WASHINGTON -- The economy has been the driving issue in the Wisconsin gubernatorial race, with Gov. Scott Walker (R) and his Democratic opponent Mary Burke trading barbs over raising the minimum wage and the best path forward to create jobs in the state. Now, Burke is weighing in on a controversial free trade deal backed by the Obama administration, saying she is concerned about the effect it will have on Wisconsin.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a 12-nation trade agreement that would eliminate most tariffs on nearly $2 trillion in goods and services between the United States and the other countries involved. It would also grant new political powers to corporations, increase the cost of prescription medications and restrict bank regulation. The deal has put the Obama administration -- which has been leading negotiations on TPP since 2010 -- at odds with organized labor and many progressives.
Burke "is very concerned that the TPP has a negative impact on middle class wages and jobs," spokesman Joe Zepecki told The Huffington Post. "The U.S. and Wisconsin economy is strongest when we have a growing, thriving middle class and trade agreements should be evaluated in that light."
Walker's campaign did not return a request for comment on the governor's stance on TPP.
Democrats in Congress have expressed skepticism over the deal and complained about the secrecy surrounding it. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) recently said he opposes the White House's request for fast-track authority, which would essentially require Congress to give international trade agreements negotiated by the president an up-or-down vote with no chance for amendments.
One issue that Burke does agree with President Barack Obama on is raising the minimum wage. She backs a proposal put forward by Democrats in the Wisconsin state legislature that would raise the wage to $8.20 an hour immediately and to $10.10 in two years, and index it to inflation going forward.
"The alternative of keeping it as $7.25 an hour is we're basically ensuring that people are dependent on government assistance, and that's not how people are better able to support themselves," she said in an interview with The Huffington Post. "It's not how they have a better chance of moving into the middle class, and that's what we really have to be striving for."
Walker has called the Democratic push to raise the minimum wage "a misguided political stunt" and said it will "lead to the elimination of entry-level jobs and cut pay for other workers."
Burke, a former Trek Bicycle Corp. executive, discounted Walker's claims.
"He comes at it from a career politician's viewpoint, I come at it from a business person's viewpoint," she said. "They hire the people they need, and generally the better employee you're able to get, the more successful your business is going to get. I hear that from business people all the time, and I know it's true certainly at Trek Bicycle, where I worked. And there's a lot of cost in terms of having turnover of staff, and this cuts down on that."
A recent Marquette University Law School poll shows a tight race for 2014, with Walker at 47 percent support and Burke at 41 percent.
Voters first elected Walker as governor in 2010. In 2012, he survived a recall election after Democrats tried to oust him for his attacks on organized labor. Walker first earned the ire of labor unions and progressives in February 2011, when he pushed through Act 10, legislation that stripped public employees of most of their collective bargaining rights.
When asked whether the failed recall effort made Walker stronger, Burke replied, "Well, it was not successful, and it certainly allowed him to build a national reputation and a national fundraising network."
Burke has said she was in favor of asking public sector employees to pay "part of their pension and health care," but she did not support the way Walker went about it and did not support taking away the collective bargaining rights.
"I support the rights of public sector workers to collectively bargain and to be able to collect dues," said Burke in the interview, "and those are things that I would certainly want to see restored."