Gov. Scott Walker and his Republican colleagues in the State Legislature have pushed Wisconsin firmly to the right in recent years.CreditCreditLauren Justice for The New York Times
FOX CROSSING, Wis. — Scott Walker, the outgoing Republican governor of Wisconsin, on Friday signed into law measures that diminish the power of his Democratic successor and expand the authority of Republican lawmakers who teamed up with him over the last eight years to move the state firmly to the right.
Mr. Walker approved the measures over the vehement objections of the incoming governor and despite fierce protest in the State Capitol as Republican lawmakers rushed the bills through in a hastily-called session last week. Tony Evers, the Democrat who beat Mr. Walker in the November election, has suggested that he may file suit over the changes and said that Mr. Walker had chosen “to ignore and override the will of the people of Wisconsin.”
Mr. Walker’s move will solidify some of the policies that made him a hero to many conservatives nationally and, for a brief time, a leading presidential candidate. But participating in what many Democrats consider a legally dubious power grab also cemented another widely held view: that Mr. Walker is a bruising partisan willing to break precedent and ignore protests for political gain.
“The last eight years have been very much characterized by the view of, ‘We’ve got the power, we’re going to do what we want and anybody else, that’s too bad,’” said James E. Doyle, Mr. Walker’s Democratic predecessor as governor, who called the last-minute bills “unseemly.”
The Republicans’ push to extend their hold before Democrats take office in Wisconsin comes as part of a broader power struggle amid a return to divided government in Midwestern states where Republicans had complete control in this decade.
The tactic by Mr. Walker and his allies was seen as carving a path for other states, like Michigan, where Republicans are similarly contemplating limits on incoming Democrats. But it also risked energizing Democrats ahead of a 2020 presidential election in which both parties will battle for the Midwest, as well as shaping how people remember Mr. Walker, 51, who leaves the governor’s job on Jan. 7 having spent most of his adult life in elected office.
“What didn’t he do?” said State Senator Fred Risser, a Democrat who was first elected to the Legislature in 1956. “He reversed the progressive, innovative state we used to be proud of.”
From the moment Mr. Walker took office in Wisconsin, he was upending it.
Mr. Walker, a former legislator and county executive who then was little known outside of the Milwaukee area, won a crucial advantage when he became governor in 2011: Voters not only flipped the governor’s seat to Republican, but also both chambers of the Legislature.
Results came immediately. Within weeks, Mr. Walker announced the plan that would define his tenure and make him a national name. He wanted to shrink collective bargaining rights for most public sector workers in a state with deep roots in the labor movement.
Outside Mr. Walker’s Capitol office, protesters marched and drummed and chanted fury at what they saw as an effort to weaken unions and diminish Democrats. But Mr. Walker pushed through the measure, survived a recall election and went on to guide Wisconsin on a conservative path, adopting a concealed carry law, expanding private school vouchers, enacting so-called right-to-work legislation, passing voter identification rules and setting work rules for Medicaid recipients.
“He had a backbone of steel,” said Representative Sean Duffy, a Republican who represents northern Wisconsin in Congress.
The final package of legislation that Mr. Walker signed on Friday followed elections that brought defeats for Republicans in Wisconsin, a purple state that was won both by Barack Obama and Donald J. Trump. Republicans held onto the State Legislature but lost contests for governor and attorney general.
The newly-signed laws will curb the authority of Mr. Evers in the rule-making process and give lawmakers, not the new governor, most appointments on an economic development board until next summer. The measures also will limit early voting, allow legislators to intervene in some lawsuits and limit the power of Josh Kaul, the incoming attorney general.
Mr. Walker has repeatedly played down the significance of the measures, describing the attention paid to them as “hype and hysteria.” All the while, he has worked to define how his eight years in office would be remembered.
