s academic performance in his classroom, but did offer subjective analysis of Walker’s election chances ahead of tonight’s big debate with Barrett next door inside Marquette Law School.
“Look, I know our own Marquette Law poll has [Walker] up by seven points, but here’s what you want to watch for tonight,” said McAdams. “If Walker comes out aggressive, throws a few punches, that will suggest the governor’s internal polling shows this race is a lot tighter than the public realizes. Watch how he responds.”
Walker’s first professor watched Walker respond to the challenges of being governor by making what she called mistake after mistake. Boles shook her head.
“But as much as I dislike his politics, I hate to see all the falsehoods written about him,” said Boles. “There was no suspension. Just sandbox politics. Give the devil his due.”