Scott Walker ex-aide's e-mails: how damaging?

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) faces questions over documents depicting aides' illegal campaign activity during his first campaign for governor. Walker himself is not implicated, but the situation tests his mettle as he runs for reelection – and possibly president.

Scott Bauer/AP
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) talks Feb. 19, in Madison, Wis., about the release of thousands of e-mails and other documents collected during a criminal investigation of a former aide. Governor Walker said he expects political enemies to use the e-mails against him, but he doesn't expect there to be any surprises.

Suddenly, Gov. Scott Walker (R) of Wisconsin has hit a bump in the road on his way to an expected presidential campaign.

The release of 28,000 pages of documents connected with two criminal investigations involving former aides has put Governor Walker in an uncomfortable spot. And it has opened the door to efforts by Democrats, and some in the media, to paint him with the same broad brush as Gov. Chris Christie (R) of New Jersey, who faces legal scrutiny over the misdeeds of aides. 

The documents, released Wednesday, showed how, in 2010, aides to then-Milwaukee County Executive Walker worked on his gubernatorial campaign while doing their government jobs, which is against the law. In all, six aides and allies were convicted, including two for doing campaign work on county time. Walker was never a target of investigation and has denied wrongdoing.

In addition, a new investigation launched by prosecutors in five Wisconsin counties is believed to be under way into whether his recall campaign in 2012 illegally coordinated with outside groups. In Wisconsin, people connected with such an inquiry – called a “John Doe investigation” – are generally not allowed to discuss it in public.

“The real test for Walker is how he handles this new scrutiny of the old investigation and answers questions about these investigations,” says Ford O’Connell, president of the conservative Civic Forum PAC. “Remember, he has to be thinking not just about his reelection, but also how what he says now will look two years down the line.”

At the request of media outlets, a judge ordered the release of Wednesday’s documents because the investigation was completed. In that case, the former deputy chief of staff in Walker’s county office, Kelly Rindfleisch, was convicted of felony misconduct in public office. She is appealing her conviction.

The unsealed documents showed how, in 2010, members of Walker’s county staff had set up a private network of personal laptops, with private e-mail accounts, to conduct campaign business while doing county work.

Records also showed that Walker’s 2010 campaign worked closely with the campaign of Walker’s favored lieutenant governor candidate to help him raise money from Walker supporters who had maxed out in their donations.

There are still questions about how much Walker knew of his staff’s activities at the time. E-mails suggest Walker knew about the private e-mail network, but discouraged the use of private laptops and political activity during the work day.  

On Wednesday, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel publicized e-mails that showed Walker’s staff telling racist jokes, even as Walker was conducting outreach into minority communities in Milwaukee County. Walker himself is not depicted telling racist jokes, but they still create an awkward situation for the governor at a time when Republicans nationally are polling poorly among minorities and trying to build support heading into the 2016 race.

In remarks to reporters Wednesday before the records were released, Walker played down the documents, saying he didn’t expect any “great surprises.” He also predicted that Democrats would overreact.

“They’re going to do what they’ve done in the past, which is over-hype things,” Walker said, according to the Washington Post.

Walker’s spokesman said the governor would not answer media questions on Thursday, as he was heading to Washington for a National Governors Association event.

Democrats were quick to jump on the Walker documents, and to draw comparisons with Governor Christie of New Jersey, who has been contending with a scandal over lane closures last September onto the George Washington Bridge since early last month.

But so far, the Wisconsin situation is somewhat different from Bridge-gate. The Wisconsin documents depict improper campaign activity by staff. In New Jersey, the lane closures were ordered as an act of governance, specifically, an apparent act of political retribution by Christie aides and allies. Now, Christie is fighting a devastating narrative that he is a “bully,” and had created an environment in his inner circle that tolerated or even encouraged such behavior.

Christie’s prospects for 2016 have been damaged, polls show. Walker, still focused on reelection this fall as governor, does not have the kind of national fame Christie already enjoyed when Bridge-gate broke. And so the Walker situation is likely to attract less national public interest.  

Still, Democrats and liberal media are gleefully trying to “Christie-ize” Walker – that is, damage his presidential prospects. Walker has always deflected questions about 2016. But last November, he published a book – often a sign of presidential ruminations – and has been a regular presence in national news media as a Republican who might be going places.

After winning the governorship in 2010, Walker aggressively took on public employee unions, sparking a recall vote in 2012. He raised a lot of money from outside Wisconsin and won the race, making him the first governor in US history to survive a recall – and a Republican rock star, albeit with a low-key personality.

Handicappers have ranked him as a top-tier prospect for 2016.

Like Christie, he’s a Republican governor in a Democratic-leaning state. But now, also like Christie, he faces a test of his mettle in the face of uncomfortable questions about subordinates’ activities.

“Right now, you’re watching the bull’s-eye move from Christie’s back to Walker’s back,” says Mr. O’Connell.  “He’s someone with potential who, at least in the primary, can unite white-collar and blue-collar voters. That scares a lot of Democrats.” 

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