Sunday, October 19, 2014


By Dominique Paul Noth

In an hour video inquisition by JS staffers,
Mary Burke dominated them as she
 did Scott Walker in the televised debates. 
Unquestionably in the second of only two statewide televised debates that Gov. Scott Walker would agree to, he again underestimated how many vital issues and how much authoritative competence Mary Burke had in her corner as she outmatched him Oct. 17 after roundly beating him, according to news reports on both sides, in the Oct. 9 debate.

This was remarkable from a nonpartisan standpoint. Many did not expect a political newcomer to even hold up much less outpoint a glib, prepared, assured veteran politician going through his third round of elections in four years.

To be sure, she had far more examples of his missteps on her side, and wielded the putdown details pointedly.  But he has the edge in campaign coffers, historical experience, superior ad financing and that polished rhetorical evasiveness that was in full swing Oct. 17. Whenever challenged on specifics, he chatted about how much he loved the Kenosha area (to dodge answering why he  had endlessly delayed deciding on a casino there), how much his kids loved basketball (when asked about public funding  for a new Bucks stadium), how much he was a family man (perhaps to subtly contrast himself to a single businesswoman) and kept repeating last month’s routine job growth and unemployment record (not much lower than the dropping national average)  in a report he roundly criticized in 2011 as unreliable. 

After the handshake of the second debate,
Burke handled Walker so handily that
even many Democrats were surprised.
It was a clumsy performance for Walker. But he benefited from a weakling panel of questioners assembled by the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, as if they were going out of their way to demonstrate how predictable were the male talents employed by Milwaukee’s main television stations.

Veteran Charles Benson of Channel 4 stabbed at competence as did Kent Wainscott of Channel 12 but they disappeared into the woodwork in follow-ups and were quickly forgotten in a boring sequence of standard familiar questions that ignored most of the breaking facts in their own 10 p.m. news reports – and then they were done in by Ted Perry whose folksy storytelling style in small doses has appeal on Channel 6 but here quickly became boring. He was drawing more attention to his chatty self than to issues important to voters that a governor has direct impact on.

The panel makeup suggested a lot of backstage maneuvering for equal attention among the market’s major TV stations, as if the broadcasters group thought a pleasant female moderator, Erin Toner from WUWM, would compensate for lack of balance. Milwaukee actually has fine and sometimes aggressive journalists of both genders and various races, yet it chose what looked to cynics like as setup for Walker, since Burke has more female voters and he is dependent on older white males, and the panel looked like his people and were clearly more about manner than substance.

The panelists avoided the breaking political news statements since that  has been a parade of Walker’s follies in trying to earn votes.  As pointed out by such veteran respected journalists as Paul Hayes, John Nichols and James Rowen in the past weeks, Walker has claimed that the $7.25 federal minimum was sufficient as a living wage, that a travel ban should be imposed against West Africa (yet the American who died of Ebola flew in from Belgium), that his ultrasound probe and 24-hour waiting period reflected his concern about women’s health (though they clearly cause embarrassment and suffering for a legal and safe procedure he ideologically opposes), that he is leaving the environment cleaner and more protected that he found it (a claim easily disproved even without that bill written by a mining company) and that requiring drug tests for people on public aid (mostly white, incidentally) was designed to  protect them!

There are smart ways to discuss wages, Ebola, abortion, environment and drug tests without attacking Walker and just giving voters a chance to hear different positions on important topics.  None here. It took Burke statements in the debate  to pursue other deceptions – like Walker’s claim that the state has a work problem not a jobs problem or how his concern for inner city violence hardly meshes with  his $76  million cut in shared revenue that massively hurt city police departments.

The game table may have looked stacked against Burke, but she was unaffected, comfortable with all comers and actually managed to dismiss how often Walker tried to drag Jim Doyle into the debate. This is happening a lot, as you will see below.

She clarified fiscal issues as Walker didn’t. How  if you haven’t paid your bills or if you delay moneymaking projects you could have a surplus state budget today and a $1.8 billion projected deficit for tomorrow. She revealed his only first in the nation – the biggest cuts to education funding among all the states.  

She not only won and outdid him on insights into economic repair, she topped with more believable conviction their common and politically required optimism about Wisconsin’s future. She seemed determined to make inroads not only with her base but also with people who previously believed in Walker, not by attacking him but by exposing that his approach to tax cuts was ham-handed economic ineptitude.

