None of the Democrats who were vying to challenge Gov. Scott Walker in November said they supported the state's deal with Foxconn, but Tony Evers, the winner of the party’s primary, carved out a more moderate position than the others did, potentially lowering the stakes of the election for the controversial project.
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In an April interview
with BizTimes, Evers called the $10 billion project supported by at least $4 billion in public investment and incentives a “Hail Mary” by Walker, but acknowledged it would be difficult to “un-ring that bell.”
“I would really focus on compelling them to be good corporate citizens,” he said. “I don’t believe they want to be viewed as bad actors.”
Evers, currently state superintendent of public instruction, said he would look to renegotiate parts of the contract with Foxconn, placing emphasis on wages, Milwaukee-area hiring, public transportation and the plant’s energy efficiency.
The position stood in contrast to most of the other Democrats in the primary, especially attorney and former state Democratic party chair Matt Flynn, who promised to take immediate legal action to stop the Foxconn project.
Evers was the front-runner throughout the primary, leading in all of the Marquette University Law School polls. Those same polls also showed significant skepticism of the Foxconn project, particularly among Democrat voters.
The most recent poll found 71 percent of Democrats and Democratic leaning independents felt the state was paying too much in the Foxconn deal, 52 percent said it would not substantially approve the economy in the greater Milwaukee area and 74 percent said they did not expect businesses near them to benefit.
Despite the strong opposition by Democrat voters, two candidates who took more moderate views on Foxconn – Evers and state firefighter union chief Mahlon Mitchell – and received the most support in the primary. Evers won with nearly 42 percent of the vote and Mitchell was second, receiving more than 16 percent.
Flynn, who campaigned heavily on the promise of legal action, finished sixth with about 6 percent of the vote. Kelda Roys, who indicated she was open to litigation over Foxconn, finished third with nearly 13 percent of the vote.
After this story was published, Evers' campaign provided a statement from the candidate, criticizing the size of the Foxconn support and incentives - $4.5 billion counting state and local packages and other infrastructure investments - and the estimated 25-year wait for the state to see a return on its investment.
"That's a lousy investment," Evers said. "Foxconn has already backtracked on several of its promises and is not being held accountable by Walker. When I'm governor, we'll hold Foxconn's feet to the fire and make sure that Wisconsin is getting the best return on investment possible."
The Democrat also criticized Walker for having "raided our school funding and highway funding, which just shows how out of whack Walker's priorities are."
"The problem for Evers is that his party has tied itself to the radical idea that they are going to kill the Foxconn deal, and the 13,000 good-paying, family-supporting jobs that come along with it, solely for political reasons,” Austin Altenburg, a spokesman for Walker’s campaign said in an email, suggesting the Democrat needs to more clearly explain his plans for Foxconn going forward.
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Through a spokesman, Foxconn also declined to comment on the election results.
“As a matter of company policy, Foxconn does not comment on politics in any of the locations where we operate,” the company said in a statement.
Whether his position on Foxconn is the reason Evers won is hard to say.
“I’m sure that was a factor,” said Mordecai Lee, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor of urban planning, adding Evers also likely benefited from previous statewide wins, name recognition and being a likeable candidate. “It’s always really hard to say this one thing was the reason.”
Lee said Evers ran on what is probably “a mainstream, loyal opposition perspective” that views the Foxconn contract as “jaw-dropping” but also recognizes the state has a signed contract that could be costly to break. He said he expects Evers will continue campaigning on holding Foxconn to the letter of the contract with no amendments or changes.
Lee also pointed out Walker has changed from saying opponents of the Foxconn deal could “go suck lemons” to working hard to sell the statewide benefits of a project that has not been “the political plus that Scott Walker thought it would be.”
“That shows you how fleet-footed the governor is politically and how he misjudged it originally,” Lee said.