Scott Walker’s Next Question

Why won’t Wisconsin’s governor give a clear answer on gay marriage?

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
Gov. Scott Walker.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Eight months ago at a press conference in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Scott Walker had a hard time answering an easy question. Daniel Bice reported for Milwaukee’s Journal Sentinel that when the Wisconsin governor was asked about his stance on same-sex marriage, his responses left attendees confused.

“It really doesn’t matter what I think now,” Walker said, apparently referring to the fact that a district court judge had recently thrown out the state’s constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. “It’s in the Constitution.”

Pressed to elaborate, he said, “I don’t comment on everything out there.”

Asked if he was reconsidering his stance on the issue, he said, “No. I’m just not stating one at all.”

If you have a healthy work/life balance, you may have missed the enormous Internet hubbub this past weekend over an awkward answer that the likely 2016 Republican contender gave to a question from the Washington Post about President Obama’s religious faith. (Walker refused to answer when asked whether he thought Obama was a Christian.) Regardless of the public policy implications—or lack thereof—of Walker’s response, it brings to mind that comparably odd exchange on gay marriage last June.

Marriage is such an important issue to so many people that candidates typically see little benefit from equivocating and hedging when they discuss it, regardless of what they believe. But Walker’s statements and actions have caused some head scratching. Though the governor states that he opposes marriage rights for same-sex couples, he’s made a number of curious comments on the issue, and has taken a stance on anti-discrimination laws that could make trouble for him with his base. So it’s as good a time as any to talk about what exactly the Badger State governor makes of same-sex marriage and other LGBT issues.

His Oak Creek press conference wasn’t the only time he has tried to shy away from the topic. A few months later, he again tried to duck the issue.

“I’d rather be talking in the future now more about our jobs plan and our plan for the future of the state,” he said a few weeks before his third gubernatorial bid in four years, according to US News & World Report. “I think that’s what matters to the kids. It’s not this issue.”

He made similar comments on Meet the Press in March 2013 when erstwhile host David Gregory asked him about young conservatives’ support for same-sex marriage.

“I think there’s no doubt about that,” he said, per ThinkProgress. “But I think that’s all the more reason, when I talk about things, I talk about the economic and fiscal crises in our state and in our country, that’s what people want to resonate about. They don’t want to get focused on those issues.”

Kids these days may not be particularly enraptured with Santorum-esque stances on marriage, but plenty of the conservative voters that Walker needs to court if he wants to be president feel differently. And thus far, the governor has managed to stay on social conservatives’ good side. Julaine Appling, president of the socially conservative group Wisconsin Family Action, said she didn’t have complaints about the governor’s record on marriage issues. Her group endorsed him in all three of his gubernatorial contests (two general elections and one recall vote in the summer of 2012).

“He aggressively defended our marriage amendment in court,” she said.

Matt Batzel, the national executive director of American Majority Action, who lives in Cedarville, Wisconsin, said the governor likely downplayed his stance on marriage during his 2014 re-election race out of political necessity.

“[Democratic opponent Mary Burke] would have loved to have him take a hardline traditional marriage position as often as possible,” he said, “and she would have used that probably fairly effectively with the war on women narrative to hit him pretty hard.”

So perhaps Walker was intentionally coy about the issue. Either way, right now there’s plenty of space for Walker’s conservative opponents to get to his right on LGBT issues. In November 2013, the governor suggested that the House should pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would bar employers from discriminating against LGBT employees. In an interview with Bloomberg, he praised the state’s decades-old law that does essentially the same thing.

“I haven’t looked at that particular bill,” he said, referring to the ENDA legislation that the Senate passed two weeks before his interview. “I can tell you, in Wisconsin, we’ve had anti-discriminatory laws that are very similar to that for more than 30 years and they’ve worked quite effectively.”

“We’ve had no problems—or I should say, limited problems with that,” he continued. “At the same time, we still have a constitutional amendment that defines marriage. There’s a healthy balance there.”

It’s unclear if the governor now thinks the state’s LGBT rights balance is out of whack, but he can expect more questions about that soon. When I asked Appline about Walker’s comments on ENDA, she said she wasn’t familiar with his stance.

“I’m sure some of that will have to unfold if he decides to pursue a presidential run,” she said. “Part of it may be that he doesn’t fully understand some of the ramifications of ENDA legislation. I would certainly give him the benefit of the doubt on it.”

She has reason to do so. The governor sent a letter to her group two months before his re-election last fall reiterating that he backs “marriage between one man and one woman,” per the Journal Sentinel. And perhaps more tellingly, he opposed the state’s registry for same-sex domestic partners during his first gubernatorial bid. (There’s more on this at the Wisconsin Gazette). He also opposed providing benefits to the same-sex partners of state employees. During his first term as governor, Wisconsin Family Action filed a lawsuit charging that the registry was an unconstitutional violation of the state’s marriage amendment. Walker fired the lawyers that his Democratic predecessor appointed to defend the registry, according to USA Today. The gay rights group Fair Wisconsin took over the case, and the state Supreme Court ruled in July 2014 that it was within the bounds of the state’s Constitution.

Despite that, his son Alex was a witness in a relative’s same-sex marriage.

“Shelli Marquardt is the first lady’s cousin,” said Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick in a statement to the Journal Sentinel. “She is a part of the Walker family who they dearly love.”

So Walker’s history on gay marriage is complicated, with lots of material for critics on both sides. No wonder he’d rather talk about jobs.