Kohl: Government Should Do More to Protect Jobs
U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl is running for re-election next year and touting his middle-of-the-road businessman's perspective on politics.
He says the economic situation in Wisconsin and the Midwest is "spotty," but that a recovery in the region is continuing, mirroring the national recovery.
"I think there's some recovery, from where we were a year or two ago," Kohl said. "Just like with the national recovery. But it's not humming because we have a lot of competition from the world today for our jobs. ... while the overall employment in this country is about even, a little bit up, over what it was three years ago, manufacturing, which is very important in the Middle West, is down. And those manufacturing jobs, some of them are not coming back."
He says government "can and should be doing more to protect our jobs, can and should be doing more to protect against some of our free trade agreements."
Kohl also says the loss of manufacturing jobs could be contributing to Milwaukee's murder problem. He points to a decades-long accumulation of problems that centers around jobs, education and family. But he suggests the root of the problem may be the loss of manufacturing jobs.
"Real good manufacturing jobs that were located in the city, were passed on from one generation to the next. Well, this generation didn't inherit those jobs. Many of them have no jobs,'' Kohl said. "Really, really serious. People have to have jobs. People who don't have jobs those families are in trouble. And where you have one-parent families, it's like a double-whammy."
WisBusiness.com President Jeff Mayers interviewed Kohl in Milwaukee on Aug. 22.
Jeff Mayers: You're running for re-election, and Republicans are searching for a candidate. ...
Herb Kohl: (after running through names of candidates who have said no or are deemed unlikely) ...This will be my fourth election. I don't take any of them lightly. I don't think any election is going to be easy. This is a blue state by the narrowest of margins, and so the electorate is fairly evenly split when you go into an election now, even if you think you're the incumbent and that people like you and that they're likely to support you. You should not kid yourself that there's any kind of walkover here. It will be an election. ... We assume somebody's going to run, and that somebody will have some level of funding to run, and in a state that's as evenly divided as Wisconsin, there will be an election. ... We're working hard. We're organizing coffees around the state. ...We are prepared and expecting a real campaign. ...
Mayers: The biggest rap on you seems to be that critics can't remember anything really big that he did. ... What do you say to people when they say that?
Kohl: We're really, really active. We've done an awful lot of things since we've been in office. ... It's our job to get the word out. When you're a senator, so much of what you do is under the radar. Contrast that when you're a governor, where you're being covered every day. Outside of his office, sits a whole cadre of reporters who follow him around every day. So everything a governor says and does is reported, better or worse. When you're a senator off in Washington, so much of what you do is not reported. We do appreciate that. For example, when I ran for re-election last time, I put out what we call the report to the people of Wisconsin. And it was a pretty detailed list of all the things we had done to improve the lives of people here in the state. And when people became aware of that, which is our job when we run for election, you get the word out. We won. We got 60 percent or something. Now our job again is to see to it that the word gets out. ...
Mayers: What's the one accomplishment you want people to know that they may have forgotten?
Kohl: ...Several things. We are responsible for a program that has brought $400 million to rural Wisconsin – the MILC program, dairy farmers.
Mayers: And that seems to be in danger?
Kohl: We're working to get it reauthorized this fall. We got the president to commit to it during the campaign last year, and so now we and others are working awfully hard to get the president to make good on his commitment because it's a Republican Congress. We got him to say here in Wausau last Oct. 15 that he is going to commit to getting that MILC program reauthorized for at least two more years, put it on the same timetable as the farm bill.
Mayers: Is that going to happen?
Kohl: We certainly hope so. We're working on it. One of our primary activities for this fall is to help get that through. We can't do it alone, because we're in the minority. But I'm ranking member on the agriculture appropriations subcommittee. ... Finally, it will depend on the majority to make good on the president's pledge. ...Last year, we got it attached, and we got the Senate to approve of it. Then we took it took it to the conference committee, where the Republican chairman of the conference committee sidetracked, sabotaged, killed it. That was Oct. 15, the same day the president (committed). ...I can't do it alone, but we got it done, once -- $400 million for rural Wisconsin. That's pretty good, and I'm proud of it. ...
