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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

“We’re Ready to Run On Our Record”

A Shepherd Q&A with Mike Tate

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The new chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin

Milwaukeean Mike Tate made history in June when he was elected the chair of the state Democratic Party—at 30, he’s the youngest person ever to head a state party, Democratic or Republican. But despite Tate’s youth, he’s a veteran political operative, with stints working for the College Democrats, Fair Wisconsin, America Coming Together and a host of individual candidates. While Madison legislators were putting the final touches on the state budget, the Shepherd caught up with Tate to talk about his strategy for the 2010 elections and the likelihood of Gov. Jim Doyle running for re-election.

Shepherd: What changes in the state party will we see during your tenure as chair?

Tate: [Former chair] Joe Wineke brought the party forward tremendously. What I’d like to do is build on the success that Joe had. One thing I’d like to focus on is year-round organizing. We were able to hire an organizing director, who has hit the ground running already. I just saw his schedule and he’s probably going to put 40,000 miles on his car this year. We want to go around the state and help county parties build up their structure and go where we know there will be critical races for the Legislature and make sure that we start today for the 2010 elections. I also want to help local candidates. I want to focus on grassroots organizing, year-round, starting right now. I want to be out there knocking on doors whether there’s an election next week or next year.

I also want to make sure that the party is continuing to expand how we communicate. Less than 5% of people under 35 subscribe to a newspaper. Regardless of what age you are, more people are getting their information not just from the daily paper or the 10 o’clock news. They’re getting it from blogs or from friends or social networking sites. I want to make sure that the party is taking advantage of all of the avenues of communication that are out there.

Shepherd: Is Doyle going to run for re-election next year?

Tate: I think the governor is going to run for re-election. But right now he, like all of our leaders in Madison, is completely consumed with getting a good budget passed that defends Wisconsin’s priorities and shields Wisconsin residents from tax increases and makes sure that we have job growth and that college education is still affordable. That’s what he’s focusing on right now. When the time comes, he’ll focus on politics.

Shepherd: Recent polls have showed that Doyle is surprisingly vulnerable. His negatives tend to be higher than his positive ratings. Are you worried about his chances?

Tate: The last one [by Public Policy Polling] that showed him losing to [Milwaukee County Executive Scott] Walker and [former Congressman Mark] Neumann was done by a robo-poll. It was not done by real people. I really question the accuracy of such a poll. But I think the one done just a few days prior to that [by Daily Kos/Research 2000] shows that he has significant advantages over Neumann and Walker, just as every other poll has shown this year.

Jim Doyle has never lost an election in 20-plus years. He’s a tough, aggressive campaigner. He is ready to run on his record. I fully expect that when he does run for re-election, he will beat whoever his opponent is, whether it’s Scott Walker or Mark Neumann.

Shepherd: At least one 2010 matchup has already begun. State Rep. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa) has announced she’ll challenge Jim Sullivan, the Democrat who represents her district in the state Senate. And that race has already gone negative.

Tate: I’m not shocked that it’s negative. Leah Vukmir doesn’t have a lot to offer other than negativity. She was rated one of Wisconsin’s worst legislators. Apparently when you get ranked one of the worst legislators, you think that means you should get a promotion. Look at Scott Walker, the state’s worst county executive. He’s running for governor. So Wisconsin’s worst legislator is running for state Senate. But Jim Sullivan has been a tremendous advocate for the people in his district. He has worked hard. He has spent a lot of time in the district doing constituent services. I expect Jim Sullivan to be re-elected.

Shepherd: Did you ever cringe during the budget process and think about the political effects of controversial votes taken by freshman legislators or those in swing districts?

Tate: It was a tough budget. The Democrats had to fill a $6.6 billion budget deficit. But they made responsible decisions. They balanced this budget by shielding more than 99% of Wisconsin residents from any income tax increase. They held the line on property tax increases. They increased funding for the technical college system, which is so important for worker retraining, and they’re encouraging economic growth in the communities that have been hit hard by the downturn by establishing opportunity zones. I think we’re ready to run on this record.

Shepherd: There have been complaints about the budget being negotiated in the middle of the night by a few insiders, with earmarks. Are those complaints valid?

Tate: When this budget was announced, the Joint Finance Committee traveled the state and had hearings all over the state about the budget. They sought input from local citizens.

They spent a tremendous amount of time debating the budget in public. My understanding is that there was more time given for debate on the budget than the Republicans allowed when they ran the Assembly. So I think some of those attacks and complaints ring rather hollow. We had to make tough, responsible decisions. We were the adults in the room and I think we’re ready to run on our record.

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