Scott Walker's little-known scandal: When he treated welfare recipients like dogs

When Scott Walker was county executive, how he handled programs for Milwaukee’s poor will shock and amaze you

Published March 3, 2014 12:57PM (EST)

  (AP/Cliff Owen)
(AP/Cliff Owen)

Among the racist jokes and emails found in recently released documents connected to the criminal probe of Gov. Scott Walker’s 2010 campaign, one stood out: A “joke” about a woman trying to sign up her dogs for welfare, because “my Dogs are mixed in color, unemployed, lazy, can’t speak English and have no frigging clue who the r Daddys are. They expect me to feed them, provide them with housing and medical care, and feel guilty.” The punch line: “My Dogs get their first checks Friday.”

Walker’s deputy chief of staff Kelly Rindfleisch replied: “That is hilarious. And so true.”

The joke is bad enough on its own, but it’s also worth noting: Back when Walker was Milwaukee county executive, and Rindfleisch was a top aide, he managed the county’s welfare programs so abysmally that after lawsuits by local clients, the state was forced to take them over. “They didn’t just call people dogs, they treated them like dogs,” one Milwaukee elected official recalled angrily.

"Milwaukee County has demonstrated a sustained inability to successfully provide services to its (poor) customers," state health services director Karen Timberlake wrote in a February 2009 letter to Walker announcing the state takeover. Milwaukee became only one of 72 Wisconsin counties to wind up with its programs for poor people under state control.

It’s a chapter in Walker’s career that shows why, to many in Milwaukee, his staff’s racist jokes aren’t funny.

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At the height of the recession, in 2008 and 2009, requests for aid in Wisconsin, and throughout the country, soared. But in Milwaukee, where 41 percent of African-Americans live below the poverty line, people had trouble getting help. Roughly 95 percent of calls to the county’s client-intake call center went unanswered in 2008, a state probe later found.

The social services department budget funded 25 positions at the intake center, but a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter found only seven staffers working among empty cubicles when he visited. Advocates and the county workers’ union complained, but Walker stonewalled. Aided by the outcry, Walker began arguing for privatizing the social services intake unit. “He was managing it to fail,” charges AFSCME contract administrator Dave Eisner.

In June 2008, Legal Action of Wisconsin sued on behalf of thousands of needy people who couldn’t get benefits even though they qualified, because they couldn’t get their eligibility verified.

"Milwaukee County has reached a low point in its [welfare] delivery service," Legal Action lawyer Pat DeLessio wrote in a letter to the County Board. "It is almost impossible to get through to anyone on the phone" to apply for or verify benefits.

But the problems weren’t just at the call center. In 2008, one out of five food stamp recipients dropped for ineligibility were in fact eligible, and wrongly cut from the program. In 2007, 60 percent of county decisions to cut food or other aid were overturned on appeal within two months. Roughly 30 percent of needy applicants were waiting more than two weeks for aid. Two-thirds of all complaints received by state welfare agencies involved Milwaukee County residents having problems obtaining Medicaid, food aid and child care services. And while the state paid a higher share of Milwaukee’s income-maintenance program costs than in other counties, Walker complained that state funding was inadequate.

With the call center problems and need rising, clients took to lining up at county offices for services before they even opened, DeLessio recalled, because by midday workers would declare the building was full, and turn away new applicants. In June 2008 at least 3,000 people showed up before dawn seeking food vouchers in what was later called a “food riot.”

"The food crisis in Milwaukee and throughout the United States is worse than many of us have realized," said Milwaukee Common Council president Willie Hines. "We expect long lines for free food in third-world countries."

Walker’s answer was to privatize the intake unit and other services. His proposed September 2008 budget featured his privatization proposals, but the county board blocked him. “It was clearly a game – he didn’t give a damn about poor people,” Eisner charges.

State officials repeatedly complained about the service inadequacies, and eventually threatened to take the programs away from the county. Politics clearly played a role in the conflict; in 2006 Walker had planned to run for governor against incumbent Democrat Jim Doyle, but soon dropped out of the Republican primary. "I believe that it was God's will for me to run," Walker said at the time. "After a great deal of prayer during the last week, it is clear that it is God's will for me to step out of the race." It was an open secret that Walker was planning another run for governor in 2010, and if his skirmishes with the Doyle administration hurt Milwaukee’s poor, they helped its county executive with the state’s conservative GOP primary voters.

After a series of tense meetings between county and state administrators, when it was clear the state was going to take over the anti-poverty programs, Walker made a brazen move. He wrote to state social services director Karen Timberlake and invited the state to take over the county’s income maintenance program.

"This is a state mandate," Walker wrote, in a letter he immediately released to the media. "It's amazing state government has been such a lousy partner on this."

County board chair Lee Holloway told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that Walker invited the state in, over his and the board-majority’s objection, to preempt the state’s embarrassing announcement that it was taking over Milwaukee’s programs. “Holloway said he thought Walker's letter was meant to upstage state officials ‘before they make a move on him,’” the paper reported.

“The county board didn’t want the takeover,” recalls Legal Action’s Pat DeLessio. “There’s a strong system of county control in Wisconsin. But Walker just gave up.”

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No one was fooled by Walker’s letter. A day after he released it, the state announced its takeover. In her letter to Walker explaining the move, Timberlake wrote that Wisconsin state government "has in fact expended millions of additional dollars and thousands of hours of staff resources to assist your county over a period of years. Despite these efforts, Milwaukee County's performance fails national and state standards and is failing the people of the county." Yet two years after the state took over his social service programs, Walker took over the state as governor.

Kelly Rindfleisch, who found the joke about welfare-receiving dogs “hilarious” and “so true,” was Walker’s deputy chief of staff while he was mismanaging the county’s welfare programs. Her boss, chief of staff Tom Nardelli, himself circulated a racist joke about the “nightmare” of waking up black, gay, disabled and HIV-positive while working for Milwaukee County. Against the backdrop of the way Walker treated welfare recipients, their joking is even less funny.

Rindfleisch was eventually convicted of illegal campaign activity on public time, a felony conviction that she is appealing. She and Nardelli paid no penalty for enjoying racist jokes on public time.

By Joan Walsh