Matt Pommer: Scott Walker, Mary Burke focus on building support up north

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Friday, August 22, 2014

The gubernatorial election has gone north in the final weeks of summer.

The late-July poll by the Marquette University Law Schools hints at shifting opinion in the northern parts of Wisconsin. In 2010 and 2012, northern Wisconsin strongly supported Republican Scott Walker at the voting booths. But support for Walker in up north seems to have eased, according to the poll results.

After release of the poll results, Walker and Democratic candidate Mary Burke spent considerable time in August talking to opinion makers and average voters across the north.

Veteran political observers probably aren’t surprised by the poll results. David Obey, a Democrat with a strong streak of Progressive views, represented northern Wisconsin in Congress for more than 40 years.

Clifford “Tiny” Krueger, the last Progressive in the Legislature, represented a huge northern Wisconsin district in the state Senate for more than 30 years. He ran as a Republican after the Progressive Party faded away.

Conservative Republicans forced him out of office for two years by changing boundary lines in the 1950s, but they never were able to defeat him at the polls.

Walker did very well in 2010 as America struggled to come out of the deep economic recession. The Affordable Health Care Act was controversial, ranging from fears of a shortage of doctors if everyone could get health insurance to claims of “death panels.”

Walker easily defeated efforts to recall him in 2012 in an emotion-filled campaign. The central issue was Walker’s surprise move to cripple public employee unions and shift more fringe benefit costs to the public workers.

A University of Wisconsin researcher said the anti-public employee union move struck a chord with voters across the north. Public employees, especially teachers, often were the highest-paid workers in small towns and rural areas, she said. There was resentment to their compensation and apparent security of jobs in hard times.

In the 2010 election, Walker promised to create 250,000 private-sector jobs in four years. He has virtually conceded he won’t come close to that number, but he insists Wisconsin is doing better on the job front than it was in the recession.

Burke had served as secretary of commerce during part of Democrat Jim Doyle’s eight years as governor. But Democrats have a pointed answer to Walker’s job emphasis on the comparison with Doyle.

Burke’s television ads note that during the last three years, Wisconsin is dead last in private job creation among the 10 Midwestern states.

Forestry and paper mills comprise the largest industry across northern Wisconsin. That industry has been impacted by a shift from printed materials to computers and digital communications. Blue-collar, private-sector jobs that seemed secure in the 20th century may be in for a change.

Walker has helped push efforts to create a large open-pit iron mine in northern Wisconsin, saying it could create thousands of high-paying jobs. However, that possibility is years away and the price of iron ore mined in places as far away as Australia could affect any Wisconsin operation.

Local control always has been an issue in rural areas of the state. That has surfaced in mining the sand sought for use in hydraulic-fracturing drilling for oil and natural gas. Private companies, no matter what they are pushing, would prefer the Legislature, rather than county and town boards, set the rules.

These economic issues offer a hint at why there may be shifts in voter views in up north.

Matt Pommer writes this Wisconsin Newspaper Association weekly state government newsletter. He is dean of the state Capitol correspondents, having covered government action in Madison for 36 years. Readers can contact Pommer at mpommer@sbcglobal.net.

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