1.04.2010

A Conversation with Rep. Brett Davis, Candidate for Wisconsin Lt. Governor

Over break, I had an opportunity to sit down with Representative Brett Davis, who's now in the running to be Lieutenant Governor of Wisconsin.  Davis faces a number of primary opponents in the GOP primary, but he seemed confident and excited for the coming contest as I sat down with him at the Firefly Coffeehouse in Oregon, Wisconsin.

Brett, whose third child was baptized the day before, noted at the outset that his entire family is onboard with the effort.  His wife, Amy, hails from Fond du Lac, and she's a veteran of Davis' three successful campaigns for the Wisconsin State Assembly.  "She's 100% onboard."

Brett said he threw his hat in the ring because he's not looking to be a career member of the Assembly.  After three terms in the Assembly, he was looking for a transition.  He believes his strongest asset as a candidate for lieutenant governor is his private sector and public sector experience.  "I won't need to be trained on state issues, " Brett noted, "unlike everyone else in the primary race."  In addition to his three terms in the Assembly and work as a realtor, Brett served under former governor Tommy Thompson and State Senator Joe Leibham.

WHY BRETT DAVIS?

The chief qualification for selecting a GOP lieutenant governor candidate is "who can be the best partner for Scott Walker in his role as governor."  Brett believes his experiences as a Republican and a part of the conservative movement make him that candidate.  Thus far, two other candidates in the GOP primary have declared - Superior Mayor Dave Ross and Ben Collins of Lake Geneva.  Davis anticipates Rebecca Kleefisch and Nick Voegeli will also seek to enter the race.

While some of the candidates, such as Mayor Ross, have a bit of experience in government, none of them have much experience at all in state government, Brett noted.  The glaring lack of elected experience and familiarity with state and federal public policy mean that "anyone else is going to be Barbara Lawton all over again."  Brett believes his experience will permit him to help Walker best by hitting the ground running when it comes to state law and policy.  "I know how to work through bureaucracies, how to cut through red tape for businesses."

PRIORITIES

I was very curious to hear from Brett precisely what he thought the Democrats had done wrong during their time in power in Wisconsin.  He had quite a list.  "The Democrats have messed things up so greatly that we need all hands on deck."  In the end, he boiled his grievances down to four objections or areas for improvement: 1) Little to nothing done on job creation, 2) Excessive government spending, especially the poor handling of stimulus spending, 3) A failure on education reform ("They’ve listened to the teacher’s union all to much - we need to hold people accountable, provide more choice, insist on merit pay, and streamline our student assessment system."), 4) A need for budgeting reform.

Brett seemed especially passionate about making rapid change in the last category, insisting that he would work with Scott Walker to transition immediately to zero-based budgeting and GAAP standards to improve efficiency in state government. He also said he would call upon business leaders familiar with effective budgeting principles and practices to provide input to improve the process. As it is, he noted, state agencies are incentivized to spend more money, which has to stop.

THE BRAIN DRAIN PHENOMENON

I brought up the brain drain problem, Wisconsin's inability to retain its top talent and young graduates.  I asked because I recalled asking Jean Hundertmark, a former GOP candidate for Lieutenant Governor, what she thought of brain drain.  Initially, she told me, in essence, that she thought that's just how Wisconsin works.  She later seemed to find the concern to be a real one on the campaign trail.

Brett, though, was on the ball at the outset.  "I'm not for a big government tracking system," he said, "but we do need to find a way to track our graduates and ask them why they're leaving."  He stated flatly that there's only so much the state can do when it comes to brain drain - "it's up to the private sector to create jobs" - but he was aware of where Wisconsin stands: "We can’t do anything about our weather - but we can incentivize people to stay and be entrepreneurial and start up new businesses with our policies."  He said the state could further streamline its regulatory process and overcome the state's general risk aversion.  He pointed to policy ideas in a task force report that would permit a tax write-off for capital gains investments in start-ups.

THE TEA PARTY MOVEMENT

I was also interested to hear what Brett had to say about the Tea Party movement that has taken hold nationally and in some parts of Wisconsin.  I specifically wanted to find out what the Tea Partiers stood for in Brett's opinion, since he had visited with several groups on the campaign trail.

Overall, he said he found the members of the Tea Party movement "refreshing" in his interactions.  Their bottom line, he said, is simple.  Their anxiety comes from a failure of politicians to follow through on what they say.  It's about accountability more than anything - "These are Contract with America people who grew bitter with the Republican Party.  President Obama taking us toward socialism set them off."

In addition to accountability, Brett found the Tea Party crowd emphasizes many of his concerns. Members of the movement are rightly concerned that we are "slowly losing our freedoms and seeing increased spending and larger government.  And in Wisconsin, we're slowly but surely seeing our liberties and freedoms creeping away, whether it's sobriety checkpoints or mandatory seatbelt laws."

JUDICIAL ELECTIONS

One of the elephants in the room of Wisconsin politics is the rancor caused by elections for justices of the Wisconsin Supreme Court.  I have my views on the matter, but I know that reasonable people can differ in their approach, as there are many possible ways to address the perceived problem.

While the Democrats passed a law in Wisconsin recently that provides for public financing of judicial elections, Brett stated that he was against the concept of public financing - "we're simply going to be funding things we don't agree with."  He pointed instead to a need for fairness and transparency in contribution disclosures.  I also asked him how he viewed the "Gottlieb plan" for amending the Wisconsin Constitution to appoint judges via a committee and require them to later run in retention elections.  "I'm open to a dialogue on the Gottlieb reform plan.  There's some legitimacy to it.  But ultimately the people have to have a strong say in who makes up our Supreme Court."

THE MILWAUKEE PUBLIC SCHOOL SYSTEM

"More of the same is completely unacceptable."  Brett was fired up about the deplorable state of MPS, and he had clearly done his homework on the issue.  I asked him point blank whether he supports giving the Mayor the power to run the school system: "I’m open to the idea - if the superintendent has the power to break contracts.  In SB-405 on page 18, it seems the superintendent can’t hire anyone in the district unless part of a union, and this appears to mean principals, too.  At the moment, the superintendent has no tools."  He stressed his preference to keep things as locally accountable as possible. 

Brett expressed frustration with the teachers unions that blocked the firing of bad teachers. "I would push for classroom reforms - if you’ve been failing for five years, you should be able to break contracts - give a year transition, but make that threat real." He also expressed some frustration with Mayor Barrett: "If Mayor Barret was serious about reform, he would have started up a charter school...they have that power as a city, but he hasn’t done that.  If he was really serious, he would’ve done something about MPS while he was mayor.  He hasn’t reached out to state and national organizations to find different ways to address this.  He hasn’t advocated to the Legislature to take off the 8% cap on enrollment."

IN SUM

Overall, Brett impressed me with his wide-ranging knowledge, his enthusiasm, and his understanding of the conservative movement.  I think he'd be a valuable addition to the ticket.  He's right that his relative youth brings a new outlook to the table, and he's also correct in observing that his familiarity in the Madison media market doesn't duplicate Scott Walker's place in the Milwaukee market.

He boiled the question of who should be the GOP's candidate for lieutenant governor down to this: "If something happens to Scott Walker, who has enough experience to fit those shoes?"  He pointed to his terms in the Assembly, his private sector experience, his work as chief of staff for Senator Joe Leibham, and his work in both Madison and Washington, D.C. with Tommy Thompson as proof that he alone has the experience to fit those shoes.