WAUKESHA – A defining moment in the first televised debate in Wisconsin’s campaign for governor came when Orville Beene, a 67-year-old man from Brown Deer, asked Gov. Jim Doyle and challenger Mark Green how they would help turn around Milwaukee’s economy. Beene, who had worked for Pabst Brewery before its 1997 cutbacks, said it was his perception that manufacturing plants “are closing all over the place” – and he wanted to know how those jobs are being replaced.
Not surprisingly, the responses from Doyle and Green differed sharply. But it was clear from their answers that both major-party candidates understand Wisconsin’s economic health is the overriding issue of this campaign.
Doyle answer was tinged with politics, as he first blamed the Bush administration and Congress for exacerbating the loss of manufacturing jobs, not only in Wisconsin but across the United States. But he also acknowledged that global trends have changed the equation for American manufacturing, making it more important to be lean, innovative and tech-savvy in an increasingly competitive world.
Manufacturers in Milwaukee and elsewhere in Wisconsin are modernizing, Doyle said, and they’re bouncing back from the recession of 2000-2002 while companies in other Midwestern states are stumbling to regain their footing.
Doyle noted several high-profile company expansions in Milwaukee this year and insisted the region is adding jobs, some 10,000 in the last year alone.
Green said that’s not good enough. He decried the “sad reality” that “we do not have an abundance of good jobs” in Wisconsin, a reference to the fact that per capita wages in Wisconsin still lag the U.S. average. Green had his own political spin to the question, of course, blaming high taxes for the loss of manufacturing jobs and insisting that “an entirely new approach to economic development” is needed.
There’s an old saying in politics: The unemployment rate is 100 percent for voters who are out of work. Conversely, the economy looks pretty good if you’re earning more today than you were a year ago. Personal perspectives – such as what influenced Beene’s question during the “We the People/Wisconsin” debate – dictate how most people view the economy.
But what do the numbers say? In figures released this month, the state Department of Workforce Development said the 4.2 percent unadjusted unemployment rate for August was the lowest for that month since 2001. That compared to a national unadjusted jobless rate of 4.6 percent for August.
About 33,900 jobs have been created in Wisconsin since August 2005, according to state figures, bringing total employment to more than 2.9 million people. Since January 2003, according to the state Department of Commerce, some 179,000 jobs have been created. In other words, the state is beginning to create new jobs to replace those that were lost.
However, the numbers are more sobering in Milwaukee County, which explains why Beene said he perceived a loss of good-paying jobs. While the Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis reporting area added 10,000 jobs in the last year, most of those jobs were outside the city of Milwaukee. Milwaukee County’s unemployment rate is still 5.9 percent (down from 6.5 percent a year ago) and is the third-highest among Wisconsin’s 72 counties. The jobless rate in the city of Milwaukee is 7.1 percent, second-highest among the 28 largest Wisconsin cities. But that’s better than a year ago, when the jobless rate in Milwaukee was 7.3 percent.
Wisconsin’s economic data tells two stories. In parts of the state, the economy is humming along and the biggest problem is finding enough qualified workers. In other parts of the state, such as Milwaukee and some rural counties, the recovery has yet to fully engage.
For voters, the question is relatively simple: Stick with a governor whose policies have taken the state this far, or switch to someone who offers a different approach. The more attention paid to economic issues between now and Nov. 7, the better.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the WisconsinState Journal in Madison.