We just got passed something called the trigger lock amendment to the gun immunity bill (pending in the House). We're hoping that it's going to get through the House and the president's going to sign it. It was the only Democratic amendment to the gun immunity bill.
Mayers: You've been working on that for a while.
Kohl: For years. And finally we've gotten it done. The president has said he'll sign it. And the NRA accepted the amendment. We think that's a pretty important piece of safety legislation. Bipartisan, we got 70 votes in the Senate for it. ...
We passed a class action reform bill that just passed several months ago. Sen. Grassley and I wrote it seven years ago. Worked, worked, worked and finally it got done. The whole body did it. You can't do it alone. But we started that bill.
We were one of the people that were instrumental in passing bankruptcy reform, the asbestos bill (favored by national manufacturers). ...It's a good piece of compromise legislation. It's historic, really. There are companies there that are going out of business. ...That affects their employment; that affects their ability to serve this economy. And they thanked us because we were one of three Democrats on the committee – three Democrats on the Judiciary Committee to move it out of committee onto the floor. Feinstein, myself and Leahy. So we've worked hard on that. We were central to that legislation.
Mayers: You're a Democratic businessman, and that is your template for being in the Senate. Am I wrong about that?
Kohl: I think that's true. ...I'm not a lawyer. I don't see myself as a professional politician. I'm a businessman who went into public life, and the people of Wisconsin at the time, said OK, we'll take a chance on you. ...
Mayers: As a businessman, then, what do you think is the business climate in Wisconsin and the Midwest?
Mayers: Why is it spotty?
Kohl: I think there's some recovery, from where we were a year or two ago. Just like with the national recovery. But it's not humming because we have a lot of competition from the world today for our jobs. Full swing competition from the world for our jobs, particularly manufacturing jobs, which is really one of the bulwarks of Wisconsin. We've lost 3 million manufacturing jobs in this country in the last three years. So while the overall employment in this country is about even, a little bit up, over what it was three years ago, manufacturing, which is very important in the Middle West, is down. And those manufacturing jobs, some of them are not coming back. So we're struggling in Wisconsin, struggling in Michigan, struggling in Iowa, struggling in Minnesota, struggling in Illinois. ... We're hurting. We have a world economy we now operate in. I think our government can and should be doing more to protect our jobs, can and should be doing more to protect against some of our free trade agreements ...
Mayers: But we can't close the curtain, either.
Kohl: I often say that. We live in a world economy. We can't build a fence around America. So some of these free trade agreements need to be negotiated more stiffly to see to it we get the kind of protections we need. And I've voted for some and voted against others. ... I voted against NAFTA. I voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement. ...I don't want to be a person who's totally partisan, who adopts the Democratic agenda come hell or high water. ... I try and be a person who sees things as they are. As you know, I don't solicit money from anybody. Special interest groups have no impact on me. When we go to work in the morning, it's like what do we think is best – period. Not who's giving us money. I think that makes a big difference. And people appreciate that.
Mayers: You grew up in Milwaukee. 88 murders matching last year's and it's only August. ...What's going on?
Kohl: I think it reflect the accumulation of what's been going on. ...In our inner city, huge employment. High level of guns on the street. Tremendous unrest in the neighborhoods. Educational standards in the inner city are not what they should be. Schools are not as modern. A lot of frustration going on. Companies have moved out of Milwaukee. ... And this has been going on for decades. ... There's a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done to reclaim our inner city. ...Every year, we get special earmarks for after-school, summer school programs. ...That is so important. Ultimately, if we don't bring that generation of children up with a level of education so that they can take their place in society, we'll just continue to repeat what we're doing. This is so crucial, that we do the right job for our children. ...
Mayers: Inner city employment isn't there ...
