IN THE SPOTLIGHT WITH WENDY THOMPSON – Why Wisconsin’s Republican First Lady Tonette Walker worked with Maryland Democrat Helga Luest to help trauma victims


December 15, 2017
Wendy Thompson
In the Spotlight with Wendy Thompson

It’s no secret that my husband (Governor Scott Walker) is a Republican [and]no secret that I am.  But when it comes to the things that matter to me the most, it doesn’t matter where we sit on the aisle.  It’s about coming together and doing what’s right for Americans, for our children, and for our families…        — First Lady of Wisconsin Tonette Walker

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Wisconsin First Lady Tonette Walker (photo credit: and Tonette Walker)

When the First Lady of Wisconsin, Tonette Walker, decided to use her community work in her own state to benefit victims of trauma, she did not partner with someone in her own party.  Although Walker is a Republican and is the wife of Republican Governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, she did something that can be deemed as miraculous in today’s dark political climate in Washington, D.C.  Walker  chose to cross the political aisle and put down partisan politics to work with a Democrat, Helga Luest, who is also running for a delegate seat in Maryland.  Luest has been known as the champion of trauma victims for countless years in the Washington metro area, so she was the perfect candidate to partner with for a successful outcome.

Luest and Walker both decided that working on behalf of the American people who suffer from trauma of any form is more important than maintaining the party line.  The two found that when Democrats and Republicans work together for trauma victims and other causes, it is a win win situation for the people, in spite of their party affiliation.

Within weeks of meeting each other, Luest and Walker had developed what is now a bill that has been put before Congress to bring awareness to the ways trauma impacts not only our health, but also who we ultimately become as humans.  The bill, House Resolution 443, is the result of their tireless work and the rewards of having it passed in Congress is something Walker anticipates with delight.  They are also requesting more than a bill, but also a month dedicated to education on trauma and its dangerous effects.   First Lady Walker sat down with DC Spotlight’s editor-in-chief, Wendy Thompson, to discuss their important decision to cross the aisle and how their bill will educate and benefit sufferers of trauma.

Wendy Thompson      Good morning, Mrs. Walker.

First Lady Tonette Walker     Good morning, how are you?

Wendy Thompson      I’m well.  Can you tell me a little about how you got involved in this cause?  This cause is about helping victims of trauma and you have a bill that you’ve presented to Congress.  Can you tell me how you got involved in this and how you partnered with Helga (Luest) who is also working on this bill with you?

First Lady Tonette Walker     Well Helga is a wonderful partner, and she has really helped us break into the D.C. circle with a resolution that we’re bringing to both Congress and now we’re working on the Senate side.  In 2011, I became aware of something called adverse childhood experiences or ACES, and it’s about children who live in toxic stress each and every day.  And their brains don’t develop in the same way. They have different outcomes in life than those who don’t live in toxic stress.  And so when I heard about ACES and trauma-informed care, I knew it was something as First Lady that I would be able to really maybe make a difference in the state of Wisconsin and that’s what we’ve been working on in the last 6 years in Wisconsin.

First Lady Michelle Obama talks with community leaders at Oak Creek High School in Oak Creek, Wis., Aug. 23, 2012. The First Lady offered support for the victims of the attack at the gurdwara and to the community of Oak Creek. The First Lady talks with, from left, Kulwant Singh Dhaliwal, Secretary of Board of Trustees for the Sikh Temple; Oak Creek Mayor Steve Scaffidi; Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis.; Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett; County Executive Chris Abele, Milwaukee County; and Tonette Walker, Governor Scott Walker’s wife. (Official White House Photo by Sonya N. Hebert)

Wendy Thompson      So you’ve crossed the aisle, and I can’t stress enough the fact that you’re a Republican and Helga is a Democrat, and you have crossed the aisle, as they say, to work on this issue together.  How important is that, because today, that’s not something that’s happening? We find very few Republicans and Democrats who are actually working together and that has been a problem in Congress for awhile.  So how important is it that you put down your differences and actually work together with people from different sides?

First Lady Tonette Walker     Well, I actually want to almost chuckle at that, because I guess I didn’t realize I couldn’t.  (Laughter)  So I felt that I knew trauma-informed care really has no boundaries, and it crosses both the aisles.  Both Democrat children and Republican children are facing toxic stress each and every day.  I didn’t think it was anything that was really partisan.  I really feel [it’s] getting at the root cause of the problem and that maybe we can make a shift in what’s happening in our country.  And so I don’t have…I guess I didn’t realize I couldn’t.  (Laughter) That’s all I can say.  And when some adults bring that up, I’m like ‘that’s just crazy.’ We can work together on this.  We can have better outcomes for our children and our families, and it can be done here in Wisconsin, in all the states, and it can be done in Washington.

Helga Luest, victims advocate and Maryland delegate candidate in district 18 (Photo credit: Danny Douglas Photography)

Wendy Thompson      That is a super way to put it.  That is probably the most common sense way of putting it.  That you didn’t realize that you can’t do it.  I mean, there’s no reason why you can’t do it.  So, let me ask you this.  You say that traumas from our childhood can practically determine what type of person we will become in terms of our health in this bill.  So, whether we’re suffering from obesity, or addiction or mental illness, that trauma plays a large part in that.  Can you explain a little bit more about that?

