Kathleen Vinehout: The MoD Interview

On public education, local control, and accessibility
(and guns and abortion):
One on One with Senator Kathleen Vinehout
Heather DuBois Bourenane, Monologues of Dissent

10 December 2013

Senator Vinehout in her Capitol office. Photo: MoD
I have little patience for the undemocratic debate about whether or not we "should" have a Democratic primary in the 2014 Wisconsin gubernatorial race. Especially lame are the comments from high-profile Dems like Dave Obey and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, who try to argue that a primary drains resources and distracts from the "main" fight against Walker.  That sort of talk just fuels the growing perception that the party cares less about a democratic process for electing a new governor who will truly represent the people than it does oiling the complicated mechanisms of its own machinery.  But in true independent progressive style, I care little for what the party wants.  I care about having leadership that actually represents the interests of the people of this state.  A primary would not only draw attention to largely unknown candidates, but also build the local momentum we're going to need to win.  Focusing on the issues - as a recent editorial in the Kenosha Times stressed, will be critical to moving forward in 2014:
...political contests have to be about more than money. They need to be about ideas, too. This state has been talking mostly about Walker’s ideas since he was elected in 2010.
A Democratic primary would be a good opportunity to change the political conversation. It would also be a test to see if Burke or Vinehout is an effective campaigner, someone who can garner more support as she goes along. That’s something that Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who lost to Walker twice, was not able to do.
While I'm not particularly thrilled with how long this "I'll let you know if I'm really running in January" business is dragging out, it seems increasingly clear that Wisconsin State Senator Kathleen Vinehout  is serious about about wanting to enter the race. Vinehout's already hired a statewide election staffer and has been feeling the grassroots love at meet & greets all over the state, which seems to indicate a strong will of support at the boots-on-the-ground level that matters most to beating Walker.  

I sat down on November 21 with Senator Vinehout, mentally reprioritizing my many questions to make sure I could cram them into the half hour I'd been promised. When I left her office an hour and 15 minutes later, I was so touched by the sincerity of her generosity and how quickly the time had passed that I barely felt guilty about having monopolized her time. 

Senator Vinehout isn't just the kind of person who takes time to talk to people.  She takes time to care about them.  Over the course of our conversation, it was obvious not only just that she remembered things about me (we'd met before at a forum  organized by our local grassroots team and before we even sat down at the table she told me how she uses  SPARC as a specific example of how local action can work - and she'd read my interview with Mary Burke) but equally obvious that she's the kind of politician who takes extremely seriously what it means to represent her constituents. For almost every question I asked her, it was clear that she'd done the big-picture research needed to comment on the issue, and that she knew exactly where her own constituents stood on it.  

I wouldn't expect less from a woman who took it upon herself to write alternative budgets to both of Walker's, detailing explicitly how we had "more than enough money" to fund our schools and other essential programing while holding the line on taxes.  In her careful, deliberate way - "in as dispassionate a voice as possible," as she likes to stress - she has consistently taken the Walker administration to task for its reckless spending and fiscally irresponsible stewardship.  Senator Vinehout travels the state showing a PowerPoint that details the increases in spending and decreases in programming, revealing to "surprised" citizens how the kick-the-can budgeting of the past four years has put the Wisconsin economy and our public education system in a very precarious position.

Doing your homework and caring about what matters to people shouldn't be a shocking characteristic in an elected official. But this quality is so striking and endearing in Kathleen Vinehout because it's precisely the opposite of the singular combination of apathy and arrogance one finds in the sitting governor, who has gone so far out of his way to alienate himself from the people he allegedly serves that he even held a secret tree-lighting ceremony last Thursday at 7:50 am, 10 minutes before the doors to the Capitol open to the public.  I don't think people who aren't intimidated by the idea of facing the people they govern do stuff like that. And I don't think people who do stuff like that care much about taking the time to get to know the people who want to talk to them.

I've already made clear that I want Kathleen Vinehout to enter the 2014 gubernatorial race. I like primaries; they make me feel like my vote matters.  And I like Vinehout. I read her columns regularly, and have followed her closely since 2011, admiring how her alternative budget and no-nonsense appeal to fiscal responsibility made her a voice of reason in an otherwise dysfunctional Senate.  I've been especially impressed with her frank talk and keen focus on the attempt to privatize public education, which many Dems sidestep without fully exposing the insidious scope of anti-education influence.  Not Vinehout, who states unequivocally: "The push away from funding local public schools is part of a national effort to privatize public education."  She's also a cosponsor of a new bill on Public School Funding Reform, which will be introduced this month.  Modeled on Superintendent Tony Evers' Fair Funding for Our Future plan, LRB 2673/2 would restore funding to Wisconsin public schools through the a funding formula that - among other things - factors in student poverty, sets a guarantee of $3,000 per pupil in state aid, provides a $275 per pupil levy increase in 14-15 and restores reasonable school levy growth. 

In short, she gets it. And wherever she goes, she earns instant admiration with her trademark combination of huggy, folksy, down-to-earthiness and sharp-as-a-tack brainpower.  After three years of being insulted and avoided by Scott Walker, the idea that you can get both a warm hug and the cold, hard facts out of a politician seems nothing short of miraculous.  Her entry into the race only elevates the conversation and raises the bar for our expectations of the next governor.

Kathleen Vinehout
After three years of Scott Walker, the idea
that you could get both a warm hug and
the cold, hard facts out of a politician
seems nothing short of miraculous.
In our conversation, Senator Vinehout returned time and again to the three central components of every issue: accountability, local control and honest messaging.  All of these things have common-sense, bipartisan appeal and are promising signs of a leader who could work across the aisle with a potentially hostile legislature.  As you'll see in the complete transcript below (it's long, I know, but worth reading!), on every single one of the issues we discussed, her focus was critical:
  • On education: We need to refund our schools in a way that's honest and responsible: "The [funding] formula is broken," she says, "and it could've been fixed" but "we have to recognized that children in poverty cost more to educate" or we're investing in an unequal system.
  • On jobs: "Number one, after we get rid of the political appointees and hire real people that have the background, number two, we need to make sure that every single dollar that goes out there goes to a company that has verified job creation. Very simple."
  • On civic action and party politics:
    "I believe that we must turn the rules the Republicans have given us upside down. We cannot win in a game where they’ve written the rules.  And the rule of money is that politics is a spectator sport and the only way you move ahead as a candidate is by having more money. And [that] people are passive and people can be...manipulated to vote against their own interests and they can be distracted from things that really matter, like what’s important to our community. 
    Because what’s lost in all that is human relationships, human contact, the discussion of what our community is, and what’s lost, in the end, is this building [the State Capitol]. ... So somehow we must rekindle the spirit of democracy, that spirit of civic engagement, all across the state and wake up to a discussion of what we want for our community. Because when we have that discussion and we talk about the obstacles to having what we want for our community, we’re going to come right back to the Capitol, and to the decisions that are made in the legislature and by the governor and in the budget."
  • On accessibility: "The way to show contrast is to embody it. You don’t say it, you act it out. That’s what you do. And I do that in a number of ways but primarily, it’s by being accessible. ... This is what has to happen, this is how “the will of the people” – those words on the top of the governor’s conference room – get taken down and put on the conference table and everybody around it turns that art on the wall into action, and you do that by listening to the people. How are you going to know what the people want if you don’t listen to them?"
These are just a few of the issues we touched on in our (very long) conversation, but the pattern that emerges is one of a focus on the bottom line in terms of accountability and honest representation of the constituents of the state, whose needs and concerns Kathleen Vinehout very clearly places first in her decision-making.

