After being elected to her second term representing Wisconsin's 71st Assembly District, Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, earned a new role: assistant minority leader in the Assembly. The 27-year-old was the youngest member of the Legislature during her freshman term, but will lose that title with the incoming crop of lawmakers elected in 2014. 
Still one of the body's youngest lawmakers, Shankland is committed to advancing progressive ideals and addressing issues that matter to young voters.
Cap Times: What are your priorities for this session?
Katrina Shankland: Both the Assembly Speaker and the Senate Majority Leader have said that they’re going to see a lot more conservative thinking in the Legislature, and that really concerns me, because as a first-term legislator, looking at the last session, I saw a lot of extreme ideas that aren't popular among the people of Wisconsin. The people of Wisconsin are actually quite progressive, so one of the main things we’re going to be doing is presenting alternative ideas, creative and innovative ones, and also bold, progressive ones. Last session, I saw things like trying to eliminate the Secretary of State, we saw issues related to the voucher expansion, refusing to take up BadgerCare expansion and lots more ideas no one in the state of Wisconsin was asking for.
I don’t think it’s Democrats’ jobs to just say no to the Republicans. I think it’s our duty and our responsibility to advance thoughtful initiatives that are resonant with the public, and that’s something we’ve spent a lot of time on — we've knocked on a lot of doors, talked to a lot of voters — but that’s not enough. We’re going to have to talk to even more people throughout this session. One of the things that I will be doing that’s new is when we have new ideas, thoughtful, meaningful policy initiatives that resonate well with the public, we’ll be taking that directly to the people. Whether it’s Eau Claire or Mosinee or Sparta or Rhinelander, we’ll be stopping at coffee shops, we’ll be going to mom-and-pop cafes, and be telling people, “We have a plan for student loan debt reform.” It’s not enough to just circulate a plan through the Capitol hallways. We have to bring our plan directly to the people, because I really believe and know, in my heart, that we are advancing the people's agenda. But what we saw in this last election is sometimes people don't know who’s really fighting for them. I think Democrats are the party of the people, we just have to do a better job communicating that.
You mentioned student loan debt reform. Is that something Democrats will push hard
for this year?
Absolutely. One of my big goals is for us Democrats to take economic fairness and make it both a legislative and electoral issue. I think it’s important that every person in Wisconsin — whether they’re a senior, a veteran, a student, a family farmer, a small business owner — to have economic opportunity. And that starts with economic fairness. The playing field has to be level. Student loan debt is one of the only debts that are not forgiven. You can also not refinance like you can with a mortgage. I think it’s only fair to extend those abilities to our students. They deserve to be able to refinance their loans. Elizabeth Warren has that bill on a federal level but here in Wisconsin, Rep. Deb Kolste, Rep. Cory Mason, Sen. Dave Hansen and every Assembly and Senate Democrat in the Legislature advanced this plan, and we took it to people on college campuses. We’ll do a lot more of it, communicating to our students directly, “We’re fighting for you, we’re here making sure in Madison that your voice is heard on the floor."
I also believe it isn’t just about student loan debt. I really want to address, as a young person who graduated in the worst economy since the Great Depression — it’s pretty hard to pick up your diploma knowing that. But I’ve had to tackle it, and my colleagues and friends have had to tackle it, too, and I think knowing that, we as young people — there are 10 Assembly Democrats under the age of 35 — have had that experience and know what it’s like to want to buy a home or want to buy a new car but have to prioritize your student loan debt. And that’s part of why our economy is lagging.
So I think we’re going to have to talk about student loan debt, but also brain drain. Why are young graduates leaving the state? It’s because there are more economic opportunities, unfortunately, they feel, sometimes outside of Wisconsin. They go to the Twin Cities, they go to Chicago. What can we do to keep young graduates in Wisconsin working here? I want to talk about tackling brain drain, investing in public transit, making sure that we have vibrant cities so that our young people stay. I think that’s something that shouldn’t be considered a partisan issue, but I want Democrats to be leading on it. And I think we've already done the groundwork on it, but you’ll see some more bold initiatives related to economic fairness, especially for young people, in the future.
Are you still the youngest member of the Legislature?
I am until January, when I believe Rep-elect Romaine Quinn (R-Rice Lake) will be the youngest member. I think that’s a very positive thing. There are a lot of new, young Assembly Republicans as well, and it’s my goal to sit down with every single one of them. I think young people really want to get past that partisan brinkmanship that we’ve seen both in Madison and in the nation’s capital, and I think we have a story to tell. The number one issue for us is jobs and the economy — and most voters would say the same — but for us it’s a very different issue. Our parents, when they graduated college, they were essentially guaranteed a job, and it was probably a well-paying union job. Now that we’ve seen so many jobs being outsourced, we’re living in a different economy, and we’ve got to focus on what we can do to grow our economy and invest in local jobs. I think young people particularly have felt that need because we’ve actually lived in it. We are the ones who have gone from having an English degree and a history degree to having to be a cashier at Target and making minimum wage.
