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Republicans Smear Mary Burke, Sneer at Minimum Wage

Workers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin protest for a minimum wage increase. (Photo: WisconsinJobsNow/cc/flickr)

Silly season is almost over.

But in these waning days before the November 4 election, Republicans are getting in their last shots at Democrats, voters, and workers who must survive on the minimum wage.

In Wisconsin, the rightwing news outlet Wisconsin Reporter ran a story this week claiming that Scott Walker’s opponent Mary Burke was fired for incompetence from her job at her family business, the Trek bicycle company.

Her own brother, John Burke, was involved in the decision to oust his sister, a former Trek employee Gary Ellerman told Wisconsin Reporter. 

Ellerman, who was himself fired from Trek in 2004, according to a company spokesperson, now serves as chairman of the Jefferson County Republican Party, and once ran in a recall election as a fake Democrat.

“His politically motivated characterizations of Mary and her tenure at Trek are inaccurate,” Trek spokesperson Marina Marich told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,  which did a follow-up story on Wisconsin Reporter’s attack piece.

Wisconsin Reporter itself is funded by the rightwing Bradley Foundation, run by longtime Walker advisor Michael Grebe.

“The wallet and fingerprints of Scott Walker’s campaign co-chair Michael Grebe are all over this last-second desperate smear against Mary Burke,” says One Wisconsin Now executive director Scot Ross.

Research by One Wisconsin Now into Bradley’s IRS reports show that between 2011 and 2013, Grebe directed $340,000 to the Franklin Center, which runs Wisconsin Reporter and other rightwing news outlets around the country:

In addition, Bradley has poured millions into a legal strategy to bolster Walker’s union-busting efforts in Wisconsin, rightwing bloggers on Media Trackers and other sites that smear Democrats, voter suppression efforts, and propaganda and research to shore up Wisconsin’s big school-privatization lobby—a major backer of Walker.

“The $500 million Bradley Foundation empire views promoting Scott Walker and his radical right wing agenda as central to its mission,” says Ross. “From financing television ads to paying for junk science to sending lawyers into the courtrooms to suppressing the minority vote, Michael Grebe's rightwing army stops at nothing to keep Scott Walker in power. The smear of Mary Burke is just the latest hit job by this well-funded, win at all costs campaign.”

Walker got a boost from the most recent Marquette Law School poll, which showed him gaining an edge on Mary Burke after months of dead-heat poll results. 

While the race is still tied among registered voters, the new polls showed Walker opening up a seven-point lead among those who describe themselves as most likely to vote.  

That motivation gap makes the Democrats’ get-out-the-vote imperative all the more urgent.

Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both visited Milwaukee recently to urge voters to come out to the polls and vote Walker out of office.

Both Presidents touched on inequality and Walker’s opposition to raising the minimum wage as key issues.

The minimum wage has become a huge issue nationally in the closing days of this election.

The same overworked, underpaid voters who are often absent from the polls in non-Presidential years may be motivated by the candidates’ stark difference on this issue.

In Wisconsin, a group of 100 low-wage workers sued the Walker Administration under a progressive-era state law that requires employers to pay living wages that provide decent living conditions for their workers.

The Walker Administration brushed aside the workers’ claims, insisting that $7.25 was not an inadequate wage.

Walker went further, saying of the minimum wage, “I don’t think it serves a purpose.” 

Within a week of making that remark, the Republican star complained that Chris Christie, head of the Republican Governor’s Association was not pouring enough money into the Wisconsin governor’s race. The RGA has spent $8 million in Wisconsin so far—about $1 million short of what the group spent defending Walker against recall in 2012.

Christie, Walker’s rival for the Republican Presidential nomination, also opposes increasing the minimum wage, and gave an interview sneering at the idea that parents might think their kids’ lives would be better if only they made higher minimum wages.

Both men implied that ignoring the languishing minimum wage was part of a plan to focus on creating higher-paying jobs.

But the results of that approach have not panned out in their states.

Under Walker, Wisconsin has failed to create high paying jobs at the same rate as its neighbors, and has an economic growth rate about half the national average.

New Jersey under Christie has a longterm jobless rate that places it at the very bottom of the country—48 out of 50 states. 

As inequality rises, Republican economics look worse and worse.

According to a recent Berkeley study, since the mid 1980s, people who have $100 million or more have seen their wealth triple in size. People worth $20 million have seen their income double. But the 99 percent at the bottom have seen income stagnate and opportunity shrink.

We are becoming a Third World country, with an economic royalty and a serf underclass.

Kids whose parents who work at Burger King have less and less chance of achieving a middle-class life.

That’s exactly what the 1913 living-wage law in Wisconsin aimed to address. More than an arcane piece of history, it was a policy artifact of an age when child labor and extreme deprivation in the industrial workforce troubled citizens and lawmakers, and they sought to do something about it.

We are going back to those days. Income inequality in the United States is at its worst since the 1920s.

Billionaires and their rightwing network are doing their best to push us even further in that direction.

In Wisconsin, Sheldon Adelson was able to pour $650,000 into the state Republican Party because a rightwing judge, Rudolph Randa, ruled that the state could no longer enforce its campaign finance laws limiting such contributions.

The rightwing billionaires are empowered as never before to take over elections.

And the electorate is feeling tired.

That’s why the minimum wage issue is so powerful. It shows what’s really at stake. It shines a bright light on the Republicans’ Mitt Romney problem.

And it might even motivate low-income people to vote.

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Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. Se moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a year in 2017, where she covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Donald Trump. Follow her on Twitter: @rconniff

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