But before we venture into the realm of hyperbole, let's count our grains of salt.  Neither Vinehout nor Burke is my dream candidate. Vinehout stands to the right of most progressives on two essential issues: guns and reproductive rights.  Vinehout has received an "A" rating from the NRA and has a troubled history with women's rights groups for her alleged role in killing a bill that never made it out of committee in 2008 but could have overturned a Wisconsin law that criminalizes abortion and her controversial position on the conscience clause.  When I asked her about this, she defended this record, and said:
"Abortion is a very difficult personal decision. It’s a decision that can only be made by the woman in consultation with her doctor and maybe her significant other. Abortion has to be kept legal, safe, and accessible. The problem we face now is accessibility." 
While some progressives have been satisfied with similar explanations of these positions and others support her in spite of them, we can only speculate (and trust her) that she'll stand strong in the fight to preserve reproductive rights and choices should further anti-choice legislation come up in the Republican-led legislature.  

She also defended her pro-gun voting history and support for Castle Doctrine when I asked her about it, noting that 75% of her constituents wanted her to vote in favor of it and stressing that rural Wisconsin is "a different world" where guns and hunting are a large part of "our culture."  But her insistence in our interview that our Castle Doctrine is different from Stand your Ground laws is troubling to me, in part because it strikes me as a way of trivializing the very real threat that innocent parties can be killed under either law, but also because gun rights advocates conflate these terms themselves and see them as two means to the same end.  While she recognizes the "tension" between Wisconsin's rural and urban areas  and that "there are crimes being committed with firearms in the city," one wonders if her rural-centric perspective on this issue blinds her to the larger import of these laws in our growing urban communities and their relation to the critical issue of racism and racial disparity in Wisconsin.  Wisconsin leads the nation in incarceration of African-Americans (our incarceration rates for white males are exactly the national average while 1 in 8 African-American men is in jail) and the high-profile instances we've seen so far in which the Castle Doctrine has been invoked as a defense, the victims have been black.  We ignore the connections between these things at the peril of progress. 

The inherent risk with laws like concealed carry and the Castle Doctrine is that they perpetuate racial inequities and further institutionalize them. Matthew Brennar suggests that "the Doctrine has a dark side—the disparate impact it may have on racial minorities by legalizing violence that may partially be motivated by racial misunderstanding."  States therefore choose whether they "highly value self-defense rights or highly value racial equality."  Most progressives tend to stand pretty firmly on Team Equality, and Vinehout's localized framing of the debate as entirely a matter of a gun ownership rights made me feel worse, not better, about her position on this issue, even as I admire her integrity in faithfully representing the will of her district and her understanding of how they frame this issue within the context of personal liberties and freedom.  My hope is that if she reaches the Governor's office she'll take a much more nuanced approach when thinking about this issue and address frankly the need to assess and improve Wisconsin's embarrassing record of institutional racism, and I have confidence that she would.

When I interviewed Mary Burke, it was easy to sum up her approach with one word: pragmatic.
After our long and wide-reaching conversation, I had a harder time finding a single word to describe Kathleen Vinehout.  I don't agree with her on every issue.  But I respect her positions on each of them because they're based on careful consideration, sound evidence, and consultation with real people.  When I try to sum up my overall impression of her, a string of words come to mind:

Serious. Genuine. Sincere. Informed. Intelligent.
Confident. Determined.  Deliberate. Committed.

Engaged, maybe, above all.  Thoroughly connected to the research, the common-sense facts of every issue, and to the needs and concerns of her constituents. And not in a one-way way, either, but actively so, with open and productive dialogue.  Engaged with the media.  Engaged in the issues.  Engaged in the larger conversation and not afraid to stand out from her colleagues on issues where her constituents might not fit the mold of the rest of the state.  


Sure beats divisive. Sure beats dictatorial.
Sure beats reckless borrowing and massive cuts.
Sure beats Walker.

Neither Vinehout nor Burke score straight As on my own lefty report card, but that doesn't mean they both don't pass the Billion Times Better Than Walker test with flying colors.  The fact that they both have prioritized connecting in sincere and substantial ways with bloggers (even ones who've been critical of them) and the grassroots teams that will be essential in winning the fight against Walker is a promising sign that people who care to invest in being part of this critical conversation will have a voice in the 2014 elections.  And I encourage everyone to take this charge seriously: host a candidate forum or meet & greet in your town.  Write a letter to the editor describing your thoughts on the candidate/s.  Connect with local progressives and do your part to get the message out on why this election matters in your community.  Take the time to read interviews like the ones they've done with me and get to know where they stand.
It looks like Wisconsin has two women equally eager to take on a governor who has been declared the most divisive political figure in America.  The time is ideal for Wisconsin's first woman governor to get things under control and restore the house to order.  We've had quite enough of the "divide and conquer" bullying, posturing, and misogynistic grandstanding of the current administration.  The next governor will be a woman with a pragmatic focus on turning the clock back to the future or a woman wholly engaged in moving Wisconsin forward.   Sounds good to me. 

Note: The entire transcript of my conversation with Senator Vinehout is below.  It's long, but worth reading.  If you'd prefer to read or download the interview as a pdf, click here.

The MoD interview with Kathleen Vinehout
Heather DuBois Bourenane, Monologues of Dissent
21 November 2013 (Wisconsin State Capitol, Madison, WI)

On Act 10, the budget "crisis," the "necessity" of union concessions and what really needs fixing in Wisconsin                

Monologues of Dissent (MoD): The first question that I have is a follow-up on one of the things that I talked to Mary Burke about – this idea that Act 10 responded to a problem that actually needed fixing.  Many of us were outraged in 2011 by Walker’s false claim that we needed to balance the budget and we thought this was very duplicitous– the budget always has to be balanced – so we were not fooled by this fabricated crisis – and this was the bait and switch that everybody was so outraged about - 

Kathleen Vinehout: Mmhmm.  He was dishonest.

MoD: Yes, so where did this come from? Your opponent, if you decide to run for governor, is saying that while she opposes limitations on collective bargaining for public employees, she agrees that there was something that needed to give in the way public employees are compensated and when I asked her about this, she said that she was referring to the concessions that the unions were willing to make to Walker – on health care to increase their contributions to retirement.  So I wondered if you could speak to whether or not you agree [with Mary Burke] that those concessions were necessary and to expand on what you think that “crisis” referred to and whether or not it was wholly fabricated.

Kathleen Vinehout: I hate Act 10.  I went to Illinois to stop Act 10.  And it’s important we remember the context in which Act 10 passed.  The day before the governor talked about, or made this whole thing public, he talked to his whole cabinet about “dropping the bomb.”  If you want to solve a problem, you bring people to the table, even people who disagree with you, you talk with them, and you work through solving the problem.  That wasn’t what he wanted to do.  There was more money in this budget than the previous budget, the Doyle 2009-11 budget.  The employees had already agreed to give concessions.  Once this all became public, it was very quick to agree to give the concessions. And he continued his path of pushing Act 10 as fast as he could, despite the public pressure and despite the Democrats being in Illinois. And we saw over and over again [when we were] in Illinois, where he, his chief of staff, and his negotiators would say one thing to Senator Cullen and Senator Jauch and he would be on the news fifteen minutes later saying “Those darn Democrats need to come home and do their job – they won’t even return my phone calls.”  It was fifteen minutes. So it became very clear when we were in Illinois that he didn’t want to talk about solving the problems. He had a political agenda and he moved very quickly, creating a crisis to destroy the public unions, to take the public employee unions. And I believe he made the first step in taking public education back to what it was a hundred years ago.  The teachers were standing – the teachers as a political force – were standing in the way of privatizing public education. And on the Senate Education Committee since then, I’ve seen step after step after step – both in the budget and in the Senate Education Committee – that have been taken to privatize public education. Now there are, according to Senator Moulton, half a dozen or so Senators in the GOP caucus that don’t want to go down this road and they’ve managed to mute some of these efforts. But the fight right now is within the GOP for what we want public education to look like. Do we want it to look like something 150 years ago where only rich people and students that were able could have a good education? Or do we believe in our state Constitution? And that’s a long way to get to the answer to your question, but that’s how I see it.

