Scott Walker got in first; Mark Neumann just made it official.
Walker, a former Republican legislator who has been elected county executive three times in heavily Democratic Milwaukee County announced earlier this year that he is running for governor in 2010. Neumann, who served two terms in Congress (from 1995 to 1999) and has since run a successful home building business, The Neumann Companies, jumped into the race on July 1.
Incumbent Jim Doyle has been elected twice, but in mid-June a national Democratic pollster reported that Doyle’s approval rating had fallen to 34%, even in a sample of voters who gave high marks to other Democrats, including President Obama. Not surprisingly, the 2010 contest is expected to be one of the most hotly contested in the country, and Republicans now appear poised to have a lively primary contest among two widely known conservatives.
In late May, Walker, 41, and Neumann, 55, sat down with us in the Hartland offices of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. Both men shared sharp criticism of Doyle’s economic stewardship and tax policy; both pledged not to raise taxes. But differences emerged as well, including on whether recent Republican setbacks could be blamed on the wrong messenger or whether the party needed to change its message as well.
Walker stressed his fiscal prudence in running a county government, while Neumann emphasized his business experience as a homebuilder and touted his “green” agenda. Below is an edited partial transcript. The complete interview was taped and will be podcast on the WPRI website.
GOP hopefuls meet for first time, critique Jim Doyle’s tenure, make their cases to be governor.
Sykes: Is Wisconsin on the right track under Jim Doyle?
Walker: Our government is certainly on the wrong track. Through March we’ve lost over 120,000 jobs in the last year. We have an unemployment rate of 9.4%, which is higher than the national average. That hasn’t happened in a long time, since 1982.
I think a majority of people aren’t satisfied with where the state is headed. I’m certainly not. When you look at the leadership when Wisconsin has not just the largest budget deficit ever, but one of the largest in the country—literally—Doyle’s answer has been to raise taxes in total by nearly $3 billion and to increase overall state spending by approximately 10%.
Neumann: I would concur with everything he’s just said. The bigger picture is that we’re setting up an environment that does not create jobs.
When you think of the meaning of that long-term, I think of my children and grandchildren and where they’re going to work when they come out of our schools and colleges. I hate to say it, but it looks like India, China, Mexico. The policies we have in place today are causing our business leaders to move to another country. Those are the policies we have to look at very closely and change.
Sykes: Are either of you prepared to say: “Read my lips—No new taxes”?
Walker: Absolutely. I’ve done it for seven years.
Sykes: No tax increases?
Neumann: I want to go a step better. “No new taxes” isn’t good enough. We need to dramatically reduce the tax rate in our state.
Walker: I agree. Not only cutting the income tax and the corporate tax rate, I’d look at retirement income in particular. If we could, I’d like to be at the point where we eliminate all state tax related to retirement.
Eisen: Would you change the terms by which the state dishes out money to local governments, the schools and the university? How about restructuring state and local government so that we would have, say, fewer towns, smaller county boards?
Walker: In terms of consolidations, absolutely. If you look at other states, Ohio has about double the population and half the school districts. There could be greater incentives built in local aid from state government to encourage that. It’s not something you mandate, but you can tie it into the funding structure.
Eisen: Would you be in favor of granting cities and counties more powers to set their own taxes to run local government and hence have less state aid going to them?
Walker: No. The reason I have been so adamant as a county executive in holding the line on taxes is not because I want my level of government to have [more] taxing authority. It’s because I have too many young families, too many employers, too many seniors being forced to move [because of taxes].
Whether it’s the town government, city government, the school district, or the county—if our overall tax burden goes up too high, it will drive more people and more jobs out of the state.
Neumann: I’m not sure I’m smart enough to tell our local people how to run their own government in their own backyard. I’ve seen lots of these boards. The people at the local level are smart. They know what they’re doing. They’ve been around and understand the issues better than anybody at the state level.
It’s necessary that the state lead by example. As we set policy at the state level that reels in our own spending, we’re going to encourage them [at the local level] to do the same thing. Some will follow closely, and some won’t. The ones that follow closely will continue to create an environment where taxes are low, and businesses will locate there.
Walker: The mediation-arbitration law artificially inflates the wage and benefits packages for public employees. If state government wants to get serious about controlling spending, you’ve got to give the tools to local government to control the wage and benefits structure.
When you’ve got a policy that essentially mandates a three or four percent increase just because everybody else in the surrounding area is getting that, it makes it very difficult for those of us who are trying to hold the line on taxes.
Sykes: The Milwaukee Public Schools have been an educational and fiscal disaster for a long time. Is it time to blow up MPS? Is it time to consider a state takeover?
