As a student at Marquette University, the future Wisconsin governor and rising Republican star Scott Walker regularly wore a three-piece suit around campus. His demeanor in political science and economics classes matched his buttoned-down wardrobe: well-spoken and polite.
But when it came to student government, Walker developed an aggressive, never-back-down persona that would be familiar to his legions of admirers -- and detractors -- today. A failed bid for student body president his sophomore year was marred by alleged campaign violations and accusations of skulduggery. Newspapers endorsing his opponent mysteriously disappeared from the Milwaukee campus, though blame was never determined.
His education in school politics, it turned out, played the strongest role in shaping Walker’s life.
He withdrew from the Jesuit university in 1990, a year before graduation, and mounted a campaign for state assembly. It was a losing bid that nonetheless launched a career in the public eye. He won his next race for state legislature and never lost another elective bid for office.
Now the one-time college dropout has become a leader in the early field of potential GOP presidential primary contenders, a darling of national conservatives whom Mitt Romney viewed as one of the biggest threats in the emerging Republican primary pack. He’s leading the latest polls in Iowa and has surged to the top tier in New Hampshire, a state that he plans to visit for the first time next month. He’s hiring a campaign staff and this week is leaving on a trade mission to London.
Were Walker to become president, he would be the first person in the Oval Office to lack a college degree since Harry Truman. Walker has called leaving school one of the biggest regrets of his life.
His eventful three years at Marquette, above all, hardened his determination to succeed in politics. Two decades later, he came to national prominence as a governor who went to war with Wisconsin’s public employee unions, despised by liberals but never defeated. But he began as a wide-eyed college freshman, investigating his peers for illegitimately spending student government funds.
* * *
Walker spent his formative years in Delavan, a town of about 6,000 people in southern Wisconsin. The son of a preacher, he took an early interest in politics.
When he arrived at Marquette in 1986, he placed a photograph on his desk of himself with Ronald Reagan, one that was taken during a high school trip to Washington when he was one of Wisconsin’s representatives for Boys Nation.
“Even at that time he was really quite the polished politician,” said Patrick Tepe, who lived on the same dorm room floor with Walker during their sophomore year. “I kid you not, at that time, he literally said, ‘Someday I’m going to be president of the United States.‘”
When his idol, Reagan, came to Milwaukee for a fundraiser in 1988, Walker recruited classmates to help drive cars in the motorcade and stand behind Reagan during the event.
In interviews with nearly a dozen people who knew him at the time, friends describe him as deeply loyal, and deeply religious, someone who never cursed and rarely raised his voice. He and a group of about 10 friends had a Sunday Night Dinner Club, taking turns cooking for the group. He compared himself to Martin Luther King, Jr., since both had fathers who were preachers.
“He was very, very polite and very well dressed. I remember him in his three-piece suits,” said Janet Boles, who was one of Walker’s political science professors. “Students dressed like students do everywhere, hoodies and jeans. So that’s why he is memorable.”
“It was like teaching Alex P. Keaton,” she added, referring to the conservative character played by Michael J. Fox on the 1980s sitcom “Family Ties.”
Elected as a student senator during his freshman year, Walker quickly made a mark. During Homecoming weekend, a group of more than a dozen students charged the student government account nearly $1,000 for a limousine, flowers, and dinner -- including champagne -- at the Pfister Hotel.
Just two months after he stepped onto campus, Walker was tapped to lead the investigation into his peers, a scandal that became known as “Pfister-gate” and dominated campus headlines at the time.
“Those were stormy waters for a campus,” said Dave Sullivan, who was and remains friends with Walker. “To jump into that and have the fortitude to take that on, a lot of 40 year olds would have a problem with it. He was 18.”
Several student leaders resigned their positions. But even after the money had been repaid, Walker continued pushing to impeach others. Supporters say it showed his doggedness, opponents say it showed vindictiveness.
“It would have been very easy to drop the proceedings and he didn’t,” said Glen Barry, who was among those Walker sought to impeach but was later cleared. “It was grandstanding. It was creating a crisis in order to benefit and gain power.”
Barry and others came up with a derisive nickname for Walker, calling him Niedermeyer, after a character in the movie Animal House who was an overly aggressive ROTC leader.
Later freshman year, Walker ran for president of the residence halls. Initially he was uncontested, but four days before the election Barry and others backed a write-in candidate. Walker lost by 21 votes, out of 669, the first time ever a write-in candidate won, according to the school yearbook.
“We walked back saying, ‘He’ll never run for office again,’” Barry said. “I guess we were wrong.”
* * *
Less than a year later, as a sophomore, Walker ran for student body president, citing his impeachment investigation as one credential.
Walker’s opponent was John Quigley, a liberal from Chicago who wore flannel shirts and jeans, and wanted the university to divest from South Africa.
Walker was more deferential to the campus administration, and said he wanted students -- particularly freshman and minorities -- to get more engaged with campus government. He pledged to bring a band like INXS or REM to campus.
