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Democratic Candidate for Governor Mary Burke Makes Her Case

Addresses her jobs plan, Trek outsourcing and Act 10

Apr. 30, 2014
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With a little more than six months left in the race for Wisconsin governor, Democratic candidate Mary Burke has been crisscrossing the state to introduce herself and her plan to turn around Wisconsin’s economy. Not surprisingly, Burke’s growing visibility—and sharp criticism of Republican Gov. Scott Walker—has made her a target of Walker’s right-wing supporters. For example, the Republican Governors Association (RGA), currently chaired by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, has already spent $1.5 million on ads attacking Burke, a former Trek Bicycle executive. Expect more of that to come. Last week, it was reported that the RGA is likely the anonymous entity that booked $1.9 million of TV airtime in the weeks leading up to the November election.

Last week, Burke stopped in the Shepherd’s offices to respond to some of the allegations made by her opponents in this highly visible campaign.


Shepherd: You put together a jobs plan and your critics argue that it’s all Scott Walker’s ideas and he’s already doing them. How is your plan different than what’s happening now?

Burke: My plan certainly goes a lot more in depth into what we can do to turn around our economy. It’s centered around five core strategies and you won’t see any of these in Walker’s plan at all.

The entire plan is about aligning our economic development efforts and policy around industry clusters. While he may mention clusters, what he’s doing is not at all what I’ve outlined in my plan. It also looks at workforce development, exporting Wisconsin products, new business formation and regulations. We really need to take all of those areas and align them around cluster development. And we include a Governor’s Cluster Leadership Council so that the governor oversees it for the state.

Number one is workforce development. I’ve proposed looking at how we can redefine high school so that we are starting the career paths of students in high school so that when students are graduating from high school they have ideas about what they are going to do, they know what those next steps are, they know if they need a certificate or a two- or four-year degree. I outline how we are going to make higher education more affordable by increasing the deduction for student loan payments and also increasing the deduction for college tuition.

We are looking at whether we are aligning our workforce development efforts around industry needs and sort of getting ahead of it and not being reactionary and saying, “We don’t have enough welders, now what do we do?” We want to actually forecast the needs and make sure that we are increasing the amount of graduates and trained people in those areas.

The third area is around entrepreneurship. Under Gov. Walker we’re 46th in the country in terms of new businesses starting. I have a whole host of programs, including better access to capital and mentorships that help us ensure that we are starting new businesses.

The fourth area is exports and growing them. I have a lot of experience doing that with Trek Bicycle and there’s a lot more that we can be doing.

And the fifth is just making sure that we have a great climate and strong infrastructure to grow our economy, including things like looking at stopping the loss of farms. We’ve lost almost 9,000 farms in just five years. This is important to our rural economies. So we are looking at how we are going to have a better transition from this generation to the next generation, how we’re going to help small farms modernize so that we can be competitive.

I also include forming task forces for any area of the state, city or county, whose unemployment rate is more than 25% of the state average over a period of time so that we address areas of chronic high unemployment rather than just let them go and keep going.

I’ve committed to holding the line on taxes. This is about identifying opportunities based on my business experience at Trek. You have to make investments if you want to be able to grow. Clearly, we’re losing. We’re lagging behind the rest of the states. We’re nine out of 10 Midwestern states in terms of job growth. There’s a lot that goes into the plan. It’s not at all comparable to what Walker’s put out there.

Shepherd: Why should we trust you with Wisconsin’s economy?

Burke: When I was Commerce secretary from 2005 to 2007 we were at almost peak employment in this state. The unemployment rate was 4.8%. I am very proud of my tenure at Commerce. We did some great programs and initiatives. Some of the ones that are touted today and have grown were ones that were started at that point.

There were Qualified New Business Venture tax credits for angel and venture investment. Particularly in the angel area, that has really grown the amount of capital for new business startups. That was under Act 255, which I implemented as secretary of Commerce. We attracted new companies to Wisconsin. One of them was Uline’s headquarters in Kenosha, which moved from Illinois and then added jobs here. Saving and reopening of the Park Falls paper mill—that was 300 jobs in an area of the state that could not afford to lose 300 jobs. I’m very proud of the work that I did and very proud of the fact that we had very low unemployment and nearly record employment rates.

Shepherd: Why did you outsource Trek jobs to China?