That same week there was an even better  opportunity to see Burke’s command of state issues as well as reveal the methods of journalists at their most aggressive and sometimes most foolish in trying to trap the  candidate into a gotcha goof.

This was the fascinating Journal Sentinel video interview posted Oct. 15 -- or should I say E.W. Scripps interview, since that is the chain that now owns JS.  The newspaper endorsed Walker in 2010 and since then has been bollixed about the negative impact of the personality and  policies it once embraced, so it vacillates between explanation-criticism of Walker and shame – while refusing to ever endorse any candidate ever again.  It may be too late for true balance given how many former subscribers seriously ask me who is paying the reporters’ salaries– Journal Communications, E.W. Scripps or the Bradley Foundation?

Journal grillers (l-r) David Haynes, Mabel Wong and Dan Bice
 seek to get Mary Burke to commit to their plagiarism fantasy.
The video questioners were such a healthy mix -- editor Marty  Kaiser,  newsroom types and columnists (Dan Bice, Dan Glauber, Karen Herzog  and James Causey) and editorial opinion types  (David Haynes, Mabel Wong, Ernst-Ulrich Franzen) -- that they could demonstrate knowledge as well as aggression. Kaiser at least seemed to realize this was a needed opportunity for the public to know Burke better (they know almost too much about Walker) and seemed surprised when she quickly answered the bell with three immediate priority areas of action and cost savings.

But the interview ping-pong was infected with chuckle-inducing efforts to catch Burke in a contradiction or embarrass her. She survived this gauntlet in such cool fashion that it leaves no doubt that along the campaign trail she has found the polish and confidence to handle the media better than her opponent.

The JS media sniping was particularly amusing.  Bice was clearly upset that she hadn’t buckled weeks ago to his efforts to play up that plagiarism charge (this was a few passages in a 40 page job plan where a paid consultant used his own words from job ideas written in other states and he was fired for copying himself without telling her). She calmly reminded Bice she had always answered speedily and honestly and implied that Bice had fallen for a Walker ploy:  “All this was politically motivated to take attention away from really bad jobs numbers.”

A few other things emerged in the discussions. Supposedly experienced JS word masters continued to fail a simple English test on the meaning of plagiarism (which is knowingly using others’ writings).  And despite the continuing horror of world-class ethicists and semanticists, these journalists continue to use “pro-life” and “pro-choice” as polar opposites.

Bice so often insisted that Burke had treated his grilling on this as a minor issue that he demonstrated it WAS a minor issue. Timing of the video’s release also wounded Bice. When he suggested this plagiarism charge had caused an irreparable drop in her poll numbers, she had actually gained back the five points she was behind in the Marquette University poll and is actually now slightly ahead.

The reporters also tried to suggest she loved pursuing commission studies  more than jumping to action  based on her refusal to leap into their “decide this now!” traps to stimulate their stories  and given her well-known reliance on charts and business trends.

But she handled that, too:  “Of course I’m going to take time with a $70 billion budget. There are things I can do right away and things that need to wait until we grow the economy. Obviously we need more revenue. Voters should have expectations, some short-term, some long-term. You have to put things in place that will move the needle.”

Burke explains job plan agenda to JS skeptics
 in  an hour video interview.
But she offered a lot of budget and citizen improvements right away -- an immediate $203 million improvement in the budget and billions more over 10 years by taking the Medicaid expansion (“While Walker says the federal government can’t be trusted, it has never reneged on Medicaid funding and I completely trust it won’t now”).   She would stop the statewide voucher school expansion ($191.9 million cost for state taxpayers this school year alone). “Vouchers expansion is draining resources from public schools and does not improve student learning. The cuts to funding (tops in the nation) and to community livelihood threaten the public education of 900,000 students.”

Yet from years of education work in Madison, she also points out that there are good learning  models in all sectors -  public, charter and voucher  -- and as for the long-term Milwaukee voucher school program “I would accept the landscape as it is” but wanted more accountability.

Perhaps pointedly, perhaps not, she had an example of the perils of an  overly touted  learning model --  notably a voucher pet of JS writers, including several interviewing her on camera as well as education reporters who have variously referred to St. Marcus Lutheran voucher school as “ a darling of local private funders,” “high performing” and “excellent.”

Unbowed here came Burke:  “I was just on the home page of St. Marcus. It’s been touted as a great example. Well, the fact is in reading scores 80% are not proficient and it’s close to that number even for students who have been there three to five years.  That’s not good enough. We have got to do better. We have to really understand what it takes within these schools and within the community and build on models that are working.” 

Her economic plans integrally include Milwaukee’s central city, where she wants more local retail and hiring and anchoring institutions that keeps wealth and ownership in the neighborhood.  Fiscal growth is her first area of experience.

“In economic development we are dead last in Midwest,” she said. “If continuing at the same pace in Milwaukee County it will be six more years before we reach the pre-recession employment that the rest of the country already has. So right away we must look toward starting up more companies, getting access to capital, looking at infrastructure projects,” recognizing the different industry sectors require different approaches. “It’s sharp focus, not just one thing.”

On social issues she is quieter, though she detailed how Walker’s ideas on women’s health were intrusive (“Men who are parents and have daughters want them to have their right to make their own opinions”).

She was quick to criticize kowtowing to special interests (how strange that this was not directly addressed in the televised debate). She told JS: “$700,000 in secret campaign donation from a mining company looks like it should be illegal and smells like pay to play.  There is a difference between getting support from people with shared interests and doing the bidding of organizations who support you – that I will never do.”

You might have missed the variety and full range of the Burke video because of the misleading headline: “Mary Burke distances herself from Jim Doyle policies” – sure enough, that darned Doyle again, stretched to eight minutes of the hour by pestering journalists. She simply said she doesn’t consult with him on this campaign, didn’t like his raid on the transportation fund and his raising of education tuition, but she wouldn’t second-guess his different budget choices during the worst recession in the nation’s history after she had left his administration.  She turned the inquisition upside down by pointing out  her earlier two years as secretary of commerce taught her about business partnerships, had 50,000 more jobs in Wisconsin than now and a lower unemployment rate and, despite naysayers and constant shots at her former boss,  “It was one of best times in Wisconsin in  terms of jobs.”

The interview was filled with more important moments including revealing a refusal to blanket undo all of Walker as many Democrats want.

Even with Act 10. “I’m on record that I will act to restore collective bargaining for public workers, but I do want contributions to pensions and health benefits since both are fair to match what is happening in the private sector.”

Asked if she would eliminate Walker’s lazy Susan of tax credits for specific businesses, she said it depended on whether they worked to produce jobs.  After rattling off the failures of the WEDC under Walker (“Eight different leadership hires, $30 million  not even used, grants with no expectation of job creation or retention”) she revealed: “I will make it work,” adding that  “economic development needs even  a higher level of attention and a more encompassing approach” including directly within her office. “I want to focus my energy on moving forward and not fighting the old battles.”

When questioned whether such personal involvement increased the chances for pay for play, she made clear the distinction between her and the current practice.   “This will be a high ethics administration. I won’t put up with that nonsense. It’s the way I run my life.  It’s the tone and the expectations you set” – which I took as a dig at how Walker operates.

After studying the UW system budget, she said she might keep Walker’s tuition freeze but just for two years because “I need to have more money in the state budget by growing the economy to do all this. What I really want is to bring down the cost of higher education. I want to increase the capacity of our universities since education is key to job growth. If you just say tuition freeze as Walker does, without identifying where you want to cut – that’s irresponsible, easy to get a sound-bite.”  

She gave examples of working with Republicans, including a pleasant hour with one of Walker’s biggest supporters, Kurt Bauer, CEO of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.  

Nor would she  play a typical journalism game of mutual admiration with an opponent. When pressed to say nice things about Walker, she briefly tried (“a great politician, a good family man”) and then threw up her hands to speak candidly. 

“I think the voters appreciate honesty and sincerity. I know I do. I look at the campaign, attacking my integrity and dragging Trek through the mud. I knew all this would go on,  but I’m not going to stand up there and  say the politically correct thing when I don’t believe it sincerely.”

No wonder the editorial board was on a seesaw between trying to probe her views and unbalance her.   Burke had the talent  to remain pleasant and stick to or improvise around her  talking points, with specific details about the plans that make her more than ready for the governor’s mansion. (“It will come down to turnout,” she said.) Her freshness may wear off in time, just as Walker’s already has. But if some find her too focused on economic development and less absolute on social issues, that may strike voters as a welcome change.

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its famous entertainment Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with its still operative archives at  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for

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