Following his re-election, Gov. Scott Walker and legislative Republicans immediately began talking about their “aggressive” agenda — including their continuation of privatizing public education. Not on their minds? Policies that actually help middle-income families thrive, like fair wages, a progressive tax structure and public investments.
And as Republicans plot to use more taxpayer dollars to pay the private school tuition for children already attending private school and balancing their $2.2 billion deficit on the backs of low- and middle-income families, they balk at a modest funding increase for our public schools.
Yet the newly elected crop of Republican legislators did not campaign on expanding voucher schools. Instead, they touted their “support” for their local schools and equal pay for women.
Simultaneously, the American Federation for Children, which exists to privatize public education and whose senior adviser for government affairs is corrupt former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, paired up with Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, which exists to maximize corporate profits. They infected legislative races with an avalanche of cash and the most salacious campaign literature in recent memory. These groups clearly divvied up their targets and vast resources to push candidates who would back their corporate agendas. At last count, Jensen’s group alone spent at least $148,000 to defeat the only public school teacher in the state Assembly. In total, outside groups spent at least an estimated $747,000 to $1 million in seven targeted state Assembly races.
We are entering unprecedented territory in legislative races, as money from conservative outside groups floods in at unprecedented levels.
So what is the answer for Democrats, who can’t compete with the cash?
In the last two weeks of the election cycle, I spent time in rural Wisconsin — in Rice Lake, Junction City, Rudolph, and Barron. As I knocked on doors in many small towns, the only noise breaking the afternoon quiet was the sound of children at their public school.
And as I talked with people in these communities, they indicated support for increasing the minimum wage, BadgerCare expansion and public school investment. They were struggling in the Walker economy, where only the wealthy seem to thrive. But they vote Republican.
In messaging, Democrats need to boldly tout our economic populist agenda, which Republican candidates obscured with a feigned interest in local schools and fair wages. At our core, Democrats are committed to creating a fair economy that works for those willing to work hard, through competitive wages and fair taxes and by investing in our communities and our children.
And we need to get back to what we do best — basic grass-roots organizing on the ground all year, not just during election cycles, around issues and values that are relevant to people’s daily lives. We need to contrast our agenda, which improves people’s lives, to the Republican agenda of improving corporate profits.
But it’s not just about finding a resonating message, but about delivering the message. So many people I spoke with who leaned Republican were unaware of the massive cuts to public education, and Republican opposition to raising the minimum wage and making sure the wealthy paid their fair share of taxes. A media structure in our state that can help get our message out is sorely lacking, but desperately needed.
The time for this work is now, not 2016.
Chris Taylor is a Democratic Wisconsin Assembly member from Madison.