How to Pick the Next Governor
Judge the many candidates on how they’d address Wisconsin’s economic chasm.
To be sure, there’s no shortage of serious issues for our checklist — the crisis in juvenile justice, the fraying of the transportation system, lagging environmental protection, and more.
But the heart of the Wisconsin gestalt in 2018 — and of our scorecard — is the economic chasm dividing the state. Simply put, the good times celebrated in Dane County, the Milwaukee suburbs, the Fox River Valley and a few other lucky communities are not shared in the forgotten precincts of rural and inner-city Wisconsin. This is the “Two Wisconsins” that the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance identified in 2006 and that I expanded upon last year in Isthmus.
Lost in the huzzahs of Wisconsin’s record-low jobless rate and other benchmarks of success is the stubborn fact that the recessionary downturn that took hold at the turn of the century never ended for the state’s left-behinds. Too often, these are neighborhoods of troubled schools, dead-end or non-existent jobs, broken dreams and lots of drug overdoses.
The candidates need to be judged on how they would create broad-based Wisconsin prosperity. Key points:
What is their platform to revive rural Wisconsin?
The trends are not good. Northern and central Wisconsin are losing population. One lawmaker told me her community’s biggest export is…young people. State demographers say by 2040 more than 40 counties will have at least a quarter of their population made up of senior citizens. This is bad news for sustaining schools and young families. So is the protracted decline in home values still evident since the end of the Great Recession in mid-2009. The collapse of dairy prices has only made things worse in farm country.
Wisconsin won’t truly prosper without Milwaukee, our pre-eminent city, recapturing the dynamism of its mid-20th century glory. Today, as a lingering Rust Belt casualty, Milwaukee ranks among the worst metropolises in the country economically. Sure there are great things happening in the Third Ward and in other downtown scenes. But overall the city, like the outstate, is losing young people who seek a better life elsewhere.
It’s no coincidence that Milwaukee ranks among the worst segregated metro areas in the nation. This is a festering wound widely ignored. The National Urban League counts the Milwaukee metro area as fourth worst in the nation in the disparity between black and white household incomes.
How would the candidates deal with the social and economic isolation of Wisconsin’s urban poverty? And let’s be honest, it’s not just in Milwaukee, but also in the suffering neighborhoods of Racine, Kenosha, Beloit, Janesville and, yes, Madison.
How would they deploy the state’s greatest asset, the UW System, for Wisconsin’s betterment?
Venture capitalist John Neis describes the Madison campus as “our sun,” and rightfully says Madison’s breakout tech businesses “are in its orbit benefiting from its light and heat.” But the Madison campus’ research preeminence is slipping while commercialization efforts haven’t yet delivered. The business-crucial Computer Science department, losing ground to its peers, urgently needs an upgrade.
Statewide, the UW’s record is even more mixed. The 26-campus system should be in the forefront of regional efforts to rebuild the outstate economy. UW System President Ray Cross is gamely trying to wrench the system forward. It’s a complicated situation with strong conflicting ambitions for the system. The lack of political leadership is conspicuous.
How would the candidates lead the state away from its dependence on the fading manufacturing sector?
Slow-to-change Wisconsin is sooo old economy. And so unattractive to young tech workers. Our outflow of college grads exceeds our inflow of new talent. Four out of five Wisconsin jobs are in companies at least 16 years old. (One of the highest percentages in the nation.) Our business start-up record, in contrast, pales compared to more dynamic states. Our politics is dominated by powerful legacy industries more concerned about cutting taxes and reducing regulatory costs than in growth and innovation.
Can the state buttress the burgeoning freelance “gig economy”? Are there legal protections and tax incentives that can make it more secure for workers to strike out on their own? What about abolishing the non-compete clauses that sideline young talent exiting a certain Verona software giant and immobilize older workers chained to their Fortune 500 companies in Milwaukee?
The good news is that change is in the air. Look at last week’s startling election results. Gov. Scott Walker certainly knows what’s happening. In pursuit of a third term, he’s cashiered decades of classic conservatism to embrace unabashed government activism. Not just the billions he’s committed to building the Foxconn flat-screen mega-plant, but new spending for schools and rural Wisconsin.
This is a time for big visions and assertive leadership. Voters should demand nothing less from the candidates.
This column was originally published by the Madison weekly Isthmus.
Marc Eisen is a former editor of Isthmus.