Walker: It’s time to do something dramatic. Whether or not it’s a state takeover—Tommy Thompson talked about that a decade ago. An alternative would be to break it up into smaller districts. When you start talking about anywhere from 80,000 to 100,000 kids, it becomes very difficult for anybody to get their hands around it.
I would lift the lid entirely on school choice. I would allow schools throughout the county to [participate]. Take Thomas Moore, which has a very successful program, but can’t currently operate [as a choice school] because part of its property is in St. Francis. I would allow for expansion, and I would lift some of the limits on charter schools,
Neumann: There is dramatic change needed in education. What’s going on in policy in Madison right now is that more rules, regulations and red tape are being thrown at our choice and charter schools so that less and less dollars get to the classroom. They’re tying the hands of the innovative people in education. We need to expand the opportunity in choice and charter schools.
Sykes: Back in the 1980s, the Republicans were arguably the party of ideas—you had welfare reform, lower taxes, school choice. What’s the next big conservative idea?
Neumann: I think the next big idea comes from the environment. Green technology is the future. Green technology today is the computer of a generation ago when I was in school. We should be jumping all over green technology and looking at how we can provide jobs here in Wisconsin.
Right now in Washington they’re talking about cap and trade and charging for carbon emissions. That’s going to encourage business to not only leave Wisconsin but to leave America. Here’s a big new idea: Suppose we look at the improved environment that our government is trying to obtain through cap and trade, and we point out a different way to obtain that, in a way that creates jobs in Wisconsin.
We know for a fact that we can provide an economically viable home that produces all of the energy it needs for heating and cooling and running all appliances—and for running an electric automobile. We can produce all of this energy onsite in an economically viable way.
When this takes off, we should be able to demonstrate to the federal government that we can improve our environment while creating these jobs in the green technology area. That takes the environment from an anti-Republican position and puts it back to what we believe in with our party.
Sykes: Are you in favor of cap and trade?
Neumann: If I’m elected governor, we will lay out a plan to accomplish the goals of cap and trade--an improved environment—without the cap-and-trade taxes on our businesses.
Walker: One big idea involves the role of the governor. Right now, we have the bureaucrat in chief. I think we need to go from that to a role of advocate in chief. I know how to pick great managers. We’re going to do that. But the governor has to be more than that. Tommy was that in ’86 coming off the similar troubles we had with Tony Earl and the recession.
We’ve got to get to the point where we have an advocate who advocates for the state, its jobs, for its business, for its citizens.
We need to think big. How do we guarantee a world-class education, whether it is in choice schools, public schools, charter schools, even home schools? I don’t think it’s good enough to provide education the way we have in the past.
Eisen: There is a major ongoing crisis in Milwaukee involving education, crime and joblessness. Rather than being the economic engine of this state in the way that Chicago is for Illinois and the Twin Cities are for Minnesota, Milwaukee
is arguably a millstone around the neck of Wisconsin. What would you do about that?
Walker: It’s years of bureaucratic, socialistic-driven policy—some at the municipal level, some at the state—that have largely maintained those walls of poverty. We have both an incredible challenge as well as an incredible opportunity all at once.
We have a huge wave of job openings as the first wave of baby boomers enters the retirement years. There are going to be jobs opening up for people in Milwaukee and southeastern Wisconsin. But right now we don’t have a workforce that’s adequately trained because of our school system. We don’t have the family structure that demands not only a good education but that their kids stay in school, stay out of trouble and have a strong work ethic.
One of the biggest problems we had with welfare was that it ingrained in generation after generation the idea they could get by living off of welfare.
Neumann: I definitely agree there is a huge problem in Milwaukee County. I’m on the ground floor. I’m in the business world. We do business in Kenosha, Racine, Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Washington and Jefferson counties. When I build a house in Milwaukee County, the taxes on that same house two miles away over the border is $150 a month [less]. Taxes are outrageously high in Milwaukee County.
The bigger picture is that we have to attract businesses to Wisconsin. There are three parts to that. First, we have a plan in place to incrementally reduce our taxes by 24%. That would attract businesses and change their attitude. Second, we need the best-educated kids in the entire world. You do that by promoting your great public schools. But you have to go beyond that when you have mediocre and poor public schools. We want to promote competition through choice and charter schools. The third one is to look at the environmental rules that are causing our businesses to leave.
Sykes: Mark, what’s the difference between you and Jim Doyle on the environment?
Neumann: I would ask the federal government for a waiver from the cap-and-trade rules by laying out a job-creating program for Wisconsin that accomplishes the same thing for the environment.
Sykes: Where do you stand on a statewide smoking ban?
Neumann: I’d have to give more thought to answer that.
Walker: No. I think local business should determine their own policy.
Sykes: Should public employees be encouraged or required to pay more of their own pension?
Neumann: That’s a big-picture question. If they say “I want to take less wages and have that covered,” I’d certainly be receptive.