MoD: And what of the concessions? Do you think that those were necessary at the time?

Kathleen Vinehout: Well, budgets are a question of priorities.  And the Democrats were able to balance the budget and not take away so many resources from education.  We took away some. But nothing like what actually happened. The fact that there was more money in this budget than the last one – not a lot, but there was – over a billion dollars – leads me to believe that there was a different way to balance the budget. And that’s why I wrote the first alternative budget, to show that the public employees could’ve been paid, and that all of these cuts to public education didn’t have to happen, if there was a different set of priorities.  Well, of course, there were a lot of – I would call them loopholes – tax loopholes or corporate welfare, or tax giveaways to friends – and the budget as it finally passed, had more holes in revenue. But I think it’s important to remember that there was more money in the 2011-13 budget than there was in the ‘09.

MoD: And the next one was even bigger.

Kathleen Vinehout: 4 billion. 4 billion more in spending from ’11-’13 to ’13-’15.  4 billion.  1.7 billion in general funds going into this year.  [Murmurs of outraged agreement from MoD] Which is a whole ‘nother question.  But that’s the story no one has touched.

    On fiscal irresponsibility and Walker's cut-and-spend record  

MoD: And why do you think that is? Why do you think that the Walker machine [laughter from KV] is winning the messaging war on this? Because to those of us who are paying attention, it’s not only staggeringly obvious, but outrageous, that he can talk this talk of being such a fiscal conservative when he’s kicking the can, and spending, and building the debt like crazy.  I mean, these are open secrets. Why aren’t people talking about that?

Kathleen Vinehout: Well I certainly am, everywhere I go! [laughter] I have two different PowerPoints, that I’ve taken all around the state – one deals with the budget and one deals with schools – I just got done doing the schools one in Galesville a day ago. People are surprised. People don’t realize there was 4 billion in new spending. They don’t realize there was 1.7 new in tax revenue and general fund revenues, that there was more than enough money to completely adopt the proposals that [Superintendent of Public Instruction] Tony Evers made by way of both changing the equalized aid formula and by creating some categorical aid that would dramatically improve the situation for schools, both inner city schools, where we have to recognize that children in poverty cost more to educate, and in rural schools, where we also have a very high poverty rate that’s grown substantially in the last fifteen years. And then to recognize that the state is not absorbing the costs that the state needs to, with regard to high-cost special education and for children that are multilingual, multicultural, and high-cost transportation. The state pays about six percent on the transportation dollar – six cents on the dollar – for schools across the state. If you think about that, what’s happening, in rural schools, is that the dollars are going into buying fuel, to pick up children, and maintain buses, instead of into the classroom.  So we are creating an unequal system, where the rural schools have to shoulder more of the, what I would call the fixed costs – in order to just open the door. [So what] percent of that [state aid gets to those rural] students? You know…what resources get to that student when the state gives a certain amount of money to that student?  The formula is broken. And it could’ve been fixed.

MoD: So what’s your plan for fixing it?

Kathleen Vinehout: First of all, we need to accept, we need to fund, the State needs to fund, all of the requests that Tony Evers made in the budget that the governor denied.

Kathleen Vinehout: Fair Funding for our Future is one part of it, and that changes the funding formula for equalized aid. It recognizes that children in poverty cost more to educate. But then there’s also a multicultural/multilingual program. In Arcadia, fifty percent of students in the K-3 primary grades – fifty percent of them – do not speak English as their primary language. That’s just one school in rural Western Wisconsin. It’s true all over the state.

It’s a change, a demographic change that we have not recognized in the way that we fund schools.  Second of all: the dramatic increase in poverty.   I would say, roughly around twelve years ago the poverty rate in Alma, my home district, was about 18%.  Now, in the primary grades, it’s close to 50%. Statewide, the numbers are not quite as dramatic, but in the twenty-year period, from 1993-2013, we’ve seen an increase that’s gone roughly gone from about 20% to 43% statewide.  It’s a big change. And teachers tell me every day, when I talk with them, that this is something that affects them. And when the farmers, my constituents, drive by the school and look at the school and say, “Wow, that looks pretty good. I didn’t think they had any problems.” But when they open the school’s door, and look inside, [they see that] the needs of the students being taught today are very different from the needs of the students taught 20 years ago. And the family situations are very different. In the rural areas many people are working two and three jobs, just to survive. And the same is true in the inner city areas – maybe different types of jobs – but it’s still low-wage jobs without benefits.

  Public Education: 
  On poverty, propaganda, and the myth of the broken school   

MoD: When I talked to Mary Burke, we touched on this topic, too, and she used the expression “poverty is not an excuse” [KV literally puts head on desk] for what’s going on in our schools and suggested that – I think what she was getting at, to be generous, is that our schools aren’t truly failing; that there are a lot of great things happening in our schools that aren’t necessarily related to funding and that we should do what we can with what we have and not always stress the negative.  Many of us, though, find that expression to be extremely offensive, because it distracts us from the root problem, which I think you’ve just revealed.  So, I read your piece on Diane Ravitch’s new book [Reign of Error], and this bigger problem, and to Ravitch, and to others who are paying attention to the crisis in public education nationwide, poverty is the central issue.  So how is it, how does this bigger dialogue about what’s going on in public education – this idea that our schools are broken and our teachers are failing our students – relate to this other issue of the funding and what we can do about it?

Kathleen Vinehout: You mean, the dialogue of: the schools are broken, we need to privatize them?

MoD: Exactly. This is being used as a token, of the reformists, to convince people that our schools are desperately in need of changing. And my position [snickers] and since I’m a blogger I’m allowed to say that here, I guess [KV laughs] is that this is just another bait and switch, they’re just distracting us from what they’re trying to do to undermine public schools. So my question to you is: how do we fight that? What can we do about that?  When the Democratic candidate who’s already entered that race, is adopting that very same language, [KV groans] – of, you know, “poverty can’t be an excuse,” – I mean, this is exactly what the “reformers” are saying.

Kathleen Vinehout: Exactly.

MoD: So where exactly is the left in this debate?

Kathleen Vinehout: Well, the left needs a little bit of education.

MoD: [repeating] “The left needs a little bit of education.” Mmm.

Kathleen Vinehout: And I’ve been on the Education Committee, and I’ve seen what’s happening, and I’ve been the target of some of the propaganda.  [Goes to shelf, grabs several books] This is a book that I got from what I thought was a legitimate source – I think it came from Harvard – [reading] “Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance…and the Hoover Institute” who I had to google to find out who they were. It looks very legitimate. It’s footnoted, it’s got all kinds of charts and graphs, it’s different from what I usually get from the choice people – which I’ve got a whole file full of.

MoD: [Reading cover] It’s called Endangering Prosperity: A Global View of the American School.

Kathleen Vinehout: [pulling out more and more books and placing them on the table] So this is the kind of stuff these guys send to me.  And the only other topic that gets this kind of attention to legislators is global warming.  [Gets more books, hands me several] These guys came to see me, this is a lobby.

MoD: Ah, ok, coming from the MacIver Institute.

Kathleen Vinehout: Yeah. So this is a perfect example. This is – the only topic that gets a similar attack in terms of legislature propaganda, is global warming [hands me a book].

MoD: [reading cover] The Mad, Mad, Mad World of Climatism – a bunch of polar bears in a convertible.  Even the cover mocks the issue.

Kathleen Vinehout: [taking out still more books] And look at this. It comes with a dvd. It’s as easy to see – it has cartoons in it – it’s fun to read. Legislators hate to read. They got a bazillion things to read and no time to read ‘em.  This looks like a really, really, really fun thing to read. So the intention of the right wing is to create the illusion that our public schools are failing and the only answer is to privatize them. And behind this is the goal of taking us back 150 years, where the only students who receive a high-quality education are students of wealthy parents.