Protesters disrupted Mr. Walker’s speech during a tree-lighting ceremony at the State Capitol earlier this month.CreditLauren Justice for The New York Times
“To me, that’s the legacy: It’s the fact that Wisconsin is working,” Mr. Walker told reporters in Green Bay on Friday, where he signed the legislation. “These bills don’t change that legacy. And these bills don’t fundamentally change the power of not just the next governor but any governor thereafter.”
Just after signing the bills, Mr. Walker insisted that he had been gracious and helpful to Mr. Evers since the election. “We have been very purposeful in wanting to make sure that this next governor has a good transition,” said Mr. Walker, who added that he had allowed the governor-elect to tour the executive mansion and provided office space for his staff.
In recent days, Mr. Walker has spoken again and again of his legacy. He posted 21 tweets in 25 minutes, each starting with “OUR LEGACY” and listing an accomplishment. Facing angry accusations on Facebook, he wrote that “our real legacy” was job growth. And in a speech on Thursday to manufacturing workers whose positions had been spared by new tax incentives, he said “I want this to be my legacy.”
In the days after the election, Mr. Walker kept a relatively low profile. On social media, he posted messages of religious scripture, images of himself deer hunting in the state’s Northwoods, and notes about sentimental items he found as he helped his mother move after his father died. He and his wife, Tonette, were reportedly looking for a new home and vehicle, with time in the governor’s mansion winding down.
“It’s tough to lose,” said Jim Villa, a longtime friend and former political aide to Mr. Walker. “But I’ve always said that Scott has one of the calmest demeanors of anyone I know — not a lot of highs and not a lot of lows.”
Just three years ago, Mr. Walker had a spin as a front-runner in the presidential race, but his campaign ended quickly as Mr. Trump suctioned support from more traditional candidates. Mr. Walker’s return to Wisconsin was difficult: People complained that he had been too focused on his own ambitions, and he spent months making up for it with parades, local meetings and ribbon cuttings. As he set off this year in a bid for a rare third term as governor, Mr. Walker warned of signs of a “blue wave” and pleaded with Republicans not to be complacent.
In the end, he lost by roughly 30,000 votes, or about 1 percentage point.
To Mr. Walker’s supporters, the bills Mr. Walker signed on Friday were pragmatic ways to shore up Republican policies and establish reasonable checks on the incoming Democrats. By signing the bills, he had secured his legacy, they said, not sullied it.
“‘My constituents will say, ‘Thank God you’ve protected the reforms, thank God that our state will be able to continue on the path we are on,’” said State Senator Alberta Darling, a Republican from suburban Milwaukee.
But to opponents, the bills represent something sinister. Several warned Mr. Walker that the measures were an unflattering epilogue to his tenure.
“This just goes to show what type of leader he actually was,” said State Senator La Tonya Johnson, a Democrat from Milwaukee. The legislation, she said, “will definitely go down in history as being the biggest power grab ever.”
Even some conservatives have spoken out. Sheldon Lubar, a Republican businessman who once supported Mr. Walker, said Mr. Walker’s record would be destroyed by this.
“I think as a relatively young man, he should be very concerned of what his legacy is,” Mr. Lubar said.
On Thursday, a day before he signed the package of bills, Mr. Walker had donned an orange vest and safety goggles at a plant in Fox Crossing, about 100 miles north of Milwaukee, where workers make adult undergarments and feminine hygiene products.
After the plant was slated to close, Mr. Walker tried repeatedly to get lawmakers to approve incentives to keep the company from leaving. When legislators declined to vote on his proposal, Mr. Walker helped negotiate $28 million in incentives funded by state taxpayers. In exchange, the company promised that the plant’s nearly 400 employees would keep their jobs.
“I said, ‘I don’t care if it’s the last thing I do,’” Mr. Walker recounted to rows of plant workers in blue-striped uniforms, “‘we’re going to find some way to save the jobs.’”
Among the new restrictions on Mr. Evers: Future governors who negotiate tax incentives like those would need legislative approval for their deal.
Mitch Smith reported from Fox Crossing, and Monica Davey from Chicago.