First Lady Tonette Walker     Well, I mean not in every case.  There are exceptions to it.  Most of the time when we have poor outcomes with our health or maybe mental illness, it could be, they could be maybe due to the toxic stress you had growing up.  And there are several different things — ten different things — if you lived in a home where there’s alcoholism, divorce, drug abuse, incarcerated, child abuse, physical abuse in any way, mental abuse.  Those are things that change the way that you regulate your body.  Things that maybe your brain is developed in a different way.  So when you go off to school, maybe you can’t always…[you’re] kind of in a situation [where]you can’t really regulate yourself or you can’t understand why things re-trigger you.  We found that we certainly can’t change the brain but we can change the outcome with trauma-informed care.  And that’s just asking not what’s wrong with you, but what’s happened to you in life.

Helga Luest meeting with a Maryland constituent (Photo credit: Danny Douglas Photography)

Wendy Thompson      Okay, so let me ask you this:  So you’ve formulated how these traumas work and how they affect your life?  So now you’ve brought this bill to Congress.  Can you tell me a little bit about the bill?  What’s the name of the bill?

First Lady Tonette Walker     House Resolution 443.  So it’s a House resolution and it’s really just basically saying, very clean cut, not much to it other than the fact that we want to bring awareness of what all of our states are doing.  All of the states are doing great work.  Not just Wisconsin, but all of the states are doing great work with trauma-informed care and ACES, so we want Congress to be aware of that.  We want them to know that in all of our states, this kind of work is being done, and we want them to make sure that when they are looking at bills…and they are thinking about funds that they are handing out, that they are looking at trauma-informed care and ACES and is the organization [seeking funding]trained in those two things.  So basically, that was our biggest thing.  Then the other thing was, we would like to obviously declare a month, which Congress can’t do, but we’ve been working with the Senate in allowing us to have a month for recognizing trauma-informed care.  We just want this awareness.  We want everyone to know that there is something out there that can really truly change the outcome for children and families.

Wendy Thompson      Yes. So with the awareness, how will that go about making changes as far as trauma is concerned.

First Lady Tonette Walker     Well, within the federal government, we hope [within]Health and Human Services — and they are doing a lot of good work.  We’ve met with them many times, and they’ve got lots of great programs. But we want them to incorporate it in all the work they do.  So the work the organization I have — Fostering Futures — is about organizational change.  There’s a lot of good therapies out there already.  There’s a lot of good treatments from across the spectrum of all the services that are needed.  We’re talking about organizational change, so we want organizations to completely change the way they do business.  That they think through a lens of trauma-informed care needs.  And so that’s our hope that the federal government will look through a lens of trauma-informed care and ACES when they are talking about bills, when they’re thinking about services for their state or for their country, for that matter.

Wendy Thompson      So you want — the actual awareness month [to]be the National Trauma Awareness Month.

First Lady Tonette Walker     We hope that the Senate will take this on; we have a couple of good prospects of co-sponsors for the same Senate resolution and we’re hoping that they will declare the month of May.  We’re keeping our fingers crossed for that and hope that we can piggyback on its Foster Care Treatment Month and Children’s Mental Health Month and all of those things are tied into ACES and trauma-informed care.

Wendy Thompson      So who is sponsoring it in Congress?  Who’s sponsoring this bill with you?

First Lady Tonette Walker     The congressmen are (Mike) Gallagher from Wisconsin and (Danny) Davis from Illinois.

Wendy Thompson      So if our readers want to contact Congress to support this bill, they should contact those two members of Congress?

First Lady Tonette Walker    Yes, that would be wonderful.  We are working tirelessly every day to have congressmen sign on to this, and we’re hoping that we’re going to be able by the spring to get it to the floor.  That’s our goal.

Wendy Thompson      Okay.  So I know that Helga Luest is running for state delegate in Maryland, and you’re from Wisconsin.  So how did you guys meet, because you’re so far away?  How did you meet and learn that you had something in common in this way.

First Lady Tonette Walker     So Fostering Futures is made up of 12 different private agencies or organization and one of the organizations is the Office of Children’s Mental Health in Wisconsin and Elizabeth Hudson runs that and she and Helga are very good friends and worked on many, many projects together.  At Fostering Futures, we have Republicans and Democrats… so [Elizabeth] was able to connect with Helga, and Helga has been a wonderful resource to us in Washington.

Wendy Thompson      That’s super!  That’s super.  That’s why I wanted to do this story, because I like to see Democrats, [Liberals], Republicans, everybody coming together and working for the benefit of our country.  And when I see that happening, that’s a story that I want America to hear about.

First Lady Tonette Walker     And really, that’s the American story, isn’t it.  Isn’t it what we’re all about.

Wendy Thompson      Yes, it is.  That is exactly what we’re about.

First Lady Tonette Walker     Exactly, so I certainly — it’s no secret that my husband (Governor Scott Walker) is a Republican [and]no secret that I am.  But when it comes to the things that matter to me the most, it doesn’t matter where we sit on the aisle.  It’s about coming together and doing what’s right for Americans, for our children, and for our families.

Wendy Thompson      That’s the perfect way to end it.  That is the perfect way to end it.  That is the quote of the year.  I love that.  I love that.

First Lady Tonette Walker     It’s so true though, right?  It is just so true.  And we just have to keep at it.

Wendy Thompson      Yes, we do.  We certainly do.  Well Tonette, I really appreciate you coming on and talking with us and supporting this bill and co-founding it.  I’m hopeful that it will pass and that we will have more education and support for victims of trauma and that this will be a success for both you and Helga.

First Lady Tonette Walker     Thank you so much.

Note:  To support this bill, contact your state representatives in Congress or Congressman Mike Gallagher from Wisconsin and Congressman Danny Davis from Illinois.  202-224-3121


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