Vice President Kamala Harris touts Biden administration infrastructure plan in Milwaukee visit, tours clean energy labs

Vice President Kamala Harris came to Milwaukee Tuesday to tout the administration’s ambitious infrastructure plan, tour UW-Milwaukee’s clean energy laboratories and talk about the importance of scientific research on her first trip to Wisconsin since taking office in January.

Her visit came as the administration gears up to push through its American Jobs Plan, a sweeping $2.3 trillion development package aimed at improving the nation’s aging infrastructure, fighting climate change and creating jobs.

In an interview with the Journal Sentinel, Harris also said she believes the massive plan will improve racial equity when it comes to issues like family-supporting jobs, school safety, affordable housing, stable broadband Internet and safe drinking water.

“These things have existed, sadly, for generations upon generations,” she said of racial disparities. “But the pandemic really did accelerate and magnify the disparities and the inequities and, frankly, the injustice of it all.”

She said, for example, the plan to remove and replace all of the nation’s lead pipes and service lines would reduce the risk of lead poisoning and require “good-paying, union jobs” to do the work.

“So it is both about a public health benefit, and it is about the creation of jobs. Good paying jobs, important jobs,” Harris said. 

Milwaukee has for years faced high rates of lead poisoning among children, especially in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods on the city’s north and south sides. 

Harris said she’s taking a leadership role when it comes to the plan’s efforts to expand broadband access, saying it is crucial to everyone from young students to elderly people. 

“Our children cannot learn and do their homework without access to high-speed internet that is both accessible and affordable,” she said. “And if you don’t have access to high-speed Internet, if you don’t have broadband access — if you can’t afford it — a very critical process of helping people be healthy and telemedicine is unavailable to them.”

‘Lift up that great work’

“As you know, the president has made it a priority of our administration to really seek out and lift up the great work that American universities, technologists and innovators are doing,” Harris said during a discussion at UWM’s University Service and Research Building.

A large American flag hung on  one wall, serving as a backdrop for a battery-powered, all-electric Ford Mustang Mach-E SUV. Harris toured one lab that featured a fast-charger system and a smart microgrid.

Harris said “we’ve fallen behind” on research and development investment over the last quarter of a century as federal government investment has declined as a percentage of gross domestic product.

“We must be able to compete and so this is about where we stand in the global order of things,” she said.

Harris spoke excitedly about the university’s research labs.

“When I was there someone said how are auto workers feeling about this?” Harris said, adding the United Auto Workers union is “supporting what we are doing.”

For Harris, the Milwaukee visit started at Mitchell International Airport, where she was greeted by U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore and Gov. Tony Evers, as well as Brigadier General Dave May, deputy adjutant general for Wisconsin Air National Guard, and his wife, Jeanette, and Chief Master Sgt. Meredith Conn, Wisconsin Air National Guard command chief.    

Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes said Harris’ visit to his hometown shows the state’s significance — and not just politically. 

“It shows that Wisconsin is going to be on the forefront of recovery,” Barnes said. 

He added that Wisconsin can be a key player in the “clean energy economy,” especially considering its manufacturing history.    

“I think this visit is proof positive that again — Wisconsin, we matter,” Barnes said.

Baldwin said of Wisconsin: “We make things here,” as she pushed for the infrastructure plan.

Baldwin said “during the pandemic… most people have grasped the importance of basic science in regard to human health,” pointing to the quick rollout of vaccines.

“This is part of our culture, our history,” Moore said of Milwaukee’s manufacturing heritage.

“The fight around expanding the definition of infrastructure is upon us. We can’t just see it as roads and bridges,” Moore said, adding that “broadband is the yellow (school) bus of the 21st century.”

UWM’s vice chancellor emeritus Joan Prince moderated the roundtable and said the vice president “doesn’t come to just say hello. She came to listen to us.”

Harris summed it all up by declaring: “Infrastructure is basically, how are you going to get where you need to go? And part of that has to be an investment in innovation so we can get to the place where other people are going.”

President Joe Biden has proposed to pay for the plan in part through taxes on corporations.

Republican resistance to plan

Biden’s infrastructure plan is meeting resistance from Republicans, who are pushing for a dramatically scaled back package.

Andrew Hitt, chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, criticized the plan during a news conference Tuesday for not devoting enough money toward rebuilding roads and bridges.

“I hope while Vice President Harris is here that she will explain why the infrastructure plan that President Biden has put forth doesn’t contain infrastructure,” Hitt said. “Less than 10% of it goes to roads, bridges and ports and airports — what we typically would expect out of an infrastructure bill, it’s missing out of this bill. It’s hardly there. We need an infrastructure plan that actually helps us and rebuilds our infrastructure in this country.”

Hitt also called on Harris to encourage Milwaukee Public Schools to reopen fully. Some high school students have not returned yet to in-person instruction.

But Harris said the administration is optimistic about winning GOP support for the plan.

Asked about the possibility of compromise with Republicans before boarding Air Force Two for Washington, D.C., she said: “We still have a real level of optimism about what is possible but we all have to approach it in an earnest way.”

‘Our hope grows together’

GOP officials have also been criticizing Harris for not visiting the U.S.-Mexico border ever since Biden announced in March that she had been picked to lead U.S. diplomatic efforts to stem migration.

“Kamala Harris should be visiting the southern border, given it has been nearly a month and a half since being tasked with managing the border crisis, and she still has not found time to address a problem that has spiraled out of control,” Hitt said in a statement.

In her Journal Sentinel interview, Harris said the root causes of migration and the U.S.-Mexico border are complex, challenging issues.

“If this issue were easy to solve, it would have happened years, if not decades, ago,” Harris said. “This will not be solved overnight. It will require a comprehensive and strategic approach.”

She said her role is focused on “what we need to do in terms of a long-term approach to addressing the root causes — and the acute causes — of why people flee their homes.”

Harris talked about problems like violence, climate change, human trafficking and corruption — and the need for consistent U.S. policy.

“Part of the challenge that we have is, over the last four years, there was a real drawback of our country’s participation and what could be done to have a positive impact on that region,” Harris said.

Before heading to Wisconsin, Harris spoke Tuesday morning at the Washington Conference on the Americas. During her speech, she stressed the importance of Latin America and its relationship with the United States.

“Our administration firmly believes in the potential of the region, and in the power of the people of the region,” she said. “Latin Americans are shaping their own future. They are writing their own story.”

Harris also spoke about the role private sector investments and community organizations can play in addressing the root causes of migration.

She said the Biden administration is committed to helping the people of Latin America work to address problems at the border, “knowing that we are neighbors, knowing that our strength depends on one another.”

“Our hope grows together,” Harris said.

Two Republican leaders of the Wisconsin Legislature who recently visited the Texas-Mexico border criticized Harris.

“It’s great that she’s here in Wisconsin, but the border’s on fire,” Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke of Kaukauna said at a news conference in the state Capitol. “Our country is being invaded. That’s not our words. That’s the words of the local law enforcement in this area — that we’re being invaded and we’re doing nothing and they can’t get any help.”

Steineke and Speaker Pro Tem Tyler August of Lake Geneva said they used campaign funds for their recent trip to the border. They said they were there at the invitation of the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Steineke said they would soon introduce a resolution to ask Evers to send Wisconsin National Guard troops or other help to the border.

Patrick Marley and Sophie Carson of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report from Madison.

Contact Mary Spicuzza at (414) 224-2324 or mary.spicuzza@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MSpicuzzaMJS.