Kohl: A lot of those jobs are the old-line manufacturing jobs. ... Real good manufacturing jobs that were located in the city, were passed on from one generation to the next. Well, this generation didn't inherit those jobs. Many of them have no jobs. Really, really serious. People have to have jobs. People who don't have jobs – those families are in trouble. And where you have one-parent families, it's like a double-whammy. ...We're not getting the job done. There's a Herculean job to get this city back on the high point. On the other hand, there's a lot of good things happening in Milwaukee. ....A lot of those companies, those industries were going South before. It's not fair to say it's something about Milwaukee which is peculiar that people need to be indicted over. That's not true.
Mayers: Last time we talked, we were asking you about selling the Bucks, and Michael Jordan. And now you seem to re-invigorated. It doesn't seem like you're ready to sell the team anytime soon. It seems like you're ...
Kohl (joking): Spending like crazy.
Mayers: Yeah, OK, you're spending like crazy ...You don't want to sell the team.
Kohl: No, I've always enjoyed the involvement. And I'm excited about going to the games. Every year is a challenge. It's very competitive. It's really biggest at its rawest. You win or you lose. There's no in-between. It's really competition right at the edge. It's a lot of fun. A couple of years ago, I said look, it's probably time to pass this thing on to somebody else. ... I had the team for almost 20 years. ... And it was time to maybe let somebody else struggle with it. Milwaukee's a small market. It's not as though it's easy here. It's not easy to get you revenues to come up to your level of expense. It's not easy. I thought maybe all right we'll find another buyer and all will be well. And as I got into the process, not deeply into the process, I just decided I didn't want to do that. I recognized that I still enjoy it, I still get a kick out of it, I still enjoy the challenge of it all. And so I just took the team off the market. .... Had it not been Michael Jordan, it would not have been reported at a high decibel level. I had only talked to him for about a week. And then I decided, look, I don't really want to sell the team. And that's two years ago, two summers ago. And that's it. And we're competing again. And we expect to be a good team this year. We're excited about our team. We made some nice moves this summer, we think. We know we're going to have a stronger team. We like our new coach. And we think we're going to have a good year. That being said, you never know. You have to stay healthy. You have one key injury, your whole thinking goes down the drain.
Mayers: So you're thinking the team is going to make the playoffs.
Kohl: Yeah, we expect to be a playoff team this year. We expect to be exciting, expect to play hard. We think our fans are going to like our product. ...I'm excited.
Mayers: You're talking like your starting all over again.
Kohl: I'm really invigorated, excited. ... I do enjoy it. It is expensive. ... You have to swallow once or twice before you sign guys to 50 million, 70 million, 90 million contracts. That's an awful lot of money. But that's the business you're in. It's just a high-risk business. It's a lot easier to run the business in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, because there's a lot of revenue. Here the margin is very narrow.
Mayers: The Bradley Center. Last time we talked, it was the same discussion. Bradley Center needed to be jazzed up. You said as much. Hasn't happened.
Kohl: We're still working at it, negotiating, talking to them. ...
Mayers: When's that going to happen?
Kohl: We don't have a lease. Now, it hasn't gone backwards. And they've provided us some additional revenue. ... It helps a little bit. But we don't have a long-term lease. We're still talking. We're still friends. We've not had any blow-ups. Nobody's thrown bricks at each other. Nobody's threatening. No one's giving ultimatums. Because we have to live here, we have to work together. They need us; we need them. So we have to find a way to work together to get ourselves into a situation where we maybe get some more revenues, that the Bradley Center can find a way to afford it. ...
Mayers: You're optimistic, though?
Kohl: I'm very confident that the Bucks will continue to stay here, that's my goal. Will continue to play here, will continue to provide exciting NBA basketball. ...Having the three major leagues represented in our state is a good thing. Most people want to see that continue. Hey, Lambeau Field was rebuilt recently. There's a brand new Miller Park. We hope someday ...(something similar for the Bradley Center).