Walker: Decades ago, maybe it was legitimate to say that public employees received a lesser amount of salary than their cohorts in the private sector, but benefits were stronger. That’s no longer the case, particularly now. Everybody else across America and here in Wisconsin is willing to concede things to keep people employed. Why is the public sector the only place not doing it?
Eisen: But how do you negotiate those contractual changes? What do you give the unions instead?
Walker: I think you have to draw the line. That’s why mediation-arbitration is such a horrible law, because it ties the hands particularly at the local level, but also at the state level. It’s not just a matter if people get laid off or not. Can we provide core services without bankrupting the taxpayers of the state?
If you look at Minnesota and Iowa, they have considerably lower tax burdens even though they have great schools and great public services. Why is it? Because their fringe benefit rate is so much lower than in Wisconsin. Until we get a handle on that, we’re not going to be able to control spending.
Neumann: As a small business owner who negotiates with his employees on a regular basis, we look at package costs to our company. Do I care if they get more in benefits and less in wages, or more in wages and less in benefits? That’s something we talk to them about, and we let them help us make that decision. As an employer, its pretty straightforward. It’s the package costs of the employee that I have to look at.
Sykes: Would you save money like Gov. Doyle is doing by letting people out of prison, or would you spend more money on prisons?
Neumann: I would not do what he’s suggesting.
Walker: Public safety is absolutely priority number one. We should never let convicted felons go back on the street early. Years ago, we used to send [felons] to out-of-state prisons that were a fraction of the cost of our state prisons. If it’s cheaper to send them somewhere else, as long as they’re incarcerated, it’s fine by me.
Eisen: Mark, have your views about gays changed? In 1997, you told the La Crosse Christian Coalition you would not hire a gay or lesbian for your office: “If somebody walks in to me and says, ‘I’m a gay person; I want a job in your office,’ I would say, ‘that’s inappropriate,’ and they wouldn’t be hired because that would mean they are promoting their agenda.”
Neumann: Perhaps my understanding of state statute has changed. Whatever the situation is, we would honor the statute, rules and regulations that dictate how you handle that sort of situation. I would respect them.
Sykes: How about the Miss California question: Is marriage between a man and a woman?
Walker: Absolutely. It’s a pretty simple concept—one man, one woman.
Sykes: What about the extension of domestic partnership benefits to state employees?
Walker: I would not advocate it. It seems remarkable even aside from the moral side when we’re looking at layoffs that anybody would be talking about extending any benefits, let alone same-sex or domestic partner benefits.
Neumann: Same position.
Eisen: What’s happened to the Republican Party in Wisconsin? The Democrats control the governor’s office, the state Senate and the Assembly, both U.S senate seats and five of eight congressional offices. In the 2008 presidential election, the state swung decisively to Obama.
Neumann: When you give those voting results, I would suggest it’s because we’ve lost our way. We need bold new ideas to lead this state.
Walker: I think Wisconsin is still a center-right state. Look at Justice Gableman’s election last spring. If voters have a choice between two clear messages, one from the right and one from the left, they’re going to go with the more conservative one.
You mention the presidential election. John McCain is a great American hero, but John McCain was not the right messenger. I don’t know if he carried a truly conservative message.
I think we are still a center-right state. Just as you see in other parts of the country where voters have had a clear choice in the governor’s race: Every Republican who ran for reelection won, because every one of those governors had a record of reform and a record of being good stewards of the taxpayers’ money.
This election for governor is going to be the clearest contrast we’ve had since 1986, when Tommy Thompson beat Tony Earl. It’s going to be about jobs, it’s going to be about core principles. We’re going to send a clear message to the public about limited government, economic opportunity and personal freedom.
Sykes: But clearly we’ve gone from a state that elected Tommy Thompson to a state that has been electing very far-left figures rather consistently. Did Republicans make a mistake the last time they had responsibility by emphasizing the wrong issues?
Walker: Sure, they didn’t talk about the economy. You look at the last two sessions on the legislative side, and what are the core issues that Assembly Republicans brought to the forefront, many of them my former colleagues? People are in pain because of the economy. And yet the issues they’re pointing to are not something that will create an environment where more jobs and more opportunity come to the state.
Sykes: Are you talking about what Democrats call the “guns, God and gays” agenda? Was that a mistake?
Walker: I don’t believe those issues are wrong. Many of those issues are things I believe in. What I say is wrong is the focus. You can’t talk about those things and have a void. You can’t be running on empty when it comes to the economy. You can talk about those social issues if you have an agenda that talks about getting the economy going.
Neumann: Scott and I are very similar on issues, but there is one area where I perceive us to be different. Scott has said repeatedly, if I understand you correctly, that it’s not the message but the messenger—John McCain—that was the problem. I don’t believe that’s true.
