This story is part of NPR’s series Journey Home. We’re going to the places presidential candidates call home and finding out what those places tell us about how they see the world.
Drive into Delavan, Wis., and you immediately notice the giant circus animals downtown. A giraffe towering over a small grassy park, and an elephant rearing up on its hindquarters. They’re statues, actually — here to commemorate the town’s quirky history as home to circus companies that needed a place to winter over.
They began arriving in the mid 1800s — P.T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth was founded in Delavan. But the last of the circuses pulled out of the town three decades ago.
You might also spot the small green road sign that reads: “Welcome to Delavan. Population 8,463.” And in script, “Hometown of Governor Scott Walker.”
As Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s presidential campaign officially begins, he has something no other 2016 hopeful has — close personal ties to three states Republicans would love to capture in the next presidential election. Walker was born in Colorado, lived in Iowa, then moved to Wisconsin. And that’s where the young Walker got the political bug.
Here in solidly Republican Walworth County, Walker’s backers look forward to updating that sign to “Hometown of President Scott Walker.”
“I call him Scott. I don’t call him Gov. Walker. That’s the way I look at Gov. Walker — as a friend,” said Mel Nieuwenhuis, who has been mayor of Delavan for 14 years.
Walker hasn’t lived here since he left to go to college in the mid-1980s, but he gets back on occasion. These days, when local residents see him, it’s probably on television.
I asked the mayor whether, when he sees the governor and candidate now, does he still see that guy from Delavan?
“I do, I think so,” he said. “Because to me, Scott, he speaks at my level. He doesn’t talk down to you. He’s just a regular guy.”
Walker was 10 years old when his father became pastor at the First Baptist Church in Delavan and moved his family from the even smaller town of Plainfield, Iowa. You can still walk around the back of the church and see the project Walker completed to earn Eagle Scout honors. There’s a small but steep hill there, and Walker and some fellow scouts built a retaining wall using old telephone poles. It worked.
People who knew him back when say he was already developing leadership qualities.
It’s evident in the pages of his 1986 high school yearbook, which library director Anita O’Brien opens to the index. There’s a long list next to Scott Walker’s name: Foreign Language Club, the Library Club, Pep Club, Student Council, Varsity Club, Basketball, Cross Country, Football, Track, Swing Choir, Concert, Pep Band, String Ensemble.
One photo shows him with the choir performing songs from the musical Cats. There’s one of him playing drums in the high school band. In the varsity football team photo, he sits front row to the left wearing the number 32.
In another photo, he sports the classic hairstyle of the day — a mullet. The caption underneath reads: Scott K. Walker — the Desperado. There’s no further explanation.
Following Walker’s junior year of high school he took part in a decades-old Wisconsin tradition — an American Legion-sponsored program called Badger Boys State, which brings together about 800-900 young men from across the state of Wisconsin. Most high schools send one to three students, said Thomas Skrenes, who has been a staffer at these annual gatherings for decades. He also said Walker actually made it in as an alternate, when one of those selected from Delavan couldn’t make it.
But Skrenes says Walker stood out for being “very poised, very articulate, very well-read … and he was very interested in politics and history.”
During the week at Badger Boys State, participants form a government, run for office, debate issues. Then, at the end, two students are selected to attend Boys Nation in Washington, D.C. Walker was chosen.
In a video on the American Legion website, Walker spoke about the program, saying: “In and of itself, [it] just transformed me. I was totally taken, not just by the politics and the running for office and the government, but just about the public service.”
Twenty-five years after attending Boys Nation, he was elected governor of Wisconsin. In that job, Walker has had many battles — he took on the public employee unions, including teachers, stripping them of most of their collective bargaining rights. That led to a recall attempt two years into his term. But he survived, and was re-elected in 2014.
His campaigns have been bruising affairs, and even in Delavan, you can feel the aftereffects. Some around town can be reluctant to talk about him.
Nieuwenhuis, the Delavan mayor, had a theory on that: “I think either you love Scott Walker or you hate Scott Walker — depending on which side you’re on.”
It’s a small town, he said, so why risk getting your neighbor mad at you?
As for Walker himself, these days when he talks about Delavan, he talks about the conservative values he learned there.
“When I was growing up in Delavan, not a one of my classmates ever said to me, ‘Hey, Scott, someday when I grow up, I want to become dependent on the government.’ Right? Nobody every wrote in my yearbook, ‘Scott, good luck becoming dependent on the government,’ ” he said to laughs at a speech he made in New Hampshire.
It isn’t a laugh line for everyone, though.
One lifelong Delavan resident — and Democrat — says such comments are divisive.
“It does kind of offend me a little bit,” said Ryan Schroeder. “You know, divide and conquer. I just don’t agree with those statements. And unfortunately we’ve seen that happen here in the state and I think it would be very unfortunate to see it nationwide.”
It may rub Schroeder the wrong way, but Walker’s message has been welcomed by conservatives across the country. Republicans have noticed that he has won — repeatedly — in a state their party hasn’t carried in a presidential year since the 1980s.
As Walker himself often notes, the last Republican to win Wisconsin’s electoral votes was a guy who grew up just across the state line in another small town called Dixon, Ill. He became a governor, too — and his name was Ronald Reagan.