In the heat of the 2010 election, after one of six Republican lieutenant governor candidates dropped out of the race, Scott Walker’s campaign manager had some harsh words for one of the remaining contenders.
“We are not touching anything to do with Kleefisch — she is radioactive and not worth the time,” Keith Gilkes wrote to Kelly Rindfleisch, Walker’s Milwaukee County aide who was working on Brett Davis’ lieutenant governor campaign. “Brett should work on (Superior) Mayor (Dave) Ross and turn it into a two person race.”
Two and a half months later, Rebecca Kleefisch, boosted by Republican women, conservative talk radio and a tea party uprising against the GOP establishment, decisively won the five-way primary with more than 48 percent of the vote.
Since then Kleefisch, 38, a former TV news anchor and wife of Oconomowoc Rep. Joel Kleefisch, has taken on several responsibilities in the Walker administration, most recently leading a series of statewide roundtables on tax reform.
In an interview last week, Walker called her a “trusted ally and lieutenant” and confirmed they plan to announce a second Walker/Kleefisch ticket in mid- to late April.
“For someone who hadn’t worked in government, she was a quick study,” Walker said. “What people should see is the things she’s working on are directly connected to our priorities in this administration.”
That Walker and Kleefisch are running together again comes as no surprise. Previous governors who had tepid relationships with their running mates stuck it out, and by all accounts Walker and Kleefisch have bonded.
But the role carries additional weight this time around with speculation that Walker could run for president in 2016. Were he to leave office in the middle of a second term, Kleefisch would assume the highest political office in the state.
Walker declined to speculate on how well Kleefisch would perform in that role. Former Republican Lt. Gov. Margaret Farrow, an early Kleefisch supporter and mentor, said “it was iffy” whether Kleefisch had the skill set to take over as governor three years ago. Now, Farrow said, she’s ready.
“She’s done a complete vertical learning jump and she worked very hard at it,” Farrow said.
Sen. John Lehman, D-Racine, the only announced Democrat running for lieutenant governor, said voters should be concerned about the possibility that Kleefisch could become governor. He criticized her comments at a tax reform roundtable with business executives in December that was closed to the public, when she said: “We want to know how we can love you more.”
“I think that’s important for the citizens of Wisconsin, to realize they really have a neophyte coming in as lieutenant governor,” Lehman said. “She was not the first choice and she had a learning curve and she’s doing some things that are not good for all the citizens of Wisconsin.”
The ‘marketing guy’
In an interview, Kleefisch deflected a question about whether she’s ready to be governor and said her focus now is on being part of a team. She said her role in the Walker administration has been as the “marketing guy.”
She said she also represents the average parent and small business owner, referring to her time between TV and politics as a media and marketing consultant. Part of her job over the past three years has been learning the lingo and acronyms of the Capitol in order to distill information for “the folks at home.”
Kleefisch listed among her first-term accomplishments visits to all 16 of Wisconsin’s technical colleges to promote workforce development, several cold calls to Illinois businesses to get them to relocate to Wisconsin, promoting 2012 as the “Year of the Veteran” to highlight high veteran unemployment and her role as co-chairwoman of the Governor’s Task Force on Minority Unemployment.
As for the “love you more” phrase, Kleefisch said she has used it when addressing other groups such as veterans and students. She said she was trying to convey that “taxpayers deserve value for their tax dollar.”
“I probably talk more casually than your average politician,” she said.
Paul Jadin, the former CEO of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., said Kleefisch’s cold calls to businesses yielded some results, such as FatWallet.com moving to Beloit.
“We had some limited success in making some of those happen,” Jadin said. “Rebecca came into office with an expectation that she was going to be a tireless marketer for the state, and I think she’s fulfilled that role.”
The tax reform roundtables, which she has led along with Revenue Secretary Rick Chandler, have elevated her profile the most in recent months. Walker said the feedback being collected is directly tied into his plans for the 2015-17 budget.
Walker downplayed the disdain for Kleefisch among his former top advisers that was laid bare in recently released emails from the prosecution of Rindfleisch for campaigning for Davis on county taxpayer time. His county spokeswoman referred to Kleefisch as “fluff” and an aide to Davis complained: “I cannot see how anyone can take this woman seriously.”
Walker said different members of his staff were pulling for Kleefisch, Davis and Ross, but he remained focused on his election. All three became part of his administration, but Walker said he voted for Kleefisch. She was involved in budget briefings from day one, he said.
Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch said he saw Kleefisch go from sitting quietly at meetings to asking questions to now offering suggestions and engaging in policy discussions about transportation, Medicaid and taxes.
Davis, a former state Medicaid director, also had high praise for Kleefisch, saying she has “really grown into the role.”
“She’s a very hard worker,” Davis said. “She puts in very long hours while balancing family life. She’s got a genuine interest for public policy and serving the people. That’s what I look for in a leader.”
Strength or liability?
Walker said Kleefisch’s primary strength has been as a communicator — listening to small business owners and promoting the administration’s message on cutting taxes. At a meeting of business site selectors in Denver, he said everyone he met told him how much they loved Wisconsin’s lieutenant governor and how they had spoken with her on the phone many times.
But Kleefisch also has courted controversy through her off-the-cuff remarks. During the 2010 campaign, she apologized for a “poor choice of words” for saying gay marriage was a slippery slope to allowing people to marry animals and inanimate objects.
In 2012 during an anti-abortion bus tour stop in Madison, she criticized Missouri Congressman Todd Akin’s comments about “forcible rape,” saying “rape is rape. I don’t know how you can categorize it.” Then, after being told Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, co-sponsored a bill using the same categorization, she replied, “there is a way to have a more forcible rape, just as there are different types of assault.”
“The lieutenant governor’s position has at times been one not taken seriously,” said liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now executive director Scot Ross. “She hasn’t done anything to change that perception.”
Farrow said the lieutenant governor’s only job is to check in on the governor each morning “and make sure he’s still functioning and alive.” To be effective, a lieutenant governor has to seek out other responsibilities, which she said Kleefisch has done.
“She realized who she was and the injustice of the way she was being characterized and kept her eye on the main responsibility,” Farrow said. “Those trying to sell her short are the ones sitting in the shadows now in my opinion.”