Wisconsin Gubernatorial Race to Determine Direction of State’s Minimum Wage, Labor Issues

Money in Politics’ Bill Lueders and Laura Dresser from the Center on Wisconsin Strategy discuss campaign finance, minimum wage, and labor rights in Wisconsin’s closely watched gubernatorial race between incumbent Republican Scott Walker and Democratic challenger Mary Burke

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Story Transcript

JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

In Wisconsin, the gubernatorial race between Governor Scott Walker and Democratic challenger Mary Burke is way too close to call. Most polls show Burke and Walker neck-and-neck, and most of you probably remember Scott Walker for surviving a recall election in 2012. It took place a year after a progressive grassroots movement took over the capitol building in the state’s capital of Madison. This race is seen as a referendum on Walker’s policies towards Wisconsin’s labor, especially the public-sector unions, as well as job creation and the state’s minimum wage. The outcome is thought to be a signal to other Republican governors whether to pursue economic and labor policies similar to Walker’s administration.

Now joining us from Madison, Wisconsin, are our two guests, to discuss campaign financing and how this election will affect labor in Wisconsin–Laura Dresser and Bill Lueders. Laura is an associate director of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Bill Lueders is a reporter and editor with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. He writes a weekly column, Money in Politics, which appears in newspapers and on websites throughout the state.

Thank you both for joining us.

BILL LUEDERS, DIRECTOR, MONEY IN POLITICS, WI WATCH: Thank you.

LAURA DRESSER, ASSOC. DIRECTOR, CENTER ON WISCONSIN STRATEGY: Pleasure to be here.

DESVARIEUX: So, Bill, let’s start off with you. What issues have Burke and Walker’s campaigns really focused on?

LUEDERS: Well, the biggest issues, kind of, in terms of the campaign, has been jobs. Scott Walker was elected on a promise in 2010 to create 250,000 new private-sector jobs. He’s fallen well short of that in the timeframe that he’s set for himself. And so that has been the biggest focus in terms of issues. But really the biggest issue in this race is Scott Walker. The people who like Scott Walker are voting for him because they support what he has done here in the state of Wisconsin; and many of the people voting for Mary Burke–a majority, in fact–are voting for her because they don’t like Scott Walker. He is really the dividing line in this race.

DESVARIEUX: How much money is actually being spent in this race from various entities? And can you name them specifically?

LUEDERS: Sure. Well, we will set the record in this governors race for a non-recall election. When there was the recall election in 2012, normal campaign spending limits or donation limits were suspended, and groups from all across the country poured lots of money into the race. There we had about $81 million that was spent on the governor’s recall election from the candidates in all parties. We’re not going to hit that in this election, but there will be more spending in this gubernatorial election than there has ever been in a regular election. The election that brought Scott Walker to power in 2010, there was about $37 million that were spent overall by the candidates and by groups that were supporting them. The candidates alone have raised more than $40 million in this race, and when all is said and done, I would expect that total spending in the governors race this time around is going to be about $60 million, maybe even a little bit more.

DESVARIEUX: But where are they getting this money from? I mean, who has these deep pockets? I know the Koch brothers have some affiliation to Scott Walker.

LUEDERS: Well, both candidates have supporters across the Country, as well as here in Wisconsin. Scott Walker created some real divisions and made some very strong enemies among people, people who would very happily support, really, anyone who would run against him. As a matter of fact, almost half, about 45 percent of Scott Walker’s total contributions come from people in other states who can’t even vote for him. For Mary Burke, who’s raised a little bit less money, it’s about 20, 22 percent of her contributions are coming from people in other states. So there’s a considerable amount of money that’s come into this race from other places.

DESVARIEUX: And another major issue in this race is also the minimum wage. Laura, I want to turn to you and ask you to just walk us through what has been a major part of both gubernatorial campaigns: what have both candidates been saying about minimum the minimum wage?

DRESSER: Well, you know, in a kind of simple and easy way to see it, Mary Burke has been supporting a raise, an increase to the $10.10 level that’s part of federal legislation right now for the state, and Scott Walker says he’s opposed to that. That issue’s–the issue of the wage has been politicized by activists who were originally doing the fast food strikes, who have begun to focus on a long kind of old law sitting dusty on a shelf that allows the executive, the governor, to raise the minimum wage to a living level. And they’ve brought that issue to the forefront both in terms of a legal action, with the governor requesting an increase and then having that increase refused, and then also by taking that issue to the ballot at the county level across the state, and so the minimum wage is on the ballot across the state. So I think there’s been a lot of focus on that issue partly because it distinguishes the candidates, and partly because there has been a lot of activism around increasing the wage across the state.

