Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Walker “Listening Sessions” Not for All

Invitations are closed to media and for invited guests only.

By - Feb 15th, 2016 10:32 am
Scott Walker

Scott Walker

Two top state officials consult the voters who elected them in much different ways. Republican Gov. Scott Walker, for example, hosts by-invitation-only listening sessions across the state, trying to get ideas for the 2015-17 budget he will present early next year and boost an approval rating hovering at 38 percent. There are no TV cameras or reporters, and no advance public notice, at the governor’s 2020 Vision Project sessions.

Contrast those with the listening sessions of Democratic Sen. Robert Wirch, who holds them alternately at the north and south branches of the Kenosha Public Library. Wirch wants anyone to come – an invitation that drew a homeless woman and an elderly couple who lost $10,000 to a con artist.

Gov. Walker told the Wisconsin Counties Association Legislative Exchange that he holds by-invitation-only events so they can be thoughtful discussions, and not “shouting matches” dominated by sound-bite speeches. He recognizes how controversial many of the changes passed by Republican legislators, and signed into law by him, have been since he took office in 2011.

Walker also said he wants the sessions to focus on the future, including the “hopes and dreams” of attendees. He said he writes down ideas on a white board, questioning and brainstorming on a variety of issues for an hour or more. “We’re looking at long-term,” he explained.

Wisconsin State Journal reporter Matt DeFour interviewed two people at a recent Walker listening session in Kewaunee, and described it this way:

“Walker led the discussion in jeans and a plaid button-down shirt…. The questions, they said, included: What’s good about Wisconsin and your community? What do you want your community to look like seven to 10 years from now? And what can be done to ensure that vision?

“That Walker took notes and spent time after the discussion talking to each of the 34 participants impressed John Pagel, a Kewaunee County Board member and Walker supporter. ‘It was just a regular old Joe coming to the meeting,’ Pagel said. ‘He’s just trying to show that he really cares. I think it will improve what his ratings are. It’s easier to solve problems if you’re doing it together rather than everybody pulling in the opposite direction.’

Cathy Pabich, a retired librarian and environmental advocate from Algoma who signed the 2012 Walker recall petition, said she was disappointed the format didn’t allow for more dialogue about problems facing the state….Pabich, who was referred to the governor’s office for an invitation by Rep. Joel Kitchens, R-Sturgeon Bay, said the audience was made up of mostly Walker supporters.”

Walker told the Counties Association that those at his events “span the spectrum,” including his fans and foes.

In his State of the State speech, Walker curiously listed 20 types of attendees at his events: “Principals, farmers, small business owners, local government officials, retirees, veterans, teachers, construction workers, union members, parents, high school students, nurses, charitable organization leaders, superintendents, insurance agents, ministers, college students, machinists, law enforcement, and a librarian.”

Wirch’s listening sessions work differently. “I take everybody that comes in the door,” he says. “The governor’s events, I think, are filtered.”

For his part, Wirch relies on short announcements of his listening sessions in the Kenosha News, on email “blasts” sent out by his aides and on meet-your-senator signs posted at the branch of the library he is at that week.

Sometimes, only one Kenosha constituent may greet him, Wirch said. The most he can remember is less than 10. Often, they ask for help dealing with a specific state agency or program.

Last month, Wirch said, a woman who said she was homeless and living in her car showed up. At another session, an elderly couple asked to speak with him privately and told him they had been scammed out of $10,000 by callers who repeatedly posed as a grandchild with legal problems who needed cash immediately.

Wirch said he offers anyone who comes a 2015-16 Blue Book directory of state government; his political resume is on page 62. A legislator for 24 years, he’s up for re-election in November, and listening sessions are a key way he connects to the public.

“It allows for an extended conversation,” Wirch says. “I learn something at every one of these sessions.”

Steven Walters is a senior producer for WisconsinEye, a nonprofit public affairs channel. Contact him at

14 thoughts on “The State of Politics: Walker “Listening Sessions” Not for All”

  1. Rich says:

    “…government of the people, by the people, for the people…”

  2. Richard says:

    Ol’ Unintimidated made a clandestine stop in my village a couple of weeks ago. It’s wonderful to ‘listen’ to people who already agree with what you have to say. Like ‘listening’ to a bunch of gun owners when you are the president of the NRA. Stupid is as stupid does.

  3. Vincent Hanna says:

    Is this practice pretty common for a governor? It seems like it would be these days, especially after some town hall meetings started going very badly (and viral) in 2009 or 2010.

  4. James says:

    He’s only talking to people who support him. Maybe these are actually groundwork sessions for his next campaign.

  5. M says:

    This is what oligarchy looks like. Democracy ended in Wisconsin’s state government long ago.

    Intimidated Walker hiding in a room with “citizen” extras from central casting.

  6. blurondo says:

    The Tea Party cabal that controls Wisconsin’s capitol have clearly chosen to ignore the first lesson of their high school civics text: The government is the people. Everything they do is done to eliminate the people from being the government.
    Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner regularly holds open discussions throughout his district. Any one who shows up is welcome.

  7. AG says:

    I do think it would behoove the governor to open listening sessions to people with opposing views… but lets be honest, if it was a public event open to anyone we all know how it would end. There is a certain part of Walker’s opposition that can be, well… lets call it, unruly.

  8. Vincent Hanna says:

    When Christie was fighting with people in NJ, was that because his events were open to the public?

    With an approval rating of what 38%, it doesn’t seem like preaching to the choir is a wise strategy if Walker does run for reelection.

  9. Barb- West Bend says:

    AG: Citizens have the right to protest, especially when legislation is created and passed in a sudden/secretive manner…sprung on ‘we the people” wiith little prior notice. This Administration apparently doesn’t want to have to deal with those who don’t agree with them. That is what happens when one party owns the State. IMO they have become rulers rather than representatives of the people.

  10. AG says:

    Barb, no one is denying one’s right to protest… just don’t act surprised when not invited to a conversational event. Freedom of speech is a right guaranteed to everyone, but that doesn’t mean unruly protest is necessarily the best strategy if you truly want your opinion heard by your opposition.

  11. AG says:

    Vincent, I’m not really a fan of Christie nor familiar with what you’re referring. But as far as Walker goes, I think rebuilding support with his base who felt abandoned by his presidential bid and changing positions is probably a good idea for him.

  12. Bruce Murphy says:

    AG, I think you’re right, Walker would meet with fervent opposition from opponents at listening sessions open to all. But that’s arguably the result of his strategy. As Tommy Thompson once said, he wanted the most votes he could get, while Walker’s strategy is 50% plus one. The result has been the most polarized state in the nation.

    That said, Ron Johnson has done listening sessions without pre-screening attendees.

  13. AG says:

    I would agree with that. I may word it differently, but the idea that his agenda is polarizing is certainly not in doubt.

  14. Chris says:

    Scottwalker just wants to surround himself with people who are going to agree with him. Then he can turn around and say that he heard from the majority. The majority of idiots who actually support him

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