Governor Kleefisch? | As Scott Walker goes presidential, Rebecca Kleefisch is emerging from the shadows of an administration that didn’t want her

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

EDITOR: The following is news analysis.

Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.

That name with that title prompts derisive chortles and exclamations of “God forbid” from progressive leaders.

Or outright dismissal. “The chances of (Kleefisch becoming governor) are infinitesimal,” said Scot Ross, executive director of the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now.

But with Scott Walker on the verge of mounting a vigorous campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, the prospect that Wisconsin’s lieutenant governor could write the next biennial budget is possible even if improbable. Walker might be a long shot for winning the nomination — and an even longer shot for winning the White House — but he might more conceivably wind up working in a Republican presidential administration.

And that, according to the state Constitution, would make Kleefisch the state’s chief executive.

Wisconsin knows little about how Kleefisch would govern. The lieutenant governor has no real constitutional duties except to fill in if the governor dies or becomes incapacitated, so Wisconsinites have had few opportunities to see her in action. The public tends to fill in the blanks with some of her more outrageous behavior, such as the 2010 radio interview in which she compared same-sex marriages to unions between humans and inanimate objects, including clocks and tables.

That statement drew national headlines and prompted her gay uncle Chris Pfauser to donate $500 to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s campaign against Walker. Speaking with reporters at the time, Pfauser blamed his niece’s anti-gay putdown on her newfound religious fundamentalism. (Pfauser did not respond to a message WiG left for him.)

By her own account, Christian orthodoxy guides Kleefisch’s life. Speaking to a tea party group during the 2010 campaign, she said, “My qualifications for a governor are a Christian man who can actually right our financial ship.” In a campaign flier, she pledged to make decisions by “relying on the wisdom and faith she has in Jesus.”

The rhetoric is identical to what Republicans in Iowa are hearing from Walker.

Given her record — or lack thereof — it would be easy to dismiss Kleefisch as a fringe character who landed in a do-nothing office on a fluke. But some people who are familiar with her maintain that she has developed more substance and proven more capable than detractors think.

‘Not worth the time’

Kleefisch turned down WiG’s request to be interviewed and declined to answer questions we emailed her. Instead, we relied on previously published statements and Capitol observers, including some who asked not to be identified, to look at her trajectory.

It’s well known that Kleefisch was not on Walker’s short list of running mates. Having never held either political office or a management position, she had little to recommend her for the role of governor-in-waiting. But she did have what proved to be the most important assets — the approval of Charlie Sykes, the king of Wisconsin right-wing radio, along with the state’s tea party and religious activists.

Walker wanted former state Rep. Brett Davis on his ticket, and he went to extreme lengths to push for it. Davis emerged as a central figure in the John Doe investigations that led to indictments of former staffers who served under the governor while he was Milwaukee County Executive.

In 2010, Davis’ home was among those raided by the FBI in connection with the investigation. He was not charged, however, and he was eventually repaid for his loyalty when he was appointed Medicaid director in Walker’s administration.

Walker operative Kelly Rindfleisch also preferred Davis, but she was not as lucky. She was sentenced to jail time after prosecutors charged her with illegally fundraising for Davis on taxpayer time via a secret Wi-Fi system in the county executive’s office. Emails that she and other Walker supporters traded about Kleefisch were confiscated and later shared with the media under the Freedom of Information Act.

“We are not touching anything to do with Kleefisch — she is radioactive and not worth the time,” wrote Walker campaign manager Keith Gilkes in an email that typifies the Walker camp’s attitude toward Kleefisch.

“I cannot see how anyone can take this woman seriously,” wrote one of Davis’ aides.

Walker’s county spokesperson referred to Kleefisch as “fluff,” and Rindfleisch wrote, “I can’t stand Becky.”

It’s not clear whether Kleefisch was aware of the disdain that Walker’s camp had for her prior to the email release. If not, it must have been a crushing blow.

It’s also unclear whether Walker’s people knew Kleefisch was battling Stage 2 colon cancer in August 2010, at the height of the campaign. At the same time she was campaigning tirelessly on behalf of the ticket and helping to win over women voters, Kleefisch was undergoing chemotherapy and fighting for her life.

In retrospect, it’s possible that some of her stranger public moments, the spacey ones that have drawn comparisons to former U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, might have been influenced by her medical condition.

Colorful couple

Many political insiders contend that Rebecca Kleefisch and her husband, state Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, are oddballs any way you look at them. Their policy positions are fundamentally the same — and the same as Walker’s: They’re for trickle-down economics, they’re opposed to marriage equality and choice and they hate “big” government, which appears to mean government agencies or contracts that do not employ or profit their family and friends. 

Rebecca Kleefisch frequently toes the party line that lowering taxes is the most reliable economic-growth strategy. When she meets with business groups, one of her go-to lines is, “How can we love you more?” — presumably expecting them to ask for tax breaks. 

Joel Kleefisch emphasizes the same talking point, but he tops his wife in the “colorful character” category. A man who’s met few animals he didn’t want to shoot, Kleefisch proposed a bill in 2012 to create a hunting season for sandhill cranes. “Many call (sandhill cranes) the rib-eye of the sky,” Kleefisch told the Wisconsin State Journal in pushing for supportive legislation. It died in committee but has since resurfaced.

