Walker’s secret weapon? His laser-like focus on economic development

Now that the "Mother of recall elections" has come and gone, we’ve had a couple of weeks to digest why Gov. Scott Walker was able to fend it off. In truth, it was a combination of factors, but the most understated was the Governor’s intense, day-in and day-out focus on economic development.

In Walker’s first 18 months in office, this concentration was reflected in the creation of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., which in effect has been the state’s venture capital arm, leveraging the expansion plans of various companies with tax credits that kick in only if promised job creation comes to fruition.

The WEDC has been the unsung hero of the state’s economic rebound, with people like CEO/Secretary Paul Jadin, the former Mayor of Green Bay, and Tim Cooley, the former city of Madison economic development director who has been absolutely relentless when it comes to getting a state-leveraged venture fund established. With a modest surplus heading into the next budget formation process, there is one less excuse for lawmakers to act, especially when the concept has some bipartisan support.

Walker’s “Wisconsin Wins” initiative is in its initial stages, but it has the promise to connect the unemployed with open positions, and it takes some constructive steps to steer more high school kids into today’s more attractive manufacturing jobs. The latter not only requires an attitudinal adjustment among students, but some rethinking by parents who mistakenly view a four-year bachelor’s degree as the only path to success.

One early test of Wisconsin Wins is the situation at Marinette Marine, which still needs a large assortment of welders, steel workers, pipe fitters, plumbers, electricians and others to help build Littoral Combat Ships for the U.S. Navy.

In both of these aforementioned initiatives, Walker has smartly borrowed from successful models established by reform-minded governors in other states, particularly Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Sonny Perdue of Georgia.

Best yet to come?

Perhaps the most significant impact will come from an inspired development proposal to lure manufacturing jobs back to vacant plants in the heart of Milwaukee’s industrial core. The $100 million redevelopment plan will have to be executed with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the man Walker has defeated twice for the state house, but the stakes are incredibly high. By one count, the unemployment rate among African American males in Milwaukee approaches 60%. Is that acceptable to anyone?

Walker’s latest economic development thrust with the potential to bear fruit is an overture to Chinese investors who will visit the state in late September. Our industry strengths, particularly manufacturing and agriculture, are of particular interest to the Chinese, but it remains to be seen what kind of partnerships develop.

These efforts at the state level will be important no matter how the national economy unfolds. After encouraging jobs data ushered in the new year, recent economic metrics suggest the national economy is on course for another summer slowdown.

As for Walker’s immediate future, don’t count on him being Mitt Romney’s running mate. He still has the John Doe probe hanging over his head, and the Republican Party’s recent inclination to turn off Latino voters suggests a level of repair work that starts with putting U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, a rising star, on the national ticket. It only starts there; it doesn’t end there.

While the reform-minded Walker's political instincts are pretty sound, as evidenced by his "be bold" advice to the unbold Mitt Romney, there is the matter of that 250,000 new jobs promise in four years, which now looks almost impossible to meet. If the state Democratic Party has its act together in 2014, it will not only find more effective leadership, it will remind voters of that promise.

But enough politics for now. This state has too much untapped economic potential to dwell on settling old scores; it’s long past time to get this economy cranked up. Had the recall election gone the other way, I was prepared to implore Tom Barrett to keep Walker’s economic development apparatus in place. It represents the kind of government scholarship we need more of, and the kind both political parties should compete on.