Senator Vinehout shared some of the many examples
of "choice" and anti-education propaganda
that comes across her desk.
There's no pro-education equivalent of this. 
"The left," she said, "needs a little bit of education."
It’s happening right now in Milwaukee.  I don’t know if you read the piece I wrote on Rocketship Education [More on Rocketship here and here] Rocketship Education is an outfit out of California they romanced the Milwaukee Common Council, flew them out to California. The Milwaukee Common Council is charter school authorizer, an independent charter school authorizer.  They came back and authorized eight schools with 500 students each in Milwaukee.  Now, God bless ‘em, Rocketship Education has had a hard time even filling their first school. But when I saw them come to testify, before the Senate Education Committee, they were testifying on Senate Bill 76, which is a statewide expansion – or at least the way it was originally written – was a statewide expansion of independent charter schools with multiple authorizers. They came and they said, before the Senate Education Committee, they said “This bill does not go far enough. We need you to make the laws in Wisconsin much more friendly to out-of-state private operators of charter schools. We want to control governance. We want to control budget.  We want to control hiring and firing of teachers. We want to control curriculum. We want to make sure that when the teachers come in, and we hire them, and the superintendents come in and we hire them, you’re not going to come in and backtrack and say “Oh, by the way, the superintendent needs a master’s degree.”

MoD: Well, it’s my understanding that even the teachers need no certification.

Kathleen Vinehout: It’s all been changed. It was changed in the 2011-13 budget.  So there’s a separate process. Separate.  And equal? I don’t think so.

What’s happening in Milwaukee, the parents who are engaged, the parents who are a little wealthier, the parents who maybe have the resources, are pulling their children out of public schools.  I was just at a meet and greet in Wauwatosa, where a fellow who teaches – young guy, really excited – who teaches in MPS, really excited about teaching in MPS, and what he described for me what a student body that was becoming higher and higher need, but the resources were not following that. This is where I see Wisconsin going ten years from now. Diane Ravitch’s book lays it out very clearly. The intention is to create a multitude of options for parents. The only problem is: not all parents have those options. We’re never going to see a [Two Hours] Charter school sit down the road from Alma. There’s not enough people. Just like why AT&T doesn’t want to come out and put out broadband there. Why do we have to have our own rural electrification? Because the utility companies didn’t want to come out there. The density of the population is very low. They can’t make money there.

MoD: Well I don’t think these organizations have even expressed an interest in serving kids in these areas. They only want to go into the areas that have large education budgets; that’s been demonstrated nationwide.

Kathleen Vinehout: Absolutely. So to say, “the schools are broken, we need to privatize them” is to repeat the myth of the other side.  To say that “poverty is no excuse” is to repeat the myth of the other side. What we need to do is look at what’s actually happening. There’s no evidence that shows us that these schools do any better at educating the same kid when we control for factors like poverty and special education and other factors. And the research is clear: achievement is related to poverty. And how do we solve the problem of achievement in high impoverished areas? We increase the resources.  We lower the student/teacher ratio. We use innovative means in a very hands-on, one-on-one if we have to, to help those children. We know the answers to how to deal with these problems, but we can’t seem to get the will of the legislature in this building  to pass the changes to the  funding formula that recognize that children in poverty cost more to educate.

    On improving the divisive environment in the Capitol   

MoD: Well that leads right into my next question, which is that it’s unlikely that the “will of the legislature” is going to change in 2014. So if you’re governor, having been inside the belly of that beast, what’s the plan for trying to create dialogue?  I’ve been in some of these hearings, and I have seen an attitude that I can only best describe as actual contempt for citizens who are testifying, for experts who are testifying, against some of these things. [KV: mmmhmm] I have seen legislators on their iPhones, rolling their eyes, scoffing at people who are testifying – and this doesn’t even speak to how disrespectful they are to their own colleagues.  [KV: mmhmm] As governor, having been part of that, and perhaps already being immersed in it to a certain extent, and knowing these your colleagues in the Senate and in the Assembly personally, what can you really do to improve that dialogue? It’s a really toxic discourse, and the environment seems unchangeable from an outsider’s point of view. They have no intentions of sitting down at any tables. Scott Walker certainly doesn’t.

Kathleen Vinehout: We still vote locally. People still make a decision to vote. And the reason people want to take away your vote is because it matters. We need to have a dialogue in communities all across the state about what’s happening, what happens Election Day, what’s happening in the Capitol, and what’s happening in your community related to what’s happening in the Capitol. 
When I have those dialogues with people, the first topic that comes up is education. People want a great school. And they’re very worried about what’s happening in the rural schools. And the Republicans see this vulnerability.  It’s no fluke of luck that Robin Vos put together a Special Task Force on Rural Schools, and named one of his most vulnerable members, in an area where the schools are being starved of resources, to chair it.  If the Superintendent’s uncomfortable, tell me, there’s nobody north of Highway 8 that got a single bit - pennies  on the dollar related to that 100 million dollar property tax decrease money going into schools. We know now, from the history, and looking at what happens with property tax and state aid, they’re tied at the hip. If you dramatically decrease state aid, you’re going to increase property tax. Yes, there’s a levy limit, but there’s also a lot of people who haven’t levied to the max – like Alma, and my husband’s on the school board – who are now in the position of saying “We cut as much as we possibly can. If we’re going to continue to provide great education to these students, we’ve got to raise revenue under the levy, and use that space under the levy law.” 
We have to be honest – we, the Democrats, have to be honest about what’s happening in the Capitol and how people are being distracted from what really matters. The Common Core hearings were nothing but a distraction. It’s no accident that the day the Common Core hearings happened, the first hearing, we had what I call the three-ring circus, where all the media attention was on the Common Core hearing. Now, mind you, the Senate Education Committee had already had a Common Core hearing – months ago – but it wasn’t a big circus like this.  So here’s the main circus. Over in Ring #2 is the Assembly Education Committee, who at the same time is holding a hearing on repealing the race-based mascot program.

Kathleen Vinehout: Oh. Disgusting, yes. Absolute, pure racism. And in the Senate Education Committee, we’re hearing the bill [SB-76] that would take state-wide charter schools. This is what was really happening.

MoD: I was at that Common Core hearing. And I didn’t even know about what was going on in the Senate -

Kathleen Vinehout: Neither did the press!

MoD: Well, the amendment had just come through, a couple of days - was it 2 or 3 days before?

Kathleen Vinehout: It was less than a day. I had it 11:00 the morning before.

MoD: And I’m a person who pays attention, and I had looked at the original bill and thought, “oh, I don’t know what all of this is” but it didn’t look that bad. But it was all in the amendment. Which is the new playbook: put the amendment through at the 11th hour.

Kathleen Vinehout: I was meeting the leg council the afternoon before, at 6:00 at night looking through trying to figure out what this amendment did and I went through that bill – I should show you all my notes on it – I went through the bill. And point by point, I said to the attorney “It does this!” She’s like “yeah.” And I’m like, “It does this!” “Yeah.”  “It does this!”  “Yeah.” And I’m like, “Oh, my gosh, nobody in the state has any idea what this bill is gonna do.” 

Meanwhile this Common Core stuff goes all over the state. I think they had four hearings.  This [produces document] was from the Fond du Lac hearing. This group of handouts was passed out at that hearing.

MoD: [takes pamphlet, reading] “20 Reasons Why Christian Parents Should Get Their Children Out of Wisconsin’s WEAC-Run Government Schools.”

Kathleen Vinehout: This was passed out to everyone who came to the hearing. So this, you know, you can keep this, but you know, the funniest part was the one about Saul Alinsky –

MoD: [reading] “The Marxism/Globalist Agenda.” “WEAC receives Saul Alinsky Training at Edgewood Catholic College.”

Kathleen Vinehout: [laughing] And then, here, talk about a completely different world these folks live in: “WEAC Leads in Lobbying.” Ok, you’ll recall now that WEAC has gone from about 75 staff to about 16 staff. They’re not even going to play in the races  because they simply don’t have the resources.