Joel Kleefisch often appears at the Capitol wearing various articles of camo clothing. Democratic strategist Patrick Guarasci said that during his time working in Madison, he and others viewed the Kleefisches as whackos.

In addition to hunting, Kleefisch was obsessed with sex offenders, according to Guarasci. “He fashioned himself as an expert on the subject,” Guarasci said. “He was always trying to come up with stricter and stricter rules for the placement of sex offenders.”

One of his proposals was to force sex offenders to drive with chartreuse license plates on their cars for easy identification, Guarasci remembered.

More recently, Joel Kleefisch landed in hot water after records surfaced showing that he’d allowed one of his wealthy donors to help him draft a bill that would have substantially reduced the donor’s child support payments.

Ross criticized Rebecca Kleefisch for never commenting on her husband’s behavior.

Like his wife, Joel Kleefisch is a former broadcast news reporter. But otherwise, they make for a rather odd couple, which is obvious just seeing them together. She’s fastidiously groomed, while he’s a rather slouchy man who treats hunting garb as formal wear (see photo). 

In her early and inexperienced days, Kleefisch had to rely on physical style over substance. She didn’t have time to develop the kind of inside knowledge and engaging political persona that Walker has perfected. So she used the familiar newscasters’ tools — heavy makeup and reading words written by someone else.

The results were poor but largely overlooked by voters. An insider who asked not to be identified said people working on her 2010 campaign considered her “like a political android. She was wooden and had no substance. It was just all talking points.”

The Walker administration didn’t help her much. Campaign advisers seemed determined to keep her away from the press and the Walker administration initially kept her under wraps. Walker never made a campaign commercial with Kleefisch.

But she seems to be proving more capable and determined than her detractors had figured.

Growing into the role

Despite not having specified constitutional duties, Kleefisch has managed to carve out a role for herself in the Walker administration as “the marketing guy.” 

That’s how she described herself to the Wisconsin State Journal in a recent interview. She’s lived up to the title, reaching out to recruit businesses from other states, attending new business openings throughout the state and even participating in an important trade mission to China.

Today, Kleefisch seems to fit smoothly in Walker’s groove. She’s not basking in the spotlight, but she’s clearly in the loop and acting as an effective surrogate for Walker at local events as he ramps up his White House run.

Demonstrating how much her status within the Walker administration has advanced, Kleefisch toured the state last fall with Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Revenue Rick Chandler to host listening sessions on tax reform in advance of the 2015–17 biennial budget. 

“That was something that some of us looked at and thought, ‘This is kind of an attempt to give her a kind of a role,’” said Collin Roth, editor of Right Wisconsin, a conservative news and opinion website. “I thought that was something (that positioned her) more in a substantive policy realm.”

Even Democrats were impressed with her appearance in January at a groundbreaking event for a Walnut Way Conservation Corp. project in Milwaukee. She demonstrated far more polished retail political skills than she possessed in 2010, generating some positive buzz.

“I’ve been very impressed with how far she’s come in the past few years,” Roth said. “I think she’s proven herself capable and up to the task. If you look around, she makes some of these short lists of rising stars. I very much think she is a frontrunner — if not the frontrunner — in 2018.”

Walker administration Secretary Mike Huebsch told the Wisconsin State Journal that he’s seen Kleefisch go from sitting quietly at meetings to asking questions to participating in policy discussions about transportation, Medicaid and taxes. Her former political rival Brett Davis also praised her, telling WSJ that she’s “really grown into the role.”

Kleefisch has begun to stake out opinions of her own. In a March radio interview with Sykes, she acknowledged that states developing clean, renewable energy sources have a “competitive advantage” over states like Wisconsin that don’t.

“When I’m talking to my colleagues in the National Lieutenant Governors Association and they have already gotten online to different (carbon emissions) standards than what is traditional in our state, all of a sudden they have a competitive advantage,” Kleefisch said.

The Walker administration seems to have done everything in its power to discourage if not outright halt wind and solar projects in the state. Critics charge that his anti-renewable position is a way of supporting Koch Industries and other fossil fuel businesses that have contributed heavily to his campaigns.

Whether Kleefisch’s statement on clean energy was a faux pas or an indication of forward thinking on her part remains to be seen. But it’s clear she’s used her three campaigns and four years in office to develop a knowledge base of the issues as well as communication skills.

Roth said people who have tuned out Kleefisch are going to be surprised as they become more familiar with her in coming months. There’s more to her than has met their eyes so far, he says.

Even Guarasci concedes: “I would not be surprised if I’ve underestimated her.”

Ultimately, Kleefisch’s positions are as out-of-synch with the progressive agenda as Walker’s. She’s a religious conservative who still believes that tax breaks for the rich will create jobs. Her focus would likely be on reducing government regulations,  privatization of government functions and selling off the state’s natural resources.

But she’s not the punch line that progressives think she is. She’s proven to be tenacious, committed and a fast learner. Liberals dismiss her at their own peril.