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What will Joe Biden do for Racine County?  • Wisconsin Examiner

It’s pretty clear what Racine County — a purple region in the critical, tipping-point state of Wisconsin — can do for Joe Biden. 

According to the AP, all but five of the past 33 winning presidential candidates have carried the county. Trump was one of the exceptions — he won here in 2020 but lost to Biden, who was the first Democrat since 1976 to win Wisconsin without carrying Racine County. This year Biden sees an opportunity to take back this area on the teetering edge of political and economic change.

But the question on the minds of voters standing outside the Gateway Technical College in Sturtevant, Wisconsin, as the president arrived Wednesday was: What will Joe Biden do for Racine County?

Colin McKenna, a Biden supporter, waiting for the president in Sturtevant | Wisconsin Examiner photo

Politically, the president scored a touchdown with his announcement of a $3.3 billion investment by Microsoft on the old Foxconn site. He did an endzone dance on the very spot where former President Donald Trump and former Republican Gov. Scott Walker broke ground with golden shovels in 2018, promising a $10 billion manufacturing plant by the Taiwanese company that Trump said would be “the eighth wonder of the world.”

“You kidding me?” Biden said to knowing laughter from a crowd well aware of the Foxconn fiasco. “Look what happened. They dug a hole with those golden shovels, and then they fell into it.”

“Foxconn turned out to be just that — a con,” Biden said, connecting that false promise in Racine County to all of Trump’s false promises to rebuild American infrastructure and create manufacturing jobs. “83,500 total jobs left Wisconsin during my predecessor’s term,” he said, contrasting that number with 178,000 Wisconsin jobs the White House says were created during Biden’s administration.  “We’re going to create more here in Racine,” he added, “and big time.”

According to Biden, 2,300 union construction jobs will be required to build the new Microsoft cloud and artificial intelligence data center in Racine County, which will take advantage of infrastructure that was installed in anticipation of the failed FoxConn plant. After the building phase, Biden said, there will be another 2,000 permanent, “good paying” jobs for workers in the data center. 

In its press release touting the project, Microsoft does not mention a specific number of permanent jobs.

But the company did announce that it is working with Gateway Technical College to build a new Data Center Academy to train and certify more than 1,000 students over five years to work in the new data center — as well as in other IT sector jobs. The company also announced investments in new training programs in local schools and colleges, and through “immersive boot camps” for local community, civic and business leaders — all to learn how to use Microsoft AI software.

The Microsoft announcement in Racine County was an odd blend of old and new.

Biden made a poetic, emotional appeal to blue collar workers in this old manufacturing hub — a strong counterpoint to the bitter rightwing populism of Trump, whose pitch to the same audience is full of retribution and light on any detailed vision for better days. 

“Folks, I’m here to talk about a great comeback story in America,” Biden said. “I’m sure you remember Racine was once a manufacturing boom town all the way through the 1960s. … And then came trickle-down economics, cut taxes for the very wealthy, the biggest corporations. … We shipped American jobs overseas, because labor was cheaper. We slashed public investment in education and innovation. And the result: We hollowed out the middle class. My predecessor and his administration doubled down on that failed trickle-down economics.”

Biden, who declared that he is proud to be called “the most pro-union president in U.S. history,” has a better vision. His investments in infrastructure and his support for labor and rebuilding the middle class are, in fact, reason for hope. 

And yet … 

Martin Hying Martin Hying standing outside the Biden event in Sturtevant | Wisconsin Examiner photo

Standing at the edge of the security perimeter two blocks outside the event, Martin Hying, a Racine resident who said he’s been an I.T. professional since the 1980s, held a sign that said “A datacenter does not create 2,000 local long-term jobs. It might create 20. I know. I run three.”

“You don’t need 2,000 people to maintain a facility like this,” Hying said.

Plus, he added, the higher skilled jobs involved in maintaining the data center’s servers can be done remotely. “They can be anywhere. They can be in Colorado, or they could be in Cambodia or Calcutta, anywhere in the globe.”

“The problem is it’s nowhere near the employment levels that they’re talking about,” said Hying. “And the 20 people who are maintaining these facilities are the people sweeping the floors. So they’re not the people programming the computers. So they’re not six-figure jobs.”

Hying wanted to attend Biden’s speech, but he said even after making multiple calls to local government officials and the Democratic party office, he couldn’t get any information about how people got invited to the closed event. That also bothered him. 

He did think it was a good idea to make use of the infrastructure that was built for the failed Foxconn project. But, he said, “let’s not exaggerate … how much impact this is going to actually have in revenue and income for employees. Because it’s a data center. It’s an unmanned, unmanaged facility from that standpoint.”

Hying also worries about the impact on the power grid and utility costs for local residents. “All of the power that we’re building out to maintain that infrastructure is power that can’t be used for other construction projects in the area. …  And they’re subsidizing businesses like this by increasing our rates.”

A recent Stateline story backs up that concern. States have been rethinking data centers as “electricity hogs” that strain the local grid without delivering many jobs, reporter Kevin Hardy found. 

“Compared with other employers that states compete for, such as automotive plants, data centers hire relatively few workers,” Hardy reported. “Still, states have offered massive subsidies to lure data centers — both for their enormous up-front capital investment and the cachet of bringing in big tech names such as Apple and Facebook. But as the cost of these subsidy programs balloons and data centers proliferate coast to coast, lawmakers in several states are rethinking their posture as they consider how to cope with the growing electricity demand.”

Mindful of this concern, Microsoft’s press release on its Racine County project promises to build a new 250 megawatt solar project in Wisconsin that will begin operating in 2027, generating 4,000 megawatts – “an amount of power equivalent to what’s needed to power more than 3 million homes.” The company also pledges that the new datacenter will use recycled water by employing a closed loop cooling system.

Biden in Sturtevant, Wis Biden in Sturtevant | Screenshot via WhiteHouse.gov

Biden waxed enthusiastic about training the next generation of workers, building “an artificial intelligence ecosystem right here in Racine” that will be “transformative,” because “folks are getting trained in new high-paying, high-skill jobs that don’t require a four-year college degree and don’t require you to leave home.” But here, too, there’s reason to worry.

Biden put his trademark personal spin on the idea of generating lots of new, remote jobs in AI, saying, “I know what it’s like when your parents have to move a family and search for work because there are no jobs, what it does to the family’s dignity.”

But unlike Biden’s other programs supporting American manufacturing and requiring the use of American workers and American products, the AI venture might not be a path to long-term economic security through family-supporting jobs.

The business press is full of stories like a Forbes exploration of “the dark side of AI” that predicts “widespread job displacement and automation.”

It seems poignant that Biden, who so effectively sums up the feelings of abandonment and loss in a former manufacturing hub, is promoting a future that might not be such a good deal after all. 

“When folks see a new factory being built here in Wisconsin, people going to work making a really good wage in their hometowns, I hope they feel the pride that I feel — pride in their hometowns making a comeback, pride in knowing we can get big things done in America still,” he said as he wound up his speech, adding, “Folks, I’ve never been more optimistic.” 

In Racine County, that optimism is tinged with a big dose of caution. 

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originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2024%2F05%2F09%2Fwhat-will-joe-biden-do-for-racine-county%2F by Ruth Conniff

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