Burke: Trek actually produces more bikes here in the U.S. and in Wisconsin than any other company and has nearly a thousand jobs right here in Wisconsin. I was not involved in any decisions regarding sourcing of bicycles. But it’s a competitive industry. Not one of Trek’s major competitors produces even one bike here in the U.S. Trek does what it can to hold on to as much manufacturing as it can here. But it is competitive.

Their payroll, here in the state, has more than doubled in the last 20 years. But the jobs are different than they were 20 years ago. Trek is a great Wisconsin employer. The single largest shareholder is the employee stock ownership group. Every one of those nearly 1,000 employees in the state has a stake in how the company is doing.

They’re employed in all different areas, including manufacturing. When I was in the plant the last time I was talking to the woman who puts decals on the bicycle frames. I think she said she was doing that for six-plus years and loves her job and is very happy at Trek. Engineers have been a big growth area, plus there are graphic designers, marketing people, customer service folks. There are a lot of people who have been at the company 15, 20, even 25 years who may have started in one job but have been able to advance and grow into another position.

Shepherd: Do you support Act 10, Walker’s collective bargaining bill?

Burke: I had said that I thought that it was only fair to have contributions to health care and to pension. But as governor I would have negotiated it, firmly and fairly. Those items were on the table. But what we saw Walker do was divide the state. This was political. It wasn’t the way that I would have done it.

As governor I want to work to restore collective bargaining. That doesn’t stand in the way of having an effective and efficient and accountable government. We do need to have a strong public sector. I’m concerned that we are not going to be able to attract and keep good people, like in our schools. Because they look and they don’t see the commitment to education that makes it a viable career.

Shepherd: You’ve said that you don’t believe that Obamacare is responsible for job losses. Why?

Burke: I don’t think that there is any indication that that’s true. Certainly there have been problems with the rollout and how that has gone. But we also need to make sure that our health care is affordable and accessible. There is no doubt that there will be changes in that program.

Gov. Walker turned down hundreds of millions of dollars of [federal] Medicaid money, but that doesn’t mean people don’t still get sick and don’t still have to be treated. What it means is that we don’t have money coming into this state to help pay for it. His decisions make health care more expensive for everyone.

Shepherd: How did you become the Democratic Party’s self-selected candidate? What kind of backroom deals or promises did you have to make to the party bosses?

Burke: People were encouraging me to run, but I made sure that I did my homework before deciding to run. Whether it was having a poll done or talking to people across the state and understanding whether they would be supporting me and that people would be excited about my candidacy. Those were the things that came into play before I jumped in and did this. It didn’t have anything to do with asking for anything or promising anything. It was about feeling that I could win.

The only promises I make are with the people of Wisconsin. It is about being the best governor I can be and putting the interests of the people of Wisconsin first. That’s how I’m running my campaign. That’s the kind of governor I’m going to be.

Shepherd: Why is the Journal Sentinel’s PolitiFact always giving you negative ratings?

Burke: I have no idea, but I stand by everything that was looked at by PolitiFact. One of the things was that I had said that state spending increased $4.6 billion under Gov. Walker. If you read their PolitiFact they say, yeah, it did. But they rated half true or half false and said, Who’s to blame there? Is it really his fault?

He is the governor. He makes choices on Medicaid spending. If spending increased, then he certainly made choices on that. When I’m governor, the buck will stop with me. I stand by those statements.

In one case I was rated false, and our citing was actually a Journal Sentinel article. If they are not assuring that what they print is true, there’s not a lot that we can do in citing that.

Shepherd: Are you going to be another Chris Abele, the heir to a fortune who ran as a Democrat and now works with tea party Republicans to benefit his wealthy friends?

Burke: I’ve been really clear about what my agenda is, and my agenda is making sure that we are growing the economy and growing the middle class here in Wisconsin. It’s not just about creating jobs, but it’s about creating good paying jobs and making sure that people have the skills and education in order to compete for those jobs.

What I hear every day when I travel around the state is that people don’t believe that the current governor is listening to them and is focused on the issues that matter to most of the people in Wisconsin. In some cases, people may have jobs but they are concerned about whether those jobs will still be there a year or two from now. One woman in Monroe told me that her daughter, a hard-working student who graduated from UW-Madison last May, hasn’t found a job yet. I’m going to be focused on the issues that matter the most to people.

My belief is that we all win—businesses thrive, families grow and Wisconsin’s economy grows—when we have a strong, growing middle class and people in the working class who believe that they can get to the middle class and will have the education and the skills to get there.


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