The political playbook calls for campaigns to define their opponents before they can introduce themselves to voters.
The Republican Governors Association is calling that play in the early downs of the 2014 Wisconsin governor’s race, attacking Democrat Mary Burke in her bid to unseat Republican Scott Walker.
In one TV spot entitled "Backward," the RGA asks: "Who’s Mary Burke?"
It’s answer: "Burke was a senior member of the Doyle administration that left Wisconsin with 130,000 fewer jobs, and a $3 billion budget shortfall." The ad concludes: "Mary Burke would take Wisconsin backwards."
Did Burke, as state Commerce secretary under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, throw Wisconsin for a six-digit jobs loss?
As backup for the jobs claim, the RGA spot cites a very familiar source: A September 2013 item from PolitiFact Wisconsin.
But in that item, we rated Mostly False a Walker claim that Doyle’s policies cost the state 133,000 jobs in his second term, from 2007 through 2010.
Walker, we noted, got the number right. But experts said the national economic crash had far more to do with Wisconsin’s job losses during that period than any state policies. Indeed, Wisconsin actually fared somewhat better than the rest of the country.
The claim in the RGA ad carries a subtle, but important difference.
It does not mention Doyle’s second term as its timeframe. Rather, it makes an open-ended statement that those watching from their couch may likely hear as referring to Doyle’s full tenure in office.
Beyond that, Burke worked for Doyle as Commerce secretary over parts of both his terms, but not nearly for the entire eight-year period. She started in February 2005, about halfway through Doyle’s first term, and left in November 2007 -- 10 months into Doyle’s second term.
And the private-sector jobs picture changes dramatically if you look at Doyle’s full tenure or narrowly at Burke’s time as Commerce chief.
We ran the numbers using US Bureau of Labor Statistics quarterly census of employment and wages data, considered the most accurate measurement:
-- Burke’s state tenure: Gain of more than 55,000 jobs.
-- Doyle’s full eight-year tenure: Loss of 47,413 jobs (gain of 86,530 in term one, loss of 133,943 in term two).
To expand our analysis, we looked at two other scenarios:
-- Start of Burke’s tenure to end of Doyle’s: loss of 77,267.
-- Start of Doyle’s tenure to end of Burke’s: gain of at least 94,000.
It’s apparent from these figures that the RGA ad cherrypicks the worst outcome for Burke by ignoring numbers from nearly two years she worked in Doyle’s first term -- even though that represented the majority of her time in state government.
Indeed, the state’s private sector employment actually grew during Burke’s specific time as Commerce secretary. (Data note: because of limitations stemming from how the data is reported, we had to slightly adjust the time frames covering Burke’s state tenure. But those adjustments do not alter the trends we found.)
There’s something for the RGA to hang on to here, though, in that Burke was a holdover member of Doyle’s administration for a small part of a second term during which more than 130,000 jobs were lost in four years.
RGA spokesman Jon Thompson defended the 130,000 figure, saying Burke had a hand in Doyle’s second term, but added that it is a "fair comparison" for others to look at all eight years of Doyle’s record.
"Wisconsin is still worse off when all is said and done, and has turned that corner under Walker," he said.
The historical backdrop here is that until mid-2008, employment in Wisconsin was rising, as it had for years.
In June 2008, seven months after Burke departed, the total employment count started a big slide that was part of the Great Recession that swept the United States. The slide ended in mid-2010, in Doyle’s final year, and the monthly gains that started then have generally continued under Walker.
In reality, neither Walker nor Burke deserve much of the credit or blame for job trends, particularly ones driven by an event as sharp as the Great Recession, economists have told us repeatedly. No governor -- much less a department head -- has much influence on the state jobs picture in the face of strongly negative national economic trends, they said.
To be sure, Burke highlights the job gains during her time while skipping over the recession.
That omission earned her a Half True when in October of 2013 she picked an entirely different time frame and said her actions as Commerce secretary brought the state 84,000 more jobs than we have today.
The Republican Governors Association charged that "Burke was a senior member of the Doyle administration that left Wisconsin with 130,000 fewer jobs."
There’s an element of truth, but the ad ignores the critical fact that Burke also worked in half of Doyle’s first term, when 86,000 jobs were gained. Employment also rose in the narrower time frame when Burke worked for Doyle over parts of his two terms.
And in any event, the role of these two officials in those losses and gains is very limited, given national economic realities of the time.
We rate the ad’s claim Mostly False.