David M. Walker once set for himself the task of saving the United States from crippling debt, a threat he sees as worthy of comparisons to the fall of the Roman Empire. Now, he will settle for saving Connecticut from bonding debt and unfunded pension obligations from a perch on the state’s Republican under ticket.
By announcing an exploratory campaign for lieutenant governor Monday, Walker defected from the national ranks of the nonpartisan fiscal Cassandras who have been chiding politicians for a decade about mounting federal debt and growing Social Security and Medicare obligations.
“I’ve become convinced that the press and the public will pay 10 times more attention to you if you are a candidate, and one of the reasons I am running is because of that simple fact,” Walker said.
Walker, 62, a co-founder of the No Labels independent movement, rejoined the partisan world on the north steps of the State Capitol, offering himself as a wing man on fiscal issues to whomever wins the Republican nomination for governor.
“I am the person who can help put our financials in order,” said Walker, a former U.S. comptroller general and head of the Government Accountability Office under two presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Walker is largely unknown across Connecticut, but he is a national figure — a mix of fiscal wonkery, dire financial forecasts and a dash of outside-the-Beltway populism — among those who have tried to pressure Congress from the outside on fiscal issues.
In 2012, his name was floated as a potential third-party presidential candidate for Americans Elect, a group that ultimately decided against fielding a candidate. Walker eventually endorsed Mitt Romney, the GOP nominee.
Walker counts himself as a friend to H. Ross Perot, the last third-party candidate to make major push for president.
In describing Connecticut’s dire fiscal condition, Walker even re-purposed Perot’s famous line about the “giant sucking sound” of jobs going south because of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“We will hear a giant sucking sound that will be people leaving the state and business leaving the state in such volume it will be audible,” Walker said. “We must not allow that to happen.”
Walker said Connecticut ranks at or near the bottom of the states in too many economic indicators, including unfunded pension obligations, per-capita debt, business climate and economic growth.
“I think it’s now or never,” Walker said.
Jerry Labriola Jr., the Republican state chairman, smiled as Walker made the case for fiscal change, sounding more like a stern professor of economics than a candidate.
“The points that I have made are facts, not opinions,” Walker said.
Walker rarely smiled during his announcement and press conference, but he showed a bit of wonkish humor in a YouTube video he made about the debt’s danger to younger generations with Alice Rivlin, an economist who was Clinton’s budget chief and later the vice chair of the Federal Reserve. Both danced in the video to the “Harlem Shake.”
(The video was something less than a YouTube sensation, garnering fewer than 32,000 views.)
In returning to partisan politics – he was a self-described Dixiecrat from 1969 to 1976, a Republican from 1977 to 1996 and an independent until recently – Walker was unwilling to completely write off third-party politics.
Walker credited Perot for changing the debate, nudging Clinton, who balanced the federal budget for a time, toward the center in 1992 and providing the underpinnings of the GOP’s Contract With American in 1994.
On a national tour about the debt in 2012, Walker said he was gratified at the response to his message by what he called demographically diverse audiences.
“I got 97 percent agreement from a representative group of voters that it should be a top priority, 92 percent agreement that it was going to take both revenues and reduction in spending,” Walker said.
But those were discussions outside the realm of a campaign, where candidates of both parties are loathe to acknowledge the need for new revenue.
In 2010, the Republican nominee for governor of Connecticut, Tom Foley, insisted that the state could erase a projected deficit of nearly $3.7 billion without new taxes. With the race too close to call, Dannel P. Malloy, the Democrat who raised taxes by $1.5 billion in 2011, stopped just short during one debate of ruling out new taxes.
In 2012, every Republican candidate for president said during a debate they would not accept any new taxes, even as part of a budget deal that cut $10 in spending for every dollar in new taxes.
“That was the low point of that campaign,” Walker said. “I was shocked and saddened by the answers to that question.”
Walker, who is a native of Birmingham, Ala., and previously lived in Jacksonville, Fla., and Mount Vernon, Va., moved to Connecticut with his wife, Mary, after he left government in 2008 to lead the Peter G. Peterson Foundation in New York. The Walkers purchased a home overlooking Black Rock Harbor in Bridgeport from Chris Shays, the former congressman.
In Bridgeport, where Walker pays property taxes of nearly $35,000, which is equal to the per-capita income of local residents, he involved himself in education issues, backing a mixed slate of Board of Education candidates.
“I’ve been surprised and saddened by what I found,” he said of the fiscal and economic problems facing both the city and state. “Connecticut is also a land of disparities. Averages don’t make any sense in Connecticut.”