That’s why it’s so important to advance plans that can tackle both income inequality but also economic opportunity. We want everyone to have a fair shot at the American dream. How can we accomplish that? I think it’s a multi-tiered approach: it’s student loan debt reform, making sure people have access to affordable health care and making sure that people have access to good-paying jobs. And that starts by investing in our technical colleges and universities.
How will you approach your role as assistant minority leader?
I think the key here is managing relationships and building coalitions, so my goal is to sit down with everyone in the Assembly. There have been a lot of talks about how 'green' the Assembly is. Over half of us haven’t even been through Act 10 anymore. I think, personally, that’s positive. That means while we lack institutional knowledge, we also have tremendous motivation to build personal relationships and work across the aisle. I see that potential in the new members as well as the current freshman caucuses … so my goal is to help facilitate that conversation.
I also am really looking forward to sitting down with every member of leadership, especially in the Republican caucus, talking about priorities and picking their brains seeing where we can work together. There are so many nonpartisan issues in this state. I wish that education were considered nonpartisan. It is not, unfortunately, because of the voucher expansion lobby. I wish that our natural resources and preserving our natural resources were less partisan. I’ll be fighting very hard for that. But I think there are other issues. Protecting women and ensuring that domestic violence is being curbed and we’re finding good plans to help domestic abuse victims is one example where I think we can work together. And we’ve seen that. We passed mental health and heroin packages in the last session. Every kind of corner or angle I can see, I want to capitalize on and make sure that Democrats can advance an agenda that is reflective of what the people of Wisconsin want and that starts by finding ways to work together.
Being in the minority, you have to balance promoting your own agenda with fighting efforts you disagree with. Is there anything coming from Republicans that you know you'll fight?
We’ve heard the conversations about things like right-to-work. That’s obviously a red flag — if you look at what happened with Act 10, that was quiet, it felt like it just happened out of nowhere. It’s important to keep our eyes wide open and to be prepared for extremism when it comes to the Legislature. I think right-to-work could be a possibility. I know the Speaker has said, even though he sponsored it, it may not be. And I sure hope that’s the case, because that goes way too far for Wisconsin and Wisconsin will not tolerate it. There will definitely be an issue there.
The biggest issue I've heard that I think is completely out of step with Wisconsinites is the voucher expansion, taking off the caps. They’re going to be funneling money from public schools that have been cut $1.8 billion and putting it into private schools that don’t have accountability. It's wrong. Go to rural areas, go up to Rhinelander. They will tell you, "We’re on the brink of not having enough dollars to keep our doors open," and that’s extremely concerning for me.  It's a tremendous overreach. I think it’s completely out of step with voters and I also don’t think it’s coincidence that the voucher lobby spent over $1 million on the Assembly Democrats to get them out of office.
What Democratic efforts do you think could find bipartisan support?
I think with workforce development, and I would sure hope economic issues, that we could find some common ground. It’s unfortunate that the Republicans have already said they won’t raise the minimum wage. I know the governor himself said he thinks it serves no purpose. But there are counties that voted for Gov. Walker and voted to increase the minimum wage, to expand Badgercare and to get money out of politics. That’s a mandate to me that they need to honor the voices of their constituents. I would love to work on economic issues with the Republicans to make sure we can raise the minimum wage and create economic opportunity and reduce government dependence. I'm not hearing it from them. We will push that issue very hard because our constitutions and the voters of Wisconsin overwhelmingly support those.
How do Democrats connect with younger voters for future elections?
We saw a dramatic decrease in voter turnout since 2012, and obviously if you look at 2008 that’s the benchmark for the Obama voters. How do you get them after that pivotal election? I was a student at UW-Madison in 2008, and I remember when Obama won, how excited we all were and just the amount of energy on campus. We need to capture that spirit again.
Building relationships with young people — sitting here as a young person, how do I do it? I spend as much time on campus as I can. I represent UW-Stevens Point. I have office hours on campus, I visit with my student government, I encourage them to get involved. But I think we have to do even more than that — we need to have attractive policies for them, and we need to talk specifically about their plights. Because I’m sure they feel like I did when I graduated — you feel like you don’t really have any safety net but your mom’s basement. I’m not saying they need a safety net, but I am saying they need to be assured that there’s a track for them like their parents had a track.