MoD: Right. [reading] And they’re citing data from 2009.

Kathleen Vinehout: Sure. But this is the myth. This is what you described as the distraction to undermine action.

MoD. It is. And of course the irony here is that the real lobby money is coming from these privatization forces, all of whom are out of state even though they employ many former Wisconsin legislators.

Kathleen Vinehout: And they’re picking their candidates.

MoD: And writing the legislation.

Kathleen Vinehout: They’re picking the candidates. And we saw that in the two races that just happened where in the primary, the American Federation for Children spent $45,000 on robocalls and slick direct mail just to pick their candidate in the Republican primary. The battle right now is not between the Democrats and the Republicans. It’s within the Republican party. The Democrats have been successfully marginalized.  At least according to the beliefs of the “choice” folks.  Because there’s going to be no choice left for parents of special education students, for rural parents, for inner city parents.

MoD: I think that’s something that people don’t know, is that these schools are exempted from following the federal law [KV: IDEA] IDEA  – that says you have to accept students with special needs.

Kathleen Vinehout: And have an Individualized Education Plan IEP for them when they come in! And every single one of these schools draws down resources from the existing public schools.

  On making democracy work:   Are people really ready for another “campaign of a lifetime?"  

MoD: So if I’m hearing you right, what you’re suggesting is that the only way to fix the atmosphere in the Capitol is local pressure.  For people to really start paying attention and say, “You guys are supposed to represent us, not special interests.”  I think that’s a hard ask.

Kathleen Vinehout: Make democracy work.

MoD:  Well, yeah, “Make democracy work.” That’s what people want! You say people talk about education. We see this in our grassroots group all the time. The issues that matter to people are education, jobs, and protecting democracy.  We see all of these anti-voter bills and all of these really concerted efforts to limit or restrict public input into the democratic process. So on the one hand, I couldn’t agree more. I mean, yes! People need to wake up and get involved and pay attention, and write their legislators.  But on the other, it’s easy to see why people are so disillusioned and so frustrated with this system.

One of the questions that I wanted to ask you was: I’d read [in an interview with Blogging Blue] that one of the reasons you’re going around the state is to build momentum and see whether or not there’s a grassroots will and you said it’s going to take the “campaign of a lifetime” [to win in 2014].  But people feel like they just fought the campaign of a lifetime, with the recall effort. People who had never been involved in politics at all, were standing in the streets, in the cold and freezing rain, collecting signatures to recall a governor who they felt totally betrayed them. And these were not far-left yahoos. These were moderate people, many even moderate Republicans or former Republicans. People who felt betrayed, people who were feeling the hit in their pocketbooks, teachers who were seeing the hit in their classrooms.  These were just ordinary people, through and through, no matter how anyone wants to caricature them.  But these are the people who really need to join us now if we’re going to win in 2014 and who really need to reinvest that energy in making a change. But a lot of them are feeling pretty tired, and pretty, I don’t know – incompetent is maybe too strong a word – but just frustrated with this system, and are like, “We worked so hard.”  How do we restore that energy and convince people that this is a fight we can win?

Kathleen Vinehout: I think we need to first look at the alternative. I don’t think that Mike Tate is correct when he says that the primary qualification for a governor is someone able to raise tens of millions of dollars. I believe that we must turn the rules the Republicans have given us upside down. We cannot win in a game where they’ve written the rules.  And the rule of money is that politics is a spectator sport and the only way you move ahead as a candidate is by having more money. And people are passive and people can be – and this is unspoken and all that - and that they can be manipulated to vote against their own interests and they can be distracted from things that really matter, like what’s important to our community. 

Because what’s lost in all that is human relationships, human contact, the discussion of what our community is, and what’s lost, in the end, is this building. What’s the will of the people? Because who’s writing those ads? It certainly isn’t somebody from your hometown. It’s not even somebody from Wisconsin. So somehow we must rekindle the spirit of democracy, that spirit of civic engagement, all across the state and wake up to a discussion of what we want for our community. Because when we have that discussion and we talk about the obstacles to having what we want for our community, we’re going to come right back to the Capitol, and to the decisions that are made in the legislature and by the governor and in the budget. 

Which is why I’ve described an alternative, in the two alternative budgets that I’ve written and I do my very best to stay with the facts. The facts are so bad, and so compelling that we don’t even need incendiary adjectives to describe them. And so many of my colleagues like to use the word “extreme” – “extreme, extreme, extreme” – but you know, to the 2 or 5 or 6% of voters that are in the middle, they can smell spin a mile away. They want the facts and by golly, they want to be able to go back and track them down themselves and say ok, “here’s the Nonpartisan Fiscal Bureau Memo.”  Which is why everything I put in my budget and my PowerPoint goes back to the Nonpartisan Fiscal Bureau Memos or to the Wisconsin Taxpayer’s Alliance, which use the Nonpartisan Fiscal Bureau Memos. And once we stay with those facts and begin to have those conversations all over the state, we wake people up to the fact that there’s something happening in the legislature that is not in the best interest of the community and by golly, your legislator might have even voted for some of this stuff, I’d take a peek at their voting record and figure out what’s happening.

What wakes people up the most is when an issue hits them right in their neighborhood.  And the issue that has come to the north and the west – two areas of the state that voted for Obama and voted for Scott Walker - especially the West, voted for Obama and voted for Scott Walker – is the issue of local control and sand mines, and whether or not you should have a voice in whether or not that thousand-acre sandmine sits down next to your little piece of paradise in Buffalo or Trempealeau or Jackson County.  And I have seen involvement that has then exploded into other areas like I have never seen in 20 years. 

    On local control of the issues and the message                

MoD: So people are waking up, you think, to this issue, and they realize that local control is being jeopardized?

Kathleen Vinehout: And reporters are starting to connect the dots.  I try my very best to talk about what’s happening in as dispassionate a voice as possible, at the same time make very clear what the alternatives are and what my position is, and some of the publishers of very Republican papers in Western Wisconsin have picked up this issue and written editorials that focus on: where do you stand, Republican? Mr. Republican legislator or Mr. Republican candidate? Which side are you on? Are you really on the side of local control or are you on the side of these multinational corporations that are coming in and paying ten to fifteen times the value of land? Which is real hard for a farmer to say no to.  So things are happening.

MoD: That’s good. And we have time to get the message out. But it’s frustrating when the right uses “local control” as one of its buzzwords under the guise of protecting local control but is actually undermining it with all of this legislation. And it’s really difficult to get that message across to people without being seen as just being driven by a very partisan agenda. I think the kind of things you’re talking about – the local-level conversations - once you have those conversations, once you have them in Sun Prairie, or in any community, you find very quickly that these are not actually partisan issues.  These are issues that matter to everybody and it’s in the collective interest to preserve our schools, and to make sure that we aren’t driven into bankruptcy and that we have some kind of control over ownership of our own land – I mean, these are things that are extremely basic stuff, and I think at some level people just think it’s too crazy to believe that these things are being threatened. It seems so un-American to them that they just write you off as a yahoo or a crazy person if you start talking to them about it, and yet these threats are very real. That poses a real barrier, and I think the press really doesn’t help in this department by not posing these issues in as dire of terms as they really are.

Kathleen Vinehout: I think it’s important that the people of the state recognize the constraints that the press is under. And this is where the bloggers play a critical role. There used to be a plethora of newspapers that had Capitol reporters. Now there’s basically two newspapers – the Wisconsin State Journal and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel – and then the Associated Press. And the local newspapers, in the West and the North, depend on the Associated Press and whatever they can put together themselves that they maybe add to an AP story, but they themselves don’t have the resources. I talk to print journalism all the time, and they don’t have the resources to do the investigative reporting that they would like to do and to be able to go in and say “Well, ok, Politician A said this and Politician B said this, and the real answer is this.”  You hear the A and the B but you never hear the real answer. Which is frustrating for people, but at the same time the press is under constraints. 

