Burke Brings Campaign to Door County

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke outlined her direction for the campaign at the Sturgeon Bay Public Library the evening of Jan. 23.

Mary Burke, the only declared Democratic candidate for the office of governor of Wisconsin, was invited by the Democratic Party of Door County to speak at the Sturgeon Bay Public Library on the evening of Thursday, Jan. 23. Before that standing-room-only event, Burke sat down with Peninsula Pulse editor Jim Lundstrom at Glas Coffeehouse for a quick chat.

JL:  How is the campaign going?

MB:  It’s going great. I’m excited to be running and every day I’m on the road, I get more optimistic about not only the chances of winning but also the great things we can do in this state.

JL:  What are the great things you would like to do?

MB:  First and foremost is jobs. We are trailing the rest of the states in the Midwest. We’re trailing the national rate in terms of creating jobs since Gov. Walker has taken office, and we can do better, whether it’s helping entrepreneurs get started or planting the seed in young people’s minds about the opportunities there. We have to make sure we are creating new businesses in the state. That’s what really drives the economy.

It’s really the local entrepreneurship. If you think of all the great companies, the ones that are leaders in the Wisconsin economy now, were all started by Wisconsin entrepreneurs who not only started them here but grew then into multi-billion dollar business here. We want to make sure we’re seeding that next generation of those companies. Wisconsin is 48th in terms of starting new business. We are lagging, so we have to do more.

I talk to small business all the time around the state. They say they don’t have the access to capital to grow. I do believe we have strong foundations in manufacturing and agriculture and technology. Those are things we can build on. A lot of states don’t have the strong foundation like we do. We have to look at how those industries can be as competitive and innovative as possible.

When I was at Trek Bicycle, the division I ran increased sales from $3 million to over $50 million in a few short years. And that was selling great Wisconsin products all over the world. It creates more jobs here. But a lot of small- and medium-sized companies may not know those opportunities are there and how to take advantage of them. I think opportunities are there in growing markets.

Education is an important area. My belief is it’s sort of the fabric of our communities, whether its our K-12, our technical colleges, our universities. And it’s certainly the foundation for our economy. If we’re not making sure we have great education, we won’t be creating new business. People won’t have the skills for the job. We have to make sure when they graduate from high school, they are prepared for a job or prepared for college. The economy has changed so much in the last 25 or 30 years in terms of what’s available. The paths to good-paying jobs are not there. The paths for most with high school jobs is low-paying jobs, almost minimum wage jobs, and with no future on how that will change. We’ve got to change that.

JL:  Several Democratic legislators recently introduced legislation to raise the minimum wage. Is it time to finally do that?

MB:  I’m certainly in favor of that. There was one proposal in the legislature that would move it to $7.60 an hour. I certainly would want to see it go higher. The only thing I want to look at is making sure we aren’t going to have the unintended consequence of fueling automation that’s going to replace the jobs, so you drive into the McDonald’s you’re not talking to a person, you’re talking to a machine.

There’s research on both sides of the issue, frankly, but I think there’s research that if you have gradual, reasonable increases in the minimum wage that you don’t jeopardize the job creation. Frankly, we need to get to a place where people, if they’re working full time, that they are able to support themselves. At $7.25 an hour, that is just unrealistic.

There’s definitely an upsurge around the country (for raising the minimum wage) and it’s getting more attention, but in Wisconsin what we have seen in the last three years, there isn’t a very balanced approach. We’re strong on ideology. I heard just today that Gov. Walker, addressing the grocer’s association, said he was against it and he thought raising it is a political stunt. I don’t think people earning $7.25 an hour think it is a political stunt. It’s something that’s important to them. They’re struggling, and, frankly, we need to be smart about this. It helps them. It helps our economy. It’s good all around.

JL:  People are tired of the divisive political climate.

MB:  That’s why I’m running. We can do a lot better when we have leadership that brings us together. That’s how we solve problems. That’s how we do our best work. I have a track record of doing that, most recently in education, where I brought together the public schools, the Boys & Girls Club, our tech colleges and our universities. And this was in a program to open doors to teens from low-income families, so not only were they graduating from high school, but they were going to be prepared to go to college. It’s been highly successful.

JL:  There has been a lot of concern from people who follow environmental issues that the state seems to be for sale. How do we change that?

MB:  We change the governor. It’s about redistricting as well. Right now we have representation that doesn’t align with how people vote. We have gerrymandered it into very partisan districts and we’re not taking reasonable approaches to the issues that we face, and so it just swings, right? I mean, there are sort of approaches that make no sense at all. Why would we want to take away local control to make decisions that are affecting your communities? If people feel they need to set a certain distance where a mine is from where a school is or they want to make sure a mine is not operating during certain hours or blasting, they should be able to do that. Why do we think politicians in Madison should be weighing in, not only weighing in, but making those decisions, makes absolutely no sense at all.

