By Tom Still
In a catalog describing a 1968 exhibition of his work, pop artist Andy Warhol said: “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”
Gov. Scott Walker’s celebrity status has already lasted well beyond a quarter of an hour and the clock shows few signs of running out. If Walker’s fame can open new doors for the Wisconsin economy, maybe even his opponents will commission a Warhol-like painting in his honor.
Walker’s victory in the June 5 recall election secured his seat in the Capitol’s East Wing through 2014 but also freed him to serve as Wisconsin’s salesman-in-chief, a role that will help the state attract new business and investment while retaining and expanding what it already has.
In several post-election forums, the man derided by Democrats as “a right-wing rock star” has embraced his fame – and notoriety – as a time-sensitive chance to talk about Wisconsin’s attributes before national and even global audiences.
“You got all this attention. My sense is, why not use it? Not for me as much as why not get out and tell the story about Wisconsin and maybe attract some companies to come and grow here?” Walker said.
His sales trip began last week in Washington, D.C., with a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a sit-down with national journalists as a breakfast held by The Christian Science Monitor. One newspaper headline called it a “victory lap” and a spokesman for the state Democratic Party wrote it off as self-promotion, but for Walker, it was an opportunity to brush up on his pitch.
In addition to the familiar “Wisconsin is open for business,” look for Walker to tout the state’s workforce, manufacturing capacity, research and development foundation, entrepreneurial culture, tax climate and relative fiscal stability, the latter being an attribute few states can claim.
Recent headlines will help, too, such as the Manpower poll that concluded the Milwaukee area has the nation’s best metropolitan job prospects in coming months and that Wisconsin is seventh among the 50 states. Other announcements may soon add to the momentum.
While his opponents may grit their teeth as he does so, Walker may also talk about innovation in higher education, quality of life and natural resources, especially in the context of clean water and water technologies.
In fact, Walker is already citing a study released at last week’s U.S. Chamber meeting that concluded the state most likely to create jobs and wealth are those that “boost exports, foster innovation, provide businesses with certainty and reasonable taxes, insist on excellence in education and prioritize infrastructure.”
His sales call list will be international at times. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton just returned from a trade mission to China, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad is leading a mission to Brazil and Chile in July, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder led a spring mission to Europe and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn recently visited China, Belgium and Canada. There’s no business reason for Walker to be the only stay-at-home governor on the block. Have passport; should travel.
Part of the global heavy lifting can be done at home. For example, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. announced Friday that a group of Chinese private investors will visit Wisconsin in late September. Milwaukee and Madison are two of fewer than 10 stops on the investors’ American tour.
Some of the same U.S. business leaders who contributed heavily to Walker’s recall campaign may now be primed to entertain expansion and relocation possibilities in Wisconsin. If they cared enough to donate money to re-elect him, they’re probably open to a sales pitch on why they should now invest in Wisconsin.
Skeptics will say Walker is positioning himself for national office as a running mate for presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. The trouble with that theory is that his public statements thus far are quite to the contrary.
“If (Romney) were to ask me about what to do with Wisconsin I’d say one of the most powerful reformers in the country grew up just down the way from me: Paul Ryan,” Walker said during an interview with Piers Morgan. “I’d probably suggest he put him on the ticket… After a year and a half worth of all this, I want to help Wisconsin move forward.”
The clock is ticking. The salesman-in-chief is slipping his foot in a lot of doors. While the recall election wounds at home will be slow to heal, the time is now to promote Wisconsin to those outside its borders.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council.