And when I talk to tv and radio, especially outside of Milwaukee and Madison area, where they’re more plum assignments, they’re seeing huge turnover in their reporters. And they use the Eau Claire media market as an opportunity to get started and they move on. So I’m constantly developing new relationships with people that work in broadcast media because the turnover’s so great. So how can you craft good questions if you just got the job of being the political beat reporter today because the guy who had it, who just got the job 6 months ago, left?   

So part of our job is, at least in my office, is to be that support for the press so that they know when they call me, they’re going to get a Fiscal Bureau Paper.  A Fiscal Bureau Paper they can look up themselves, and I’m going to point to a paragraph, but they can read the whole thing and see if I picked out the right paragraph that answers the question for their story. And I think that “nothing but the facts, these are just the facts” attitude really helps me develop a relationship with the press and also helps me appeal in as nonpartisan a way as possible to those voters in the middle that want to make up their mind on their own and want the facts and they can smell spin a mile away.   

Which is why I think it’s a real mistake for people on the democratic side, at least all of us, to use this hyper-partisan rhetoric because it just turns people off.  My husband is an author, he’s been working on a book about politics, and in one of his chapters, he juxtaposes a fundraising letter from Mike Tate and a fundraising letter from Scott Walker and the language is almost identical.

  It's all about the messaging: 
 Education and local control are not partisan concerns 

MoD: That’s a telling observation, and a depressing one.  But I think it’s one of the reasons why you, as a candidate, have a lot of appeal to those of us who are progressive independents and centrist or people who are maybe lifelong Democrats but are tired of this talk and how it distracts us from dealing with the central issues, which are not actually partisan in nature. Education should not be a partisan concern.

Kathleen Vinehout: Nor should local control!

MoD: Exactly. These are fundamental building blocks of democracy. They are not debatable. These are not negotiable items in a successful democratic society. So it’s frustrating that we’re even having this conversation. 

But if I look at all the things I’ve read about Mary Burke’s campaign, and the possibility of you entering [the race], and I see that you’ve been called “the people’s candidate” or the “grassroots candidate” and I love the spirit of that, but actually you’re the political insider and Mary Burke is the person with limited experience, so it seems like there’s a potential – not necessarily tension, but maybe confusion for people.  Who’s the real grassroots candidate here and what does that mean to you, to be called the “people’s candidate or the grassroots candidate in this race?

Kathleen Vinehout: Well, I have stated many times that I don’t think we should play by the rules the Republicans have written and forced us to play by, but it seems to be that my good friend Mike Tate was looking for a candidate who could self-fund and they have now moved forward so that his staff is supporting Mary Burke, and her staff.  I believe that that’s a recipe for failure for several reasons. We need to honor the investment that was made in 2011 and 2012 and I don’t believe that the fruits of those labors have yet been harvested. I can see this when I talk to groups and talk about developing a deliberate network of information, so that information flows from those who have access to it in the Madison and Milwaukee area to those who don’t have access to it in the Minneapolis/St Paul media markets in Wisconsin, which is where so much of that “vote for Obama and voted for Scott Walker” happened.

MoD: Places where they don’t even have progressive talk radio.

Kathleen Vinehout: Most of the state doesn’t have progressive talk radio.

MoD: Exactly. The messaging is so critical.

Kathleen Vinehout: But in Minneapolis/St. Paul media market, my constituent, some of them, believe that the Capitol is vaguely in St. Paul and they want to vote for me and Al Franken [MoD laughs]. Because the media is coming from Rochester and Minneapolis/St. Paul and there’s simply no day to day immersion in the issues that are being dealt with in the capitol. And so to create that awareness we need to intentionally build a network of people from the southeast part of the state across the information chasm, I like to call it, that’s somewhere in Columbia County near Portage where all the news drops in and very little makes it up to the other side, to Tomah or Wausau, and certainly never to Buffalo County or Polk County or Washburn County. 
And that network has to be built intentionally. We can’t just say it’s gonna happen, just let it happen. We have to say: This is my job. I am a person who lives in Waukesha and I’m going to adopt a person who’s my good friend who lives in Jackson County and I’m going to give him information every single week about what’s happening and he’s going to intentionally take it and turn it  into letters to the editor in all these rural newspapers – and I have over  20 rural newspapers just in my district alone – and all of those people who read the letters to the editor are going to intentionally take it to the coffee shop, and talk about it at the coffee shops, which even in urban areas, coffee shops are where almost of us get our news. 

And I saw these relationships developed and carried on as a result of what happened in 2011 but I don’t think it is nearly to the extent which we have engaged people who really want to have that community conversation. And so this is one of the things that I have been talking about in my community meetings and people are very receptive to it. I just think we need a mechanism, where we can “adopt a pen pal” for lack of a better word.  But the pen pal has a real commitment to multiplying the possible of people touched by that information in as many creative ways as you can.

MoD: Well, this is a specific agenda item for the Wisconsin Grassroots Network, which has been very actively trying to do precisely that sort of thing, which is to build a communication hub, put up sample letters to the editor – even in Sun Prairie we find that sometimes our best content in the local paper comes from those letters to the editor, where you have some relative freedom to really identify the issue and try to present it to your community in as honest a way that you can, to show them why it’s important. So I think that letters to the editor and getting people to talk about those issues is a great strategy.

Kathleen Vinehout: And in addition, once you start to wake people up, having those community meetings.  We talked  a lot about how we could clone me so that there’s an excitement that goes around the state that is using  multimedia to help people have those discussions and further those discussion and then have that relationship where I can’t be everywhere so my media team is looking into avenues where we can use sort of cutting edge video technology through social media technology to set up something called Vine Videos – one little thing which is something that unless you’re 23 or younger you don’t know what it is – that goes on your smartphone that you can send through twitter. And it becomes a way to democratize that involvement in the campaign, and again, sharing information but also sharing enthusiasm, sharing something that I own – Kathleen inspired, or Kathleen’s campaign inspired me to do and now I’m sharing it with you. It’s a very interactive process that I see. And also engaging a part of the electorate that often times if they show up we win and if they don’t show up, we lose, and that’s that 18 to 24 year old voters.

MoD: And that’s a demographic and an age group that is paying very close attention and that is ready to act, but is asking: where is the best action in this scenario?

   On election integrity and lack of faith in the system             

MoD: Many people are skeptical, though, of the voting process itself and are afraid of touchscreens and voter fraud – not voter fraud in the sense of stuff like people showing up and voting twice, but voting fraud on the institutional end, that their votes aren’t being counted, and so on.  Do you think there’s any validity to those accusations?

Kathleen Vinehout: For a very brief time, for about six months, I was chair of the Senate Elections Committee, and I had a day-long hearing where people came and talked about all of their concerns, and the simple answer is: we don’t know. Certainly, I took those concerns and made sure that the GAB knew about those concerns and I talked with a lot of clerks.  And most of the clerks, the Democratic clerks, were very good about working with the people who wanted to do recounts in these areas that were blue and then turned red and then turned blue again.   

But I think that there is something more that’s happened and that is the success of Governor Walker at repeating his message over and over again so that his message becomes the dominant message that people believe, and it becomes difficult for us to take apart that message, even when the facts are not with him or the facts are distorted. The governor knows that there is sort of a magic arc in Wisconsin starting in La Cross and going to Eau Claire and to Wausau and the Fox Valley and to Green Bay that decides state elections. And the governor routinely in these media markets – my friends in media have told me that their bosses have told them that they can’t take pictures of the empty hangars where the governor lands and has his press conferences because they have to focus on the governor. He lands in the empty hangar at the airport in Eau Claire, he does his press conference, where there’s a radio station, a print guy, two gals with cameras for the television station, and usually, since I’m the only Democrat from Eau Claire, they’ll call me up to do a response. And he’s doing this, and has been doing this, he must have them scheduled because he makes this magic arc. And the other thing he does is he goes to right-wing businesses and gathers the 35 employees on the shop floor, and the boss is standing there and the little guy who found out that his special needs student doesn’t have the teacher that she needs, and he’s not going to say to him “Governor, why is it that my daughter doesn’t have the special needs teacher she needs?” and “It’s because my school district been cut” – he’s not going to do that. But it’s a formula that’s worked for him. And somehow we have to break through that.

