When Tony Evers handily beat seven opponents in the Aug. 14 Democratic primary for Wisconsin governor (a two to one margin), several of the bigger vote getters may not have come close but they were younger and ferociously progressive, which brought them donations, media attention and slivers of votes.
|Mandela Barnes and Tony Evers at joint Madison campaign event|
Though these polls in methodology seem to favor older voters and landlines, it was also clear that the dust from Aug. 14 has not yet settled and that all the progressive forces, extreme and moderate, will have to knit together to defeat Walker’s superior money, which is already whitewashing the harm his policies have done to Wisconsin.
Now campaign operatives, in exploring how best to win, wonder if Evers should be borrowing from Barack Obama by way of Abraham Lincoln – assembling a “team of rivals” to knit the side together and carry the message in rallies across the state.
The current situation raises an interesting dilemma for Evers campaign staff, since even the recent polls reflect growing disfavor with Walker’s weakening of public education, clearly an Evers strength that scares the state GOP machine. Yet there still in not the degree of uniformity and enthusiasm behind Evers that Democrats were counting on.
So Evers campaign is attacking the biggest first problem – pointing out that their candidate is no pushover despite his image as a “nice guy” and his calmer, more measured approach to tackling the state’s enormous problems.
The voters clearly respected his proven bureaucratic talents in winning three previous statewide elections for superintendent of schools – against a powerful GOP machine. His ability to stymie his opposition hardly makes him a milquetoast but confirm he’s an intelligent and committed fighter. The voters are now learning more about that, thanks to his campaign ads -- how time and again he has thwarted whatever he has been able to thwart in the GOP attack on public school funding.
Walker’s TV ads continue to use Evers congeniality against him -- pushing how Evers praised Walker for returning some of the money he had removed from school funding. It’s hard to conceive that Evers should have ignored even a clear desperation move by Walker to return some of the millions he had cut. Better to ask why Walker is suddenly trying to pretend to be an Evers style nice guy on education, healthcare, the environment and other issues he neglected.
Other Walker ads lie about Evers on the pornography front – since porn is an automatic hot campaign issue for Republicans when not looking in the mirror. But it was Evers who led a rewrite of a state law that had tied his hands with a teacher who looked at porn on a school computer but never showed it to children. Thanks to Evers, even the act of looking is grounds for dismissal, yet Walker who wouldn’t do this is now attacking Evers for following the law and then ignoring how Evers helped change it.
All this proves the desperation of Walker’s defense – he’s a governor who admittedly fears Evers and a blue wave.
So the campaign’s first order of business is to remind voters what the primary vote demonstrated – that Evers’ stubborn but genial commitment to progressive causes is the face most voters want to see applied by state Democrats, even if a more aggressive tone attracted some followers
Evers himself is trim and gaunt, like a long distance runner. I have covered him for years, knowing how intelligently he weighs problems before addressing and how quietly he speaks when finding solutions. He loathes how voucher and charter schools are funded at the expense of public schools but as head of the Department of Public Instruction, he cherished the students and whatever teacher made gains.
Does that mean he can’t falsely promise to stop Foxconn in its tracks, as other candidates did? Does that mean he can’t reverse Act 10 upon assuming office? Does that mean he can’t instantly turn around the policies hurting the environment? Does that mean he can’t promise Medicare for all by a wave of his hand rather than intense work on whatever legislature emerges in November?
Yup, that’s what it means – and a good thing that he is not even tempted to overpromise.
So combustible has become the political environment that the old Wisconsin ideal of working on problems without vitriol seems passé. We live in a world where many voters like to pretend they were not influenced by a drumbeat of false advertising claims from the governor’s dark money about how well off the state is. It’s much like national voters want to pretend that the diet of National Enquirer headlines about Hillary in the supermarket checkout aisles had absolutely no influence on their attitudes.
It is an atmosphere where some progressives fear that a step by step approach to problems signals weakness rather than strength. This atmosphere plus Walker’s vastly superior dark money make Evers’ race an uphill climb. So is it time for an active “team of rivals” strategy?
This was a famous example of cooperation when Lincoln and then Obama combined their thinking with their party opponents for the same office – seeking the best of ideas from all camps.
The danger in a campaign is how openly you do this. Obviously there are some candidates you would be cautious to tap because of their age or their own cultivated image of independence. Obviously Evers may already have good people in mind to seed his future cabinet with.
But there clearly are public camps, generational concerns and mutual goals to talk about.
And some alliances will automatically happen. For instance, Evers’ team makes clear the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, Mandela Barnes, will be a close ally, treated far differently than Walker has in dismissing his own lieutenant governor to unimportant meetings and treated far more closely than Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle treated Barbara Lawton, who could have been a stronger political ally if he had given her space.
Barnes has earned a fighting reputation, not only from his service in the legislature but in his willingness a few years ago to take on as an underdog a Democratic senator he felt was not nearly progressive enough for the Milwaukee African American community they served.
