The Promise

The promise.  It’s long been a staple of political campaigns and it’s easy to understand why.  Candidates need to find a way to connect with voters, to cut through the messaging clutter, and nothing does the trick quite like a simple, direct “this is what I’m going to do” statement.  The promise, after all, is about much more than words.  It reflects a candidate’s vision and confidence.  I mean, who wants to vote for someone who’s not-so-sure what the future holds?  We want our candidates to be bold, decisive, and optimistic.

There’s just one danger.  What if a candidate gets elected and fails to deliver on a promise or falls short of it?  Is a broken promise fatal or do voters today see the promise as a different animal: more a statement of goals and aspirations rather than a contract with (as we say in television) no “outs”?

They’re questions worth asking, because in Wisconsin’s 2014 race for governor, a promise will almost certainly be front and center.  It’s the one Governor Scott Walker made in February of 2010, when he said Wisconsin would create 250,000 new private sector jobs in his first term in office (fewer Wisconsinites are likely to remember Democratic candidate Tom Barrett’s goal of creating 180,000 new jobs).  Then-candidate Walker based his pledge on numbers that had been achieved by former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson in his first four years, and he repeated it again and again to voters and media around the state.  When Walker appeared on my “UpFront” television show in late February, I asked him, “Is this a campaign promise?  Something you want to be held to?” Walker didn’t hesitate. “Absolutely,” he replied.  “To me, 250,000 is a minimum.  Just a base.”

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Milwaukee: The $5,000 House and Other Thoughts

I was having lunch the other day with someone who works in city government, and we were talking about the serious foreclosure problem in Milwaukee. He was lamenting the fact that in some of the poorest sections of the city, the housing market is fundamentally broken. Homes, now owned by the city, can be purchased for as little as $5,000 and yet they still aren’t selling. If you want some sobering evidence of the magnitude of the nation’s housing market collapse and the impact of the Great Recession, check out the listings. They’re stunning, really.

Mayor Tom Barrett estimates the foreclosure crisis has cost Milwaukee $5 billion dollars in assessed value. The city has tried to get a handle on the problem, but it persists, eating away at once-stable neighborhoods. In 2008, the mayor launched the Milwaukee Foreclosure Partnership Initiative, which tries to prevent foreclosures and stabilize neighborhoods.  There’s a branch of city government that directly addresses housing issues. And last week, the mayor announced he would be committing another $2.3 million to address the foreclosure problem. As part of that initiative, scores of empty homes will be torn down because they’re a blight on city neighborhoods. As a longtime Milwaukee resident, I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say the specter of Detroit came to mind when I heard the news.

But the next Detroit is hardly the image thousands of newcomers have of my hometown. After losing 20 per cent of its population from 1960-2000, Milwaukee is growing again. It’s not a population explosion, but it’s growth. Recent census numbers show that from 2010 to 2012, the city added 4,000 residents. What’s most interesting is who’s choosing to live in Milwaukee. Reporting by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (part of a collaboration with Marquette Law School) found that in the last decade, there has been a migration of young people to the city. Many are college graduates. They live downtown, on the city’s east side, and in “hot” neighborhoods like the Third Ward, Walker’s Point, Bay View, Brewers’ Hill and Washington Heights. Their presence has brought a new energy and economic vitality to parts of Milwaukee, with restaurants and shops racing to meet the demands of younger consumers. These newcomers are helping fuel a change in Milwaukee’s risk-averse entrepreneurial culture, and have created a dynamic arts and entertainment scene. Their arrival is also welcome news to established Fortune 500 companies like Northwestern Mutual, which is planning a new skyscraper for its downtown campus, along with hundreds of news jobs.

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That’s the Way It Was — and Is

When I was studying journalism at UW-Madison, we would sometimes end our day at Vilas Hall by grabbing a cold one at a nearby tavern on University Avenue. Bob and Gene’s is no longer there, but a particular memory remains. One of the television sets at the bar was tuned each night to the CBS Evening News, and when anchorman Walter Cronkite came on the air, the place got quiet and remained that way until Cronkite’s signature standoff: “and that’s the way it is.” On the heels of Watergate and a long war that threatened to tear the nation apart, there was a sense that we had witnessed history.

We witnessed history again in Wisconsin last year, and this time it threatened to tear the state apart. One year ago—June 5—Wisconsin went to the polls in the recall election for Governor. The protests of 2011 had been replaced by a political movement aimed at ousting Governor Scott Walker from office. It was an election that divided not just Republicans and Democrats, but friends and families, some of whom simply stopped talking about politics rather than run the risk of a nasty argument. Bitter and contentious, there was little middle ground. In the waning days of the race between Governor Scott Walker and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (a rematch of 2010), the Law School found itself in the middle of the fray. We released our final Marquette Law School Poll of the election cycle, showing Governor Walker leading by seven points (ultimately, his margin of victory). The Law School also played host to the final debate of the campaign. As I moderated the event, I was struck not only by the sharpness of the exchanges between Barrett and Walker, but how the evening had a certain rhythm to it, each candidate giving as good as he got. The two men knew each other well. They had done this several times before, and their familiarity along with their fundamentally different visions for the state produced an hour of compelling conversation. But I also remember the overwhelming silence in a packed Eckstein Hall when both Barrett and Walker would briefly pause to collect their thoughts. Intense doesn’t begin to describe it.

When Election Day was over, Scott Walker had won. Again. And life went on in Wisconsin. So what has happened in the year since the historic recall? In some ways, the debate seems remarkably familiar. We’re still arguing over jobs numbers and the performance of the state’s economy. According to our latest Law School poll, the Governor’s job approval rating remains about the same, slightly more positive than negative. But one fact is beyond dispute: Wisconsin continues to undergo a rapid and fundamental transformation, one that could change its future course for not only years, but decades. With Republicans in control in Madison, the state is quickly moving away from its progressive past, plotting a future built on a philosophy of lower taxes, less government assistance, fewer regulations, and more school choice. Election laws are also likely to change in ways that could benefit Republican candidates. For now, Democrats can do little but watch and wait for 2014, the next major election cycle. And yet, in many respects, Wisconsin is still a purple state, neither red nor blue, as evidenced by the victories of Democrats Barack Obama and Tammy Baldwin in November.

About 18 months ago, Businessweek referred to us as the “republic of political unhappiness.” We may not be in the primal scream stage anymore. But our deep divisions remain, and it’s still probably not a good idea to talk politics at a family picnic. That’s the way it is in Wisconsin, one year after the recall.


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