  On accessibility and listening to the people               

MoD: To me, what’s frustrating about that is that that’s possibly the single most infuriating thing about this governor, and that’s his total inaccessibility to the public, his refusal to take seriously the concerns of his constituents. That’s why I started blogging in the first place, because I was writing to his office, I was calling his office, and I wasn’t getting any response at all, not even a form reply, and I thought, “This is ridiculous. There has to be access.” So how open is your office going to be if you’re in the governor’s seat?

Kathleen Vinehout: The way to show contrast is to embody it. You don’t say it, you act it out. That’s what you do. And I do that in a number of ways but primarily, it’s by being accessible. I’ve never had an event where people couldn’t come. They can come all they time; they’re posted on the website. So that’s the way to start, but to continue it – to have those meetings, to have regular press conferences where everybody in the press can come. This is what has to happen, this is how “the will of the people” – those words on the top of the governor’s conference room – get taken down and put on the conference table and everybody around it turns that art on the wall into action, and you do that by listening to the people. How are you going to know what the people want if you don’t listen to them?

MoD: Well, what the current governor does is just dismiss those concerns.  It’s no secret that whenever he appears in a semi-public environment there’s  throng of protesters there to try to get whatever little bit of his ear they can get because that’s the only forum we have to communicate with him. It’s a desperate mode, but what recourse do you have [as a citizen] in this situation? So it’s easy for Walker to just say, “Well, the reason I don’t speak in public is because people harass me” or whatever, so he’s guarded for that reason. Which is just frustrating.

  On jobs.  WEDC, Accountability and the "Skills Gap"                

MoD: Another question that I have has to do with a jobs plan.  We have been talking jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, tools, jobs, tools, jobs, the past three years but where is the jobs plan?  We see legislation against women. We see legislation against voters. We see legislation against, against, against. Against local control. Against the environment.  Where are the jobs?  I mean, we’re talking about poverty but we need to get serious about talking about jobs as we continue to plummet under Walker’s rule and he continues to spin to make it look like there’s progress in some way.  That’s not fooling any of us who are paying attention. What is your plan for getting people back to work?

Kathleen Vinehout: There are several components.  The first is to fix what’s happening at the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. We need to get rid of the people that don’t have any background in economic development and we need to bring in some very sharp people that are focused on economic development and realize that economic development is more than just stealing companies from Illinois and Minnesota. 

First of all, the two environments in those two states right now are showing us that our environment, for whatever reason, is not so good. Because their companies are growing. Especially in the Twin Cities; it’s going gangbusters. Why is it that the most recent report from the Wisconsin Taxpayers’ Alliance comes out, and what does it talk about? How surprising it is that western Wisconsin is doing so well? Well, honey, if you live in western Wisconsin, you’re not surprised at all, because you know what’s happening in the Twin Cities. And yes, according to “the worst,” they have “the worst” taxes, but their economy’s growing gangbusters.  And I have constituents that are leaving Western Wisconsin and going to the Twin Cities, for a variety of reasons.

So fix the problems at WEDC –

MoD: And you think it’s salvageable?

Kathleen Vinehout: Well, I would need the legislature to change it, to change the structure of it, in terms of sending it back to Commerce, but definitely not to change what those folks are doing. Number one, after we get rid of the political appointees and hire real people that have the background, number two, we need to make sure that every single dollar that goes out there goes to a company that has verified job creation. Very simple. 

But do you know what the audit showed us? Zero jobs were verified.  So I’ve had all these anecdotal stories that I’ve heard as I’ve traveled around the state about how Company X laid off 25 limited term employees on Friday and rehired 25 full time people on Monday and just got a huge tax credit. And oh, by the way, I think maybe Company X probably donated to the governor but I can’t prove it. 

So this is the environment in which job creation as a big policy – this is the environment in which the nuts and bolts of what we’re doing in the state is happening. So, many constituents call me and say, “I want to start my own business, I want to expand my business, but you know what, I’m calling you because I’m not a Republican. I’m not on speed dial in the Walker administration’s office, I’m not going to be able to get in there. Where do I go? What do I do?” That’s not right. 

We need to invest because of a strategy that we have thought through. How do we replicate what’s happened in the west and use those lessons in the east? Especially in the southeast; especially in Milwaukee. And you know what? What it comes back to? Is that jobs are created, and businesses locate, where there’s a great place to live. And it takes us right back to the discussion of what do we want for our communities.
Why is it that Eau Claire has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the entire state? It’s because Eau Claire is a fabulous place to live. Two rivers come together, a great university system, a growing theatre district, a lot of live music, the arts are flourishing, the crime rate is low, there’s this wonderful park - this great big hill - right in the middle of the town, where people can go into the woods just a few blocks away from their house, and the deer come up and drink in the streams leading into the river. What a great place to live!  And the economy is thriving. And interestingly enough, it’s a mix of the old economy – manufacturing - and the new economy – the knowledge economy, high tech businesses.  I talked to a lot of people that are doing software development that are looking at locating in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. 

And this is where we need to focus on the future.  And part of that goes back to investing in our workers. Workforce training.   We need to be sure that our workers are skilled, in both the jobs that are out there, like the manufacturing jobs, but also the jobs of the future, the knowledge economy. And you probably remember “The Myth of the Skills Gap?”

MoD: Oh, yeah. That’s one of the issues that really bugs me. [timer rings for her next meeting; KV dismisses it]

Kathleen Vinehout: Well the issue of that whole report was: well, by golly, if we paid people, we’d find enough people. [Laughs]

MoD: Right. So there’s no evidence [of a skills gap].  Maybe if we had enough emphasis on accountability for job creation as we do for, oh, say, educator effectiveness [KV: Yes! laughs, claps] we’d actually get somewhere in improving working people’s lives.

Kathleen Vinehout: That’s the very beginning - the basics!  And then of course we need to look at the details of where those investments are made and then make strategic investments, make investments in companies that will then multiply by helping other companies grow. 

This is work that’s already being done by the regional planning commissions. I served for many years on the Mississippi Regional Planning Commission and one of the things we did was something called cluster analysis, where we focused on growing different clusters of businesses. So you could think of ag-related businesses, you could think of metal manufacturing businesses, you could think of software and knowledge-based business. But the idea is we have an interactive relationship. So they’re not bring in parts from China, or even bringing in parts from Mississippi. They’re working together to create Wisconsin supply chains. So it’s a synergy that happens with multiple businesses instead of competing, they’re working together collaboratively. Whether it’s sharing machines, or training workers. 
This is something that we can do to create that roaring Wisconsin economy in a way that we haven’t talked about. The state hasn’t had those conversations. And the work’s already being done, we just need to encourage that – give them the resources they need to multiply their effectiveness.

MoD: That sounds like a much more concrete plan than just throwing money at training programs that aren’t producing any results, but are benefiting lining the pocket of people who have contributed to the governor.

Kathleen Vinehout: Number one is the accountability.  And of course, to have that, you have to have people in charge who know what they’re doing. And the agency can’t be a place where you stash your favorite cronies and then have conversations with your favorite conjuriors [?]. That’s all wrong and it’s gotta stop.

MoD: I couldn’t agree more about that.  