There’s also the ones where it just looks unfair. Preventing local communities from negotiating with mining companies for repairs of roads from damage that the mining does. Government should be tough negotiators, right? We’re representing the public and it’s the public dollars. We need to make sure that people pay their fair share. But also on the DNR side of things, we have to make sure it is science driving the decisions.

JL:  Some of the mining legislation coming out seems as if it is obviously written by industry lawyers and just seems another instance of ‘Wisconsin’s for sale.’ How do you regain trust with the public in that climate?

MB:  It is hard once trust is lost. It’s so hard to gain it back. You have to earn people’s trust. That’s where the divisiveness comes from. You see that when you ram through legislation, like the mining legislation that allowed the mine to go ahead in the Penokee Hills. You get people who are upset because they don’t think the process was fair, they don’t think they had a voice. They don’t think it was reasonable legislation that took in all the issues, and there was an alternative. There was a bipartisan bill with Senators Jauch, Cullen and Schultz that said, oh, yes, we realize maybe the process is a little too bureaucratic, but we can streamline the process and still have our safeguards in place, but that, of course, was just put aside and we let the mining companies rewrite our protections and now our water and our air are at risk.

JL:  With so many people wanting to see an end to the divisiveness, does that help the cause?

MB:  Absolutely, otherwise incumbents win most of the time. People need to feel they want a change for challenger to win. It’s why I ran. I’m not a politician. I’m becoming one, but I hope in the good sense of the word. I wouldn’t have gotten into this unless I believed that we needed change and that we were going in a direction that was going to be detrimental to our state. We have to regain the trust of people. We have to make sure that we have government that that is open and welcoming and lets people have a voice. …

JL:  What is it that changes you from being a real person to a politician?

MB:  That’s the business I’m getting into, politics. I think first and foremost I will always be a pragmatic, common sense problem solver. I look at issues and say, how are we going to solve that. How can we move forward. I don’t care if it’s a Democratic or Republican idea, as long as it’s going to move us forward in the best interests of the people of Wisconsin. That’s pretty simple. That’s a different approach. I’m always going to be that.

That was my belief getting into this. I’m a fourth generation Wisconsinite. My great grandparents were farmers. My grandfather was a mailman. I live in a house that 50 years ago he delivered mail to. I’m reminded every day of my roots here in the state and the values I was brought up on. Those are values that a lot of people – whether they’re a first generation Wisconsinite or a fifth generation Wisconsinite – they sort of hold dear. We’re about common sense. We’re about hard work and working together. About getting the job done. It should be that simple.

JL:  Thoughts on the State of the State address [which was given by Gov. Scott Walker the night before this interview]?

MB:  I’ve done a few interviews today on the State of the State, and it’s funny you mention that because my words on that are it seems like a fairly typical politician, which is short on reality and long on spin and cherry-picking numbers, looking at saying the economy’s going great, people are happy, they have jobs, which just doesn’t match what I hear from people traveling the state, which reminded me, I went to the Packer playoff game. I was in the stands and I heard someone tell me that Walker was in a skybox as a fundraiser for a big donor. It made me think that how his take on the Wisconsin economy is a little bit like him sitting in the luxury skybox at a Packer game and thinking he knows how people in the stands feel. He’s just in a different world. And he’s not in touch with people’s lives.

He’s spinning a surplus to say somehow the economy and what he is doing is working when 75 percent of the states in the country have surpluses. Also, he’s spending money we don’t have. This is six months into a two-year biennium and he has racked up an additional $2.1 billion in debt since taking office. This is basically just borrowing and putting more spending on the credit card. It’s irresponsible. It just feels like a politician’s approach to things.

JL:  The Governor referred yet again in the state of the state to manufacturing as if it would return to what it once was in Wisconsin.

MB:  Manufacturing jobs since 2000 in the U.S. are down 31 percent. In Wisconsin they’re down 24 percent. I love manufacturing. There’s not a plant tour I don’t love taking. It is the heart of who we are here in Wisconsin. But we have to look to our future. When we’ve lost a quarter of our jobs in the last 13 years in manufacturing it doesn’t seem reasonable to think this is going to be a huge growth area. The last job numbers that came out show that Wisconsin didn’t gain one job in manufacturing. Frankly, we need a governor that goes to Washington and fights for fair trade policies in order to see that there is a more level playing field. Maybe that’s how we can change it in the long term. But we do need to be looking toward the future and how are we going to not only hold on to the manufacturing jobs we have, but what are the industries that are going to be creating new jobs?