I believe it’s the message. I believe the message has to be changed to the point where it includes people who have been put out from the Republican Party. These big, bold ideas I’m talking about need to attract more people to this party without offending our base at the same time.
When I talk about the environment, that’s an issue people have been afraid to talk about on our side of the aisle. I think it’s an extremely important issue. We’ve seen it in our business.
Virtually every business has gone green. Our customers in the home-buying industry want green, and they want it everywhere—from how you build a house with energy efficiency all the way up to an energy-producing home. They want green.
We need to start talking about issues that bring people back to the party.
Sykes: Is there a green government mandate or regulation? A subsidy?
Neumann: No, sir. If government would just leave things alone, it would be fine, guys. The world has changed to a point right now—I get excited, because I see it firsthand—that the job opportunities in the environmental area are immense.
Sykes: Is there anything you disagree with here, Scott?
Walker: I’m all for going green as long as it saves green. I’m just not going to put an emphasis on something where I have to put money that we don’t have for the sake of being green, which I don’t hear Mark saying.
Sykes: No one leaves the room until you disagree on something!
Neumann: We disagree on whether it was the message or the messenger that was the problem. I do believe our message needs work. It’s fine that were talking about the environment now, but I bet you dollars to doughnuts that in 2006 there was not a Republican in the state of Wisconsin talking about a pro-job-growth environmental policy that reduces carbon emissions and improves our environment for future generations. It was not there in 2006.
Walker: It’s a pretty thin-line difference. I’m just saying that the message that Ronald Reagan won on, the message that Tommy Thompson won on, and that I think we’re going to win on next year, is core principles. It’s not specifics. You can talk about environment, the schools, regulations, taxes. Those are specifics. The core principles are simple but not always easy. It’s things like limited government, economic opportunity, personal freedom.
Eisen: For either of you to win, you have to narrow the huge Democratic margin in Dane County. What Mark has said here might appeal to some Democrats who are disaffected with Jim Doyle. But I’m not sure you’ve said anything, Scott, that will appeal to those disaffected Democrats.
Walker: I’ve always taken the approach you don’t need to pander to voters. The voters in Madison I’ve talked to lately, one of their number-one concerns is public safety, particularly in the city of Madison. There’s some real concern. If you look at the fact that Jim Doyle is going to let up to 3,000 convicted criminals back on the streets early, that’s a problem.
The fact that Jim Doyle is going to sign off on a budget that cuts the number of prosecutors in Dane County and across the state at the same time they’re upping funding for public defenders—I don’t think there’s a whole lot of moms and dads in the city of Madison and Dane County who think that’s a very good idea.
I’ll compare my record to Jim Doyle’s. Since 2002 he’s had debt go through the roof; we’ve cut our debt 10%. He said he was going to cut his workforce by 10,000—he’s going to have an increase by the end of his term. I reduced my workforce by more than 20%.
He talks about not increasing taxes, yet he’s adding $3 billion worth of tax increases. I’ve done seven straight budgets without a property tax levy increase. He talked about being fiscally responsible, but he’s got the largest budget deficit in state history. We finished the year with another surplus.
I think any voter, whether they’re in Madison or Manitowoc, can say that’s something they can gravitate to.
Neumann: Let me go back to the original question of how we’re going to attract some of those other voters. The concept of job creation through environmental jobs is not pandering to a liberal Democrat or anyone else. It’s the fact of where we’re going as a nation.
Look at what the CEO of GE said the other morning: He’s talking about job growth in this area that exceeds anything we’ve seen in our nation’s history if we just step forward and take advantage of it. That’s not pandering. It’s creating an environment where those jobs will be created here.
Suppose we could get some of those solar-panel production companies to come to Wisconsin. Suppose we could get an electric automaker back in the General Motors plant in Janesville or to where we made motors in Kenosha.
That’s not pandering to voters. It’s not Republican, it’s not Democrat. It’s about securing the future of our children and grandchildren.
Walker: Let me clarify something. I believe you’re not saying this to attract voters in Madison. This is something you’re passionate about.
Sykes: Do you think Jim Doyle is running for election?
Neumann: I’m assuming he is.
Walker: Yes. Unlike most people who think all the politically ridiculous things in the budget—letting felons out, all the problems that are going to drive jobs out of the state—is because he’s not running, I think the opposite. I’m an optimist overall, but with Jim Doyle, unfortunately, I’m a cynic.
The way he’s won in the past against Scott McCallum and Mark Green is not to have people vote for him but to vote against his opponent. The only way he can do that is by funding his campaign. And that’s a checklist of every special-interest group out there who wants something [in return] for funding his campaign.
Charles J. Sykes is editor of Wisconsin Interest and a Milwaukee talk show host. Marc Eisen is a former editor of the Madison weekly Isthmus.