Wisconsin State Senator Kathleen Vinehout was interviewed on April 5, 2012 by phone. Senator Vinehout has a personality and style that sets her apart from all the candidates – apparent to anyone who has met her in person. In our nearly 45 minute interview, she exuded a passion and personality as engaging over the phone as in person.
Kathleen Vinehout has the most diverse background of all the candidates. She received her Masters Degree in Public Health in 1982, and her PhD in Health Services research in 1987. For 10 years, Vinehout directed the graduate and undergraduate programs in Health Administration at the University of Illinois-Springfield. She also taught as a faculty member in Health Services Administration and Women’s Studies. Her academic focus was primarily on state health policy and rural health issues. Vinehout left academia after the faculty union at the University of Illinois was de-certified. She stated that she was crushed by the move and loss, and knew academia at the U of I would never be the same. As this writer knows faculty currently at U of I, she was correct.
Vinehout moved to Wisconsin and began operating a 50-cow organic dairy farm in Buffalo County. Active and award-winning as an organic farmer and active in local politics, she entered politics full-time by winning election to the State Senate in 2006, defeating incumbent Ron Brown. In 2010, she defied the Tea Party wave and won re-election over Ed Thompson and returned for a second term. Vinehout represents the 31st District in Western Wisconsin with an impressive record of legislation emphasizing progressive fiscal budgetary issues, health reform, and education. She was one of the “Fab 14″ State Senators leaving Wisconsin, slowing passage of Scott Walker’s “Budget Repair Bill” in 2011 and putting her political career on the line. Vinehout has the most extensive voting record on state issues of any candidate – too lengthy to even begin discussing here – but this link to Project Vote Smart gives current votes on key legislation – including the end of the 2010-2011 session. It is worth the time to examine the record. Now, the interview.
BD – What does this movement mean to you not only as a politician, but as a citizen of the state?
Vinehout – I’ve seen an energy and engagement in the political process that hasn’t happened in over 100 years. A few weeks ago, I did an event in Waukesha County to a standing-room only crowd. After my speech, 35 people came up and volunteered to help with my campaign. The first campaign I ran for State Senate, I had trouble finding 3 people to knock on doors in my home district. 35 people in conservative Waukesha County – that’s a huge change. People are paying attention, and making a difference.
BD – What would be your first act as Governor?
Vinehout – It would be largely symbolic, but those Wisconsin tourism signs at the borders…the welcome signs shaped like the state…I would go to each one of those and take down Scott Walker’s “Open for Business” signs and replace them with signs that say “Open for Everyone.” That’s how we bring everyone together and heal this state. Wisconsin should not be open just for corporate interests, it is for everyone.
BD – In its annual report dated January 31, 2011 to Joint Finance Committee Chairs Senator Alberta Darling and Rep. Robin Vos, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau indicated a net balance at fiscal year-end of $56.4 million (before Scott Walker assumed office). In the same report one year later, dated February 9, 2012, the LFB indicates a fund balance deficit of $208.2 million – primarily due to decreased revenue as a result of Acts passed by the current Governor and Legislature. In this fiscal and political climate, how do you repair the damage done to public education, healthcare, and jobs?
Vinehout – I would start by looking what the Governor is currently buying and spending state money on, and change those priorities. In 2011, I wrote and released a budget (link to the Vinehout Budget here)that showed we can balance the budget without hurting working families, education, and access to affordable care. I authored the only “Health Care Exchange Bill” in the legislature, which never got a hearing because of the partisan nature of this session. This bill would help close the gap in affordable care while saving taxpayers money by setting up a statewide exchange. I would make an “Emergency Funding” program for public schools a priority. Our public schools’ most difficult years are coming in the second half of the bienium. Federal funding under the stimulus plan has lapsed, and any savings districts saw under Act 10 will have been used for last year’s budget. We will need emergency funding to help public schools survive Walker’s draconian education cuts. There also need to be audits done by the Legislative Audit Bureau on Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), as there are serious issues there in funding transparency and accountability. That audit needs to be performed this summer. Recent audits of the state Department of Health also show serious issues in accountability and monies paid private contractors beyond the budget. We need to get our fiscal house back in order after this administration, so working families can stop footing the bill for corporate tax breaks.
BD – How do you substantively differ on the issues with Kathleen Falk (note – Tom Barrett had not yet announced his candidacy at the time of the interview)? Would you sign the same pledge Falk did to put collective bargaining in the state budget?
Vinehout – The differences are in my experience as a legislator in state government, serving on committees on audit, budget, education, and healthcare…such as the authoring the healthcare exchange legislation (see link above). None of the other candidates have specific policy plans already written – they have plans and talking points, not specific policy legislation. As for the pledge, I would not sign such a pledge because it is too risky to play “brinksmanship” with the state budget. The Legislature must pass a biennial budget, and under Wisconsin statutes if the budget does not pass, the state continues under the old budget already in place. I don’t know too many people who want to continue any longer than necessary under the Walker budget, and we can’t afford it. In 2007, Governor Doyle and the Democratic legislators played that game with Healthy Wisconsin. In the end, the budget was blocked by the GOP until Healthy Wisconsin was taken out, and that legislation had to wait until the next session to be brought back. The legislation is already written to restore collective bargaining rights (SB233), and as Governor I would make sure that bill passes. I would work through the summer to keep the Senate in Democratic hands, and shift the balance in the Assembly. Do I think it can be done? Yes – many of my colleagues in Western Wisconsin are Republican Assembly Reps., and they know, as do other Republicans, that Act 10 went too far. I believe I can bring those sides together to pass SB233.
BD – The day you declared your candidacy, attacks were leveled at you over your voting record on women’s health issues, primarily by supporters of Kathleen Falk, Planned Parenthood, and NARAL WI. Subsequently, you put your voting record in plain view and stood by it. Last Legislative session, you voted against all GOP attacks on women’s equal pay, healthcare, and access to services (see link to voting record, above). You have a background in healthcare and women’s studies, so you understand the issues as well as any candidate. As Governor, will you commit to vetoing ANY legislation that would restrict, deny, or diminish women’s access to medically sound care or procedures?
Vinehout – Absolutely. Even if those issues ended up in the budget, I would veto them, especially anything funding related. Particularly in the case of narrowing access through legislative language to eliminate Planned Parenthood funding; I would absolutely veto any bill or budget item that has that effect. This session has been particularly brutal towards women. I have never seen a legislative session with so much intentional political payback and attacks by one side over another. That is not how Wisconsin should be governed.
Kathleen Vinehout is in the process of running the most grassroots campaign for statewide office in recent memory, using primarily people power and traveling all over the state to every size event. She is certainly changing the way people look at politics and politicians with every person she encounters on her campaign – one voter at a time. For that, she deserves more credit than she is receiving from the media and pundits. But that’s not who she serves. She serves her constituents very well.
Next interview – Secretary of State Doug LaFollette.