Wednesday, April 19, 2017


By Dominique Paul Noth

Even in 1901 Robert M. La Follette Sr. looked like
a governor, and he wasn't even a Democrat! What
will the new Democratic candidate look and
sound like?
I don’t know which is more distressing – the Democrats thinking the game is over because the party has not locked in lead candidates for Wisconsin governor in 2018, or the party assumption expressed at social gatherings  that it has to be someone personally well heeled to take on incumbent Scott Walker.

Talk about stepping on your own options! And having reality backwards. The race has already swept  over Dane County Exec Joe Parisi, Green Bay Packers retiree Mark Tauscher (pretty smart idea), retired state senator Timothy Cullen and now is looking at businessmen (Andy Gronik???)  and some more familiar names.

Not only do I think there is still time, but I’m worried about the price tag being put on the search, as opposed to the unity that must elevate the choice. 

First, let’s dispense with the nonsense that Republicans do it better.  Of course they will always have more money and if that is your standard, just go and lay down in the corner now. This is not a question the Republicans worry about,  since Citizens United and unenforced campaign finance rules in Wisconsin mean  they can rely on a network of dark money to fund Slenderman if that is the choice. Okay, I exaggerate but even if they pick Robin Vos they can raise money. 

Inbred confidence about money puts  the GOP ahead – but  in ways that no one should emulate. And not that far ahead.

Trump may have talked endlessly about money during his campaign – and since -- and received endless free coverage for that. But his actual campaign outlay was lower. Maybe his  voters thought some of his money would rub off on them. Promises were bigger in the Trump campaign. Only now the reality that he doesn’t know how to do diddly is sinking in.

The death rattle of  weak deeds will count most in the campaign against Walker, who already is entering his seventh year in office.  He is not a dumb politician. He makes it sound like it is his Christian and Boy Scout duty to oppose taxes in any shape except for his own secret and dirty   ones. But he has been an ineffective governor. The ship of state just bobs back and forth in the same spot. 

You can hardly quote him to create  ridicule, as you can with Trump. Inelegant? Boastful?  Sure, but hardly a memorable style. He’s much like Trump in promises exuded with confidence, but Walker already has a long  track record of  deception, of policies unfulfilled or exaggerated or misapplied. Current GOP legislators don’t admit this aloud, but he has put many in bind after bind.

This should be a campaign where the Democrats succeed by borrowing from Reagan – the “are you better off” question reaching back to 2010.  Not just  poor families but a typical middle class family of two parents and two kids, or single parents, or farmhands, or storekeepers or  seniors – the bulk of the voters.  It’s tax time. Have them write finances down and then look at the realities.

Despite Walker’s tax pledges, are you truly better off? Because of him?  Can you  claim real savings on property tax, faster transit to jobs, more assured life on the farm, better schooling at reasonable cost,  health care improvements the state is responsible for, better treatment and balance in the environment – or is it mainly promises about not spending like the Democrats of GOP legend? And how has that  welfare to educate the rich worked out for you?

Give Walker the votes of private school beneficiaries,  throw in the  upper class bureaucrats and managers, discount the GOP stalwarts who are wising up,   and the Democrats stand a good chance despite Walker’s lock on the state GOP machinery  and glib evasion on the hard statistics.

It may come down to how the Democrats argue for change, without a smidgen of arrogant superiority and a big dollop of common sense.

Of course money is essential to today’s campaign environment and it is harder for Democrats to scratch it up because they inevitably rely more on poorer voters. But a good candidate for the people is still an overriding advantage. History is one proof. 

Leading into 2008, Obama was not the best heeled candidate  but he stirred the most excitement and that allowed a working system to raise enormous funds.  There were deeper initial coffers on the Hillary Clinton side and it did not matter.

In 2016, Hillary had the money advantage plus the universal sentiment that it was her turn –  yet Bernie Sanders generated more excitement and probably took away the economy as the hottest issue for her. So she had to look elsewhere.   In fact, back then, no one – not even the Sanders camp – questioned her plan to use Trump’s words against him, just as many now are pushing to use Walker’s words against him – you know the 250,000 jobs promise, the opposition to trains  and other failures like that.

Forget the words. Walker’s record is prime for attack on basic principles.  And never underestimate the power of taking a chance.

Right now the state party is consumed in discussing who will lead it behind the scenes even before picking a candidate. Not crazy about that priority. How about this one?

Imagine a Democrat with good ideas about transportation, about jobs and infrastructure, about how to rebuild Wisconsin as an education leader, about embracing the value of our land more than providing a free dump of hog manure into the river or a fouling of the water table. 

