Interview with gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke
Looking to give Wisconsinites a “fair shot”
by A. David Dahmer
Traveling extensively throughout the state of Wisconsin this past year to meet and talk with people, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke has heard a lot of stories. Sitting down to interview her at her downtown campaign offices on the Capitol Square in downtown Madison, I give her one more story to hear just short of the state gubernatorial elections Nov. 4.
I explain to her that both of my grandfathers — one in Sheboygan and one in Milwaukee — were hard-working blue-collar men who never attended college. But despite their lack of a college education, both grandfathers were able to enjoy comfortable middle class lives: they were able to buy homes and cars. They were able to save money, own stocks, and set a rock-solid foundation for future generations to grow upon. Both men were single-earners in their families and were able to support their wives and their children comfortably.
Since that time, real wages in the United States have plummeted and benefits are down or have completely disappeared. Health care is extremely unaffordable and sometimes financially devastating. Housing prices have skyrockted. There is not only a significant imbalance of wealth skewed more and more radically to the top, but also immense structural barriers to social and economic mobility that my grandfathers once climbed. The American middle class is now poorer than any time since the 1940s to the point where two working-class breadwinners more often than not still struggle to make ends meet. For many, the American Dream — the one that both my grandfathers lived and that once was what America was famous for —- is dead. Both of my grandfathers, as hard working as they were, would hardly stand a chance today.
“That story isn’t different from many that I’ve heard as I’ve traveled the state. I want to give people a fair shot as long as they are prepared to do the hard work. That’s the basis in which I believe we move Wisconsin forward. You work hard and you can be successful,” Burke tells The Madison Times. “It’s just not happening right now for far, far too many. The jobs are more lower-paying or you can’t get the skills. In previous generations in Wisconsin and the U.S., it was much easier to get a job and have great wages and benefits.
“For Wisconsin and the rest of the country to be thriving over the long term, we must have a growing and strong middle class. We’re seeing that that’s not happening,” she continues. “In particular, coming out of a recession — all of the income and wealth gains have been to a very small percentage up at the top. Everybody else hasn’t seen that. Now more than ever, we need to have political leaders who believe that a strong middle class is what we should be striving for.
“Every day I’m going to be working for the people of Wisconsin and working to give everyone and their kids that fair shot,” Burke adds. “I have the track record to back it up. It’s not just things that I say. It’s how I have lived my life. It’s no longer going to be about the partisan politics; it’s going to be about problem solving and about focusing on creating opportunity for people to have that fair shot … focusing on what’s working best for the people of Wisconsin.”
Although the former Trek Bicycle executive is a millionaire, she is very in touch with her middle-class roots. Burke lives in a modest near-eastside home where her grandfather used to deliver mail to. For most Wisconsinites looking for a nice, middle-class life, it’s all about the economy and jobs, she says.
“Certainly, jobs and the economy are big. Even though more people have jobs, there are just a lot of people who feel squeezed. You see that in the latest census data that has shown that the typical Wisconsin family lost $3,000 income over four years,” Burke says. “That’s a lot — when you think about your real income dropping $3,000. So as the country has rebounded from the recession, employment has increased. But we have to look at the type of jobs. Are people doing better? Not only for themselves, but for their children. We need them to be doing better for themselves and for them to feel like their children will have opportunities. These are the worries that people have … and that’s why I’m running for governor. Not only can we do better; we must do better. Folks are not getting a fair shot whether it’s jobs or education.
“This election is about many things. It’s about raising the minimum wage. It’s about strong education and affordable education all the way through to university. It’s about small-business growth,” she adds. “It’s about not having the powerful special interest groups having a bigger voice than the people in Wisconsin.”
Focus on education
Education, Burke says, is at the heart of what is necessary so people can have that fair shot. On top of being a Madison Metropolitan School District school board member, she has been a longtime board member and supporter of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County and she co-founded AVID/TOPS, a program that mentors underprivileged kids at risk of becoming drop-outs and helps them develop the life skills to get into college.
“Having great, affordable education is key. As a parent, you need to know that you can send your child off to a neighborhood school and know that they are going to have a good education. With the historic cuts to education we have seen under Gov. Walker, we have seen schools being squeezed,” she says. “When you talk about higher education, we have 41,000 people on the wait list for need-based financial aid. For 37,000-38,000 of those, it’s for technical college. So we have people who want to go to school, get better skills, and get that higher paying job but finding it not within their means.”
School issues she sees are not just urban issues, Burke says, they are very much rural issues.
“In this school year alone, 200 school districts saw their state aid cut. On average, state aid makes up 60 percent of the schools’ funding,” Burke says. “So, when you see a cut in your state aid that means to make that up you are cutting programs or teachers or increasing class sizes. We know the most important thing for students’ learning is the quality of the teacher in the classroom. These are choices that Gov. Walker made.