DESVARIEUX: How many workers are actually affected by a wage increase if you were to increase the minimum wage? And how many people are working kind of below the poverty line?

DRESSER: You know, if you look at the folks who would be impacted by an increase to the $10.10 level, it’s probably about 600,000 workers. You know, there’s all this question of how much ripple up there is, and also what the right threshold would be. But there are 600,000 would be directly or indirectly impacted by an increased to $10.10 and 700,000 workers in the state who are working below $11.36 an hour, which is a wage that can’t keep a family of four out of poverty with full-time year-round work. So one in four workers in this state is toiling at poverty-level wages.

DESVARIEUX: Wow. That’s actually a really staggering statistic.

Bill, I want to turn to you and ask you about the major donors. I’m sure they are not fitting in those categories of living below the poverty line. What sort of issues like minimum wage and public sector unions, these issues, where do they stand on them?

LUEDERS: I think the biggest issue, in terms of Walker supporters, and maybe also for Mary Burke’s supporters, is this issue of collective bargaining. What Scott Walker did in terms of essentially breaking the public employee unions of Wisconsin, that left real stars in the state. It created some real enemies for Scott Walker. But it also created some people who are more than happy to support him because they think that it was a courageous thing to do and should be a model for the rest of the country, and they don’t want him to lose his job over it. So in the recall election, they came out in a very strong way, and in this election, people who appreciate his political courage and the change in public employee rights that he ushered in are very supportive of him.

DESVARIEUX: Okay.

And for you, Laura, I mean, you mentioned Mary Burke. You know, she’s supporting this $10.10 wage. But your organization, alongside the Economic Policy Institute, you released a report titled Raise the Floor Wisconsin, and in it you report on actually a living wage would be closer to $20. So is it worth pointing out that this $10.10 wage that Mary Burke is supporting is really only half of what people need to get by?

DRESSER: Yeah, and I wouldn’t want that to give the impression that I thought you could raise the wage to $20 an hour without some significant economic impacts. So I believe at $10.10, there’s no job loss.

It definitely needs to be higher, and we need to all be thinking about what is the structure of wages from employers and supports from the public sector, whether that’s child care or health care, transportation, the sort of things that make life possible if we’re going to have these jobs. I think there’s a large question of balance there. But it’s clear that even at $10.10, life is not easy. And especially if you’ve got kids and you need to pay for a little child care, there’s almost no way to make ends meet down at the bottom of the labor market.

DESVARIEUX: I hear you.

And we’re talking about this race, and I can’t help but ask myself: how did we even get here? I mean, Wisconsin is known to be a very pro-union state, and now we have someone in office like Scott Walker, and you have working-class people actually voted for Scott Walker, and some people can argue that they’re not voting in their economic interests.

So I’m going to ask you, Bill, first: what do you think actually landed us in this position right now?

LUEDERS: A couple of things. Scott Walker’s a very skilled politician. He’s very good at what he does, and I think he comes across to people as genuine. Of course, to his enemies he’s anything but. But he does have that impression.

I do think people appreciate his courage. The fact is is that Scott Walker sees himself as a politician of extraordinary courage, and to a large extent he’s right. When we had these protests in 2011, it was almost unthinkable that the person who was the focal point of this protest would not cave. There were as many as 100,000 people at one time converging on our state capitol, demanding that he give in, and Scott Walker held firm. And I think there are people who respect that, who respect his backbone in the face of overwhelming opposition.

DESVARIEUX: Laura, do you agree with that sort of analysis, that it’s his character, you know, people fall in love with the character of the politician? And what about the policies, though?

DRESSER: Well, I’m no expert on why people like him, but people clearly do. I mean, I think Bill’s right about that.

I think another thing, the dynamic, the economic dynamic that I see, of course, is that the public sector does have a set of benefits, established in the ’70s mostly, that were a kind of benefits that every American worker expected. This was a good job. You expected a pension, you expect decent health insurance. And over the last 40 years, the labor market for the American worker outside the public sector has fallen apart in certain ways and left that public sector benefit package looking incredibly generous. You know, Scott Walker saw that and can take advantage of that. And I think workers feel that. They look at that. And that doesn’t, I think–let me say that doesn’t either excuse the economics of that or make that the right approach. But I think when people are feeling as down on their heels–this decade has been horrible in terms of income in the nation, and worse in Wisconsin–when they see themselves having less money, they get more fears about their money and they worry about other people, you know, the things they feel like they’re paying for more. So I feel like the context, the economic context, also will drive this kind of politics sometimes. And Wisconsin was a little bit ripe for that as well.

Alright. Laura Dresser, as well as Bill Lueders, thank you both for joining us.

DRESSER: Thanks for having me.

LUEDERS: Thank you.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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