  On women's reproductive rights: Vinehout's record, ties to Dems for Life and where she stands today

MoD: We don’t have a ton of time left, and I have to ask about women’s reproductive health and rights and I know that’s kind of the big issue for many progressive voters who are skeptical of your voting record in this department. I’ve followed this debate closely, and I’ve read everything you have to say, and your justifications  for your record, and your recent voting record has been very strong, and I know progressives applaud you for this.  But the real question for me here is: what is your past history with groups like Dems for Life? How did you get involved with those kinds of groups?  And is it just that your position has evolved, or do you see yourself as having maintained the same position over time and still holding that position today?  This is the one question I want to know – and we don’t have to talk about all the details – I will link to all those when I write this up.  So: has your positions changed? You’re a former board member of Dems for Life and identify now as pro-choice legislator.  Where do you stand and how has your position changed?

Kathleen Vinehout: Abortion is a very difficult personal decision. It’s a decision that can only be made by the woman in consultation with her doctor and maybe her significant other. Abortion has to be kept legal, safe, and accessible. The problem we face now is accessibility.

I grew up in a devout Catholic, strongly pro-life, family. I, through my youth, was involved in both pro-life and pro-choice organizations.  At one point, when I lived in St. Louis, I was on the advisory board of Planned Parenthood in St. Louis. St. Louis was a very tough city because it’s very, very conservative. I have helped friends go get abortions, walking through the picket signs and everything.  About that time, when I was living in St. Louis, my sister almost died, of a botched abortion.  And if my dad hadn’t found her, she wouldn’t be alive today.  I recently spent some time with her and told her the story about the people who said that I’m pro-life and she said “Oh my God! They sure the hell don’t know you, do they?”  I think what’s happened is that I have said, “this is what I believe’ and it hasn’t been exactly the right words for people who consider themselves strongly pro-choice. Even though, when you look at my record from 2006, when I ran, I said there should be no additional restrictions placed on abortion and that’s exactly how I voted.  So, since becoming a legislator, has my position changed?  No. I’m consistent. All the votes are public – anybody can go look them up.

MoD: Well what of the 2008 incident, the bill that died in committee; it was to repeal criminalizing abortion – I can’t remember the bill number [SB 398].  It’s widely reported that you were the stopping vote in moving that forward at the time.

Kathleen Vinehout: That’s false. That’s absolutely false. There was no vote.

MoD: So there was no vote, it just died in committee?

Kathleen Vinehout: It died because for whatever reason, the Democrats didn’t want to vote in full. And you’ll remember, I mean we can look up the statute, you’ll remember there was about this long of footnotes that said that for a whole but of reasons, that part of the statute is invalid.  Does it need to be repealed? Oh, yeah. Absolutely. And if Roe vs. Wade was repealed, would we have to deal with it here?   Oh, yeah. Definitely we would.

MoD: So would you support moving forward on bringing that repeal up again?

Kathleen Vinehout: Absolutely. It needs to be done. It’s one of many things in the statue that needs to be [muffled; I think she says "done" again].

MoD: Well, I think that’s one thing that many people really wanted to know.

  On her support of the Castle Doctrine and gun rights…and back to local control

MoDOne last question has to do with Castle Doctrine [a 2011 gun bill Vinehout cosponsored]  I’ve heard your response to this question, too, and I guess I’m a little confused with what Castle Doctrine has to do with hunting and fishing. I can see how you can advocate for gun rights, and safe and responsible gun ownership for hunting purposes, but the Castle Doctrine is a whole different animal, and we’ve already seen casualties of this law.  Where do you stand on this issue, and why?

Kathleen Vinehout: I support the Castle Doctrine.  I voted for it. We did try to amend it, and our amendments failed. Well, actually, some of our amendments succeeded because we did try to deal with the protection of peace officers – it was an amendment Senator [unclear who she named here; see amendment history here] had that we got accepted. . The specifics of the way the bill worked out, I wanted to change and so ….got changed.  But the basic principle: someone comes onto your farm and is threatening you, do you have a means to protect yourself?

MoD: But Castle Doctrine is valid whether or not there’s a threat. Someone could come onto your property and not threaten you and you still have recourse to shoot them under this law.

Kathleen Vinehout: Well, first of all, there’s a difference between the Stand Your Ground law and the Castle Doctrine.  There is a difference between them.  And second of all, all of the laws related to murder, attempted murder, brandishing a firearm, reckless endangerment – all those laws still exist.  So it would be up to the courts to decide whether or not you were in your bounds, given that permission, to protect yourself. That’s something that would need to be determined by the courts. And I tell my constituents: be careful what you do, because all the other laws haven’t gone away, and you’re gonna end up, the minute you take out your firearm, you’re going to end up in a situation where – the cops are gonna come. It’s gonna happen. And you better make sure you know what you’re doing.  

That said, 75% of my constituents that contacted me wanted this bill. And it’s no secret that in the rural areas, law enforcement has been cut back to the bone. And in my big county of Buffalo County, there are times when the only officer on duty is on call. And I don’t think people want to know that, but we cut the hell out of law enforcement. And the resources aren’t there. So it’s no surprise that this is something my constituents want. It’s a different world. It’s a different world. And we live in a state where people love to hunt and fish. That’s why they live here. This is our culture. 

And it’s very hard for people who live in urban areas to understand – how can it be that all these people in western Wisconsin voted for Obama and voted for Scott Walker?  And I tell them about those ads, that ran over and over and over again on Eau Claire tv, with the guy who’s bird hunting and he’s going to shoot and all of a sudden his gun disappears and [muffled] and then he looks up and we see these words: SECOND AMENDMENT. And he looks up at them and then *poof* they go away and we see: VOTE FOR SCOTT WALKER. STOP THE RECALL. So effective!  And when I talk to the kids and when I teach classes, when I go visit schools and when we talk politics and policy, and I say, “you know, who is it that changes the Constitution? The governor doesn’t have anything to do with it. It’s the legislature, and the people who change the Constitution. And who changes the United States Constitution? Certainly the governor doesn’t have anything to do with that!”  The ad was totally false.  And extremely effective.  Because it plays into something that is something that is about our culture, that people value. Not all people, but a lot of them. The idea of freedom, the idea of liberty, the idea of independence, and that part of our culture is going to be there for many years. 

And there is a pull, and I learned this so clearly when I got to know Tom Barrett on the campaign trail after he won the primary and I spent a lot of time supporting him in Western Wisconsin. And Tom over and over and over again would say “I’m a big city mayor and I don’t think felons should have guns.”  And my constituents would hear – they’d tell me that they heard - “I’m   a big city mayor and I’m gonna make you a felon and take away your gun.”  It’s hard to be a big city mayor and run for a statewide office in a state like Wisconsin.  Because you have to recognize that there are crimes being committed with firearms in the city. It’s right there. So there’s a tension.

MoD: That’s a very complicated issue, and here we are back again at the messaging and appealing to the freedom and the liberty.

Kathleen Vinehout: Local control.

MoD: Exactly – local control.  The issues that matter to people and how we articulate our positions resonant so much more strongly when we focus on those values. That’s one of the things I really admire about your constant attention to things that really matter most to people and being able to frame these issues at the place where they matter most. I think that’s a really strong candidate quality.  I’ve made no secret about hoping that you’ll enter the race, I just don’t want to wait til January to find out.  It seems like every day the train keeps rolling it gets harder to jump on.

Kathleen Vinehout: There’s a lot of tasks that have to be done between now and January.  I learned in 2012 that if you’re running volunteer-based grassroots campaign the mistake you never want to make is not having somebody who’s enthusiastic and knowledgeable to call back that volunteer who says “hey, I want to help out.” And we need that infrastructure to be successful. So I’ll be meeting with a lot of the grassroots organizations in the next month and I still have a lot of public events, but before that, I’m going deer hunting.  [Points to antlers mounted on the wall behind her desk] That’s my buck.  I’m looking for another one. [Laughs]

MoD: Thank you so much for all of your time.  I really appreciate it.

Tape includes chatting as I take a few photos of the propaganda and Senator Vinehout, and thank her again.

1 comment:

  1. Great interview, Heather. We need her voice in the August primary more than ever. I hope she's well enough after that car wreck, although I wouldn't bet against Kathleen's desire.