“When you think about the budget that was proposed versus what was adopted … [Gov. Walker] was extreme in terms that there was not one more dollar for public schools that they could keep and no increase of the cap,” Burke adds. “What was arrived at was a compromise because there were some moderate Republican legislators who said, ‘Hold on. This is not good for the communities and families I represent!’ Even under that compromise, 200 school districts saw their funds cut.”
The percentage of free and reduced lunch students in the state has increased over the last 10 years from 32 percent to 42 percent. “You look at rural school districts across the state and those low-income student income levels are really high and growing,” she says. “The needs are greater and yet we have a governor who is deprioritizing — putting education on the backseat. What he has increased funding for is private vouchers. The parents that I talk to across the state are just looking for a great neighborhood school. They are not looking for a private school voucher. The public schools, if you think about them, are the fabric of our communities. Friday night football, bake sales … there’s so much that revolves around them.”
A local, state, and national hot-button topic has been the minimum wage which is currently $7.25/hour. Burke says she would support raising it to $10.10/hour.
“It goes a long way from where we are right now. People are working harder than ever and having less to show for it. To me, this is common sense. People can’t support themselves on $7.25 an hour so they have to be reliant on government assistance,” Burke says.
A recent report published in a Forbes Magazine article showed that just the low-wage workers of one company — Walmart — has cost U.S. taxpayers an estimated $6.2 billion in public assistance including food stamps, Medicaid, and subsidized housing.
“I want to make sure that people who are working full-time don’t have to be reliant on government assistance,” Burke says. “Frankly, it works for state and federal budgets. We can reduce the amount of public assistance. People can have more of that pride of having a job and supporting themselves. Their ability to be able to take care of their kids improves dramatically when you increase the minimum wage … and that improves our communities.
“The money goes right back into the economy, too,” Burke adds. “I talked to small business owners and large business owners before I came out publicly and endorsed [the minimum wage increase], and they told me it made sense. [CEO of Culver's Restaurants] Craig Culver has been public about this saying that he supports raising the minimum wage for adults. There are more and more jobs on the lower end these days; so it is more important.”
Burke says she wants to help the Wisconsin taxpayers who are getting squeezed the most. Gov. Walker’s 2011-’13 budget raised taxes on low- and moderate-income working families and others by cutting back the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit and the Homestead Credit.
“Gov. Walker cut the Earned Income Tax Credit. These are working adults that are suffering,” Burke says. “It’s a tax increase on 140,000 working families in Wisconsin. He did this while giving tax breaks to those at the top. That’s pretty crazy, right?”
Small-business growth is key
Small-business growth will be another key in getting Wisconsin moving forward again, Burke says. From her experience growing Trek Bicycles from a small business to one of the largest bicycle companies in the world, she says she understands the challenges facing entrepreneurs and start-up companies.
“Right now, unfortunately, Wisconsin is in the bottom five in terms of new businesses started. We need to have new businesses and small businesses growing in order to have a vibrant economy,” Burke says. “Seventy percent of the growth are small-business jobs and start-ups and when we are bottom five in the country, we’re not doing a good enough job. What I see much too often is that more of the tax breaks are given to the big corporations and not the type of attention and access to capital that small businesses need in order to grow. That will be an emphasis of mine. We are nowhere near close to some of our surrounding states. Start-ups and small-business growth are really important for our state’s future.”
In many ways, unfortunately, Wisconsin has become much more like other parts of nation where scorched-earth politics and bitter partisanship has replaced Wisconsin’s long legacy of bipartisan leadership and finding common ground to work for the betterment of the state. Burke says that as she travels the state she finds that people really don’t like that.
“They don’t like the divisiveness we now have in Wisconsin. They don’t feel like that is who we are. If I thought that was who we are, I wouldn’t have run for governor,” Burke says. “I feel very strongly about bringing people together. That’s a motivation of mine. I believe that’s how we do our best work and that is who we are here in Wisconsin. It doesn’t mean that we see eye to eye on all of the issues, but there’s a lot that we can find common ground on. That’s the type of governor I’m going to be. On day one, I’m going to sit down with the Republican leadership and figure out how we set that common vision for Wisconsin and find the common ground to do it. The people of Wisconsin deserve it. It’s who we are. Frankly, divisiveness is a tone that Gov. Walker has set for our state. In his own words, he said his approach was ‘to divide and conquer.’
“The biggest thing I get excited about in terms of being governor are the opportunities we have to be a leader in this country,” Burke adds. “Wherever you go around the country, people have this impression of Wisconsinites as being hard-working and good-hearted people. I want on top of that for people to think, ‘They are leaders. They take on the tough issues whether its education or whether it’s the affordability of health care or whether it’s [building] an economy that is able to have its traditional industries but is still able to transition into higher-growth industries. I believe we have everything we need here in this state to be an example of innovation and leadership for the rest of the country.”