Before he ran for governor, Scott Walker was a state representative and then Milwaukee County executive. While he rose through the political ranks, he was a frequent guest on conservative talk radio in Milwaukee, specifically on a morning call-in show on WTMJ Radio hosted by Charlie Sykes.
Many people in Wisconsin back then would tell you Sykes was a very influential figure in state politics. And in 2010, Sykes was firmly against accepting federal stimulus funding to build a high-speed rail line between Madison and Milwaukee. He said so frequently on his radio show.
These days, the former conservative talk radio host is on a much different path. He's now a self-proclaimed never-Trump conservative and a contributor on MSNBC. He is also the founder and editor of The Bulwark, a conservative opinion website.
In the making of WPR's "Derailed," Bridgit Bowden and Shawn Johnson interviewed Sykes. They were curious to know more about his perspective on the train, then and now.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Longtime conservative talk radio host Charlie Sykes behind the mic in Milwaukee. SAIYNA BASHIR/CAP TIMES
Shawn Johnson: Scott Walker was a state representative who kind of saw an opening in the county executive's office. Do you remember that? What was your role in kind of getting Scott Walker into the county executive's office?
Charlie Sykes: Well, I actually knew Scott before he was even a state representative. I actually met him before he actually ran. And then got to know him very well when he was in the state Legislature, and he was sort of a backbencher. But he was a backbencher who understood how to use the media. And he made himself available and really became a regular on conservative talk radio, including my show. I used to have a radio show and a television show, and he became a regular panelist.
One of the things that always impressed me about Scott was he was always available, he always had an opinion, and he was actually a pretty good pundit. And I've often said that if he didn't have a career in politics, he would have gone on to be a talking head as a political analyst.
SJ: So 2010, do you remember how the high-speed rail issue sort of started? Was Walker on this from the get-go?
CS: OK now we're in the distant mists of time. I don't honestly know who raised the issue. In some ways, it was the perfect issue because for years here in Milwaukee, we had been debating light rail and a variety of other things.
Very quickly it became obvious that this was going to become a real lightning rod, that this was going to become a defining issue in this particular race. It became a symbol of wasteful, arrogant government spending that made no sense.
But this issue was one of the issues that I think catalyzed public opinion because the price tag was so large. Because the justification was getting weaker and weaker.
"Very quickly it became obvious that this was going to become a real lightning rod, that this was going to become a defining issue in this particular race. It became a symbol of wasteful, arrogant government spending that made no sense," Charlie Sykes said.
SJ: Is there something about trains generally that bothers conservatives? And southeast Wisconsin conservatives particularly? Because ... I mean you've seen some of the same anger with the streetcar here in Milwaukee, right?
CS: So there's nothing inherently wrong with trains from a conservative point of view. But these projects are like ... what? How do they make sense? They defied common sense. And I think that's where they get tripped up. You just couldn't articulate well what problem it solved and why it was worthwhile spending that huge amount of money. Especially when it's not really a high-speed train going near Madison.
Now you ask me why conservatives don't like trains ... I was trying to figure out, and I still have not completely figured out, why do people, you know why did liberals, fall in love with these trains.
SJ: I was just gonna ask you?
CS: What was it about this shiny, expensive high-speed train that suddenly became a litmus test for being progressive?
And you have people standing on street corners waiting for buses trying to get to work and yet liberal Democrats are saying, "Yes, let's spend hundreds of millions of dollars on streetcars that don't go anywhere and high-speed trains that go between — sort of go between — two cities at 70 mph." I honestly never understood that. It was the power of symbolism more than the power of practical ideas, I think.
SJ: When you go on cable, you are kind of a go-to conservative Trump critic. And you've written a book kind of lamenting decisions made by conservatives over the past couple of years especially. I don't hear any lament from you over the decision by Walker and conservatives to stop that train?
CS: No. I have not changed my mind on that one ... I have many, many, many regrets. Many things that I would do differently. This is not one of them.
SJ: Why is that?
CS: Because it was a bad idea. It was, in fact, a boondoggle. It did not solve a problem. The price tag was, was excessive.
And I think it would have led to the kind of wasteful spending and ... what happened in California would have ultimately happened here as well when there are so many other needs and priorities. It was a bright, shiny object that people fell in love with but ultimately failed the test of common sense.
So I see this as not a right/left, red/blue issue. I saw it as a common sense issue. And I think it failed the common sense test which is why it was such a political liability and which is why it was such a political winner for Scott Walker back in 2010.
This is part of WPR's "Derailed," a limited-run podcast about Wisconsin’s high-speed rail line that never was. It’s a look at how the project came together, how it fell apart, and what it says about how Wisconsin has changed. Never miss an episode by subscribing now on your favorite podcast app or at wpr.org/derailed.