But even before his campaign officially kicked off, he was accused of canvassing before he had registered his election bid. Later, his campaign was accused of using unregistered campaign workers, and going door-to-door to hand out fliers, which was forbidden.
The day before the election, the Marquette Tribune endorsed his opponent but noted that “either candidate would serve the student body well.” When newspapers disappeared en masse from campus, with Walker supporters suspected, the paper rolled back its positive review of Walker. “Revision -- Walker unfit,” read the headline as students went to vote.
It charged that a Walker campaign brochure amounted “to nothing more than a blatant mudslinging spree.”
“No one who responds to opposition by distorting (if not assassinating) the character of his opponent and making pouty accusations deservers to be president of the student body,” the editorial read.
Walker lost by 15 percentage points.
“It felt ugly and it did feel dirty,” said Katie Flanagan, who was Walker’s campaign manager. “Our group was so upset afterward. But Scott wasn’t. Scott was the one trying to keep us going...He was like, ‘It wasn’t meant to be. There’s something else for me to do.’ And he kept moving. That’s where his faith comes in.”
Flanagan insists that Walker wasn’t behind the dirty campaigning, saying it was the work of an overzealous campaign worker (and she still suspects the Quigley campaign may have been behind the pilfered newspapers, either so they could distribute the endorsement or frame Walker).
Walker declined a request for an interview, but over the years, reflecting in the Wisconsin media on his college career, he has said that he focused too much on egos and personalities and not enough on issues.
The presidential defeat was “probably the best thing for me,” he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2010. “I had gotten little bit too caught up in the office and not in the reason why you run,” he said. “So it was a great, humbling moment for me.”
* * *
About a year later, Walker was helping with student orientation and ran into Barry -- the one-time target of his impeachment probe -- at a party. The two sat in rocking chairs and shared a pitcher of beer, chuckling at the idea of two former adversaries coming together.
“He actually apologized to me. He said, ‘I was overeager. I apologize,’” Barry said. “We were kind of friends. He seemed like a humbled man. Like he had learned from it.”
Walker withdrew from most of his activities with student government but he remained active in campus Republican groups. He was also president of Marquette Students for Life, saying at the time that he wanted to move the group toward more “compassionate, supportive positions,” and away from anti-abortion rallies.
“I think he genuinely really liked Marquette,” said former fellow student Tom Thimot, who was the university’s election commissioner. “He was a very, very rah-rah Marquette guy – he used to go to all the Marquette basketball games … He was fired up about the school, supportive of the school.”
Walker got a part time job working at IBM. Later, he got a full time job as a marketing specialist in the Milwaukee chapter of the American Red Cross.
Then, he dropped out of school.
“The reason I went to college, in large part, was not just to get an education for an education’s sake, but to get a job,” Walker told reporters in 2013. “I always thought I’d get back and I may still do. Someday, maybe in the next few years, I’ll embark on finishing my degree.”
Walker had a 2.59 grade point average, his gubernatorial campaign said in 2010. University officials told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2013 that Walker was never expelled or suspended and that he “was a senior in good standing when he voluntarily withdrew.”
Although Walker had attended four years of college, he was 34 credits short of the minimum needed to graduate, which would have taken about another year to complete.
One reason Walker may have left is that he had another campaign on his mind.
“I really think there’s a reason why God put all these political thoughts in my head,” Walker said in an interview with the Marquette yearbook in 1990.
Within weeks of completing what would be his last semester in college, Walker began running for state assembly from a Milwaukee district, challenging Democratic incumbent Gwen Moore.
“He thought I was vulnerable because it was a predominately white district and he was white and handsome and young,” said Moore, who is black and is now a six-term congresswoman. “I just recall feeling very distressed because there was this sort of – what I later came to learn as dog whistle politics with the crime and the insinuations about why it’d be better to elect him.”
Walker lost the election against Moore, but moved to a more conservative district in a nearby suburb, where he won in 1993. He has not lost an election since.
He has gained national attention through battles with unions in Wisconsin, which began shortly after he took office in 2010 and drew national protests to the Wisconsin State Capitol. But as Walker has fought back, winning an unprecedented recall election in 2012 and another election in 2014, his stature has risen among Republicans.
His incomplete academic resume has not prevented his rise in Wisconsin, and it remains to be seen whether a national audience will hold it against him. Although 12 presidents, including George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, have lacked a college degree, 1948 was the last time a president without a diploma was elected.
Walker has said he regrets leaving Marquette, and he has kept an attachment to the campus he left 25 years ago. He married his wife, Tonette, at a church on campus in 1993, on Reagan’s birthday; and even though he didn’t graduate he showed up at a hotel ballroom for the 20-year reunion of his 1990 class.
Walker’s son is now a junior at Marquette, walking the same pathways he did. Like his dad, he’s been active in student government and Republican politics. And, like his father, he’s pursuing a double major in political science and economics.
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.