Many Democrats need to put such ideas into writing and stop playing defense – or claims of “we obviously know better” -- against the GOP financial  juggernaut.  Remember, some Republicans are longing for the leash to be removed so they can just consider community needs. They may not jump over to the Democrats but their hesitation about Walker will be eminently exploitable.

Nor do the Democrats have a weak bench, just  maybe a younger bench that may have to wait a few years to challenge for the top spot.   I know the Milwaukee bench pretty well and asked some veteran Democratic rainmakers, such as former legislator Gary Goyke, to monitor my ideas and provide a few more names from around the state.  That’s partly to put a lie to the attitude that the Democrats don’t have anyone anymore.

Vinehout in 2012 campaigning at Serb Hall.
Here are names that will grow in importance – Mandela Barnes, Sens.  Kathleen Vinehout and Chris Larson, Reps.  Dana Wachs, Chris Taylor, Katrina Shankland,  Evan Goyke, David Crowley, Daniel Riemer, Manitowoc Mayor Justin Nichols,  Rep. Cory Mason now running for Racine Mayor, Waupaca Mayor Brian Smith  plus a slew of candidates that look appealing (Dmitri Martin, Justin Bielinski, Mandy Wright, Edgar Lin) --  and that’s just from the front of my brain.

Some are too green. Walker may for a long time represent  the last gasp of trusting the state to an immature backbencher whatever his rep as a campaigner. So the Democratic  candidate for governor should have some gravitas and proof of experience and results. 

Name recognition is not as important as the impact that can be built over 18 months and the ability to withstand an onslaught of negativity. The interest should be from the angry  bottom up.

Now it gets tricky. Think like a TV showrunner – because appearance carry weight in the modern era.  It shouldn’t matter, but does the candidate have a voice like Ezio Pinza? Or a voice like Tiny TimHow they sound and talk on the stump will be important.

Can't look like a Coles Bashford in 1855.
It is no lame joke that someone who looks like Lincoln couldn’t win the modern presidency.  Certainly someone as pot-bellied for governor as Coles Bashford  couldn’t be fielded today  -- and he won the governor’s office in a voter fraud scandal in 1856 and  left office ahead of a bribery scandal in 1858  (and we think today’s politics are nasty).

I have heard Vinehout’s peppy style and saw how it worked better with country voters than city ones, and I sense she is eager to run.  There is another factor.  Hillary may be right that there was some misogyny in play and Vinehout may suffer an interesting sort of backlash (men more enthusiastic than women) over the choice issue.  But I also saw how she stepped right in to  help dairy farmers in the Grasslands trade issue, as did Sen. Tammy Baldwin.

I don’t know what Dana Wachs sounds like or how well he speaks, never met him. I know he is being actively courted.   Mainly I noticed the sort of bills Wachs  introduced and backed, particularly a bill on voucher school financial openness that should have come out of Milwaukee.  His ideas have geographic reach though I don’t know if his appeal does. 

Dana Wachs, an unknown face
with a good resume
So if I were going by resume, he would be among those I’d think of. Besides, Vinehout’s  from Alma, Wachs is an assembly member from Eau Claire and I think there is a statewide mistrust of anyone from the Madison or Milwaukee. Not right. But it’s there.

Basically I am annoyed if  the Democratic search puts self-funding ahead of actual doing.  The elements I have outlined  -- what’s best for Wisconsin and who is proven  -- count more than private income or potential celebrity. These are people we’re electing, not interchangeable brands. 

I know this sounds idealistic and actually unrealistic to political insiders, who have to slave to raise funds and long for a head start. They are much more experienced than this outsider in those realities.

But I know what I want after Walker: Restoration in the broadest sense of the Wisconsin Idea.  Even if they are new ideas.  Our state has lingered too long in the middle and near the bottom while once it flooded the nation with hopeful concepts and successful programs.

For 10 years the author, Dominique Paul Noth, served as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press until its demise in 2013 and continues to freelance to many publications as well as write for his own website and review theater for Urban Milwaukee. A professional journalist since the 1960s he has won multiple cultural and political journalism awards and for nearly two decades was film and drama critic before serving as senior editor at the Milwaukee Journal.


  1. Thank you for this commentary, and the shoutout to Kathleen Vinehout (my husband and I have held fundraisers and get-togethers for her, and ardently support a run for governor). I, too, am very uncomfortable with the supposition that a candidate must have been "chosen" already. What is a primary for if not to promote the ideas of Democrats and to get them into the news? Right now, Mr Walker dominates with his every other day visits around the state, at our expense, promoting budget proposals that will not pass. The Dems need to open up to all the potential voters, especially those left behind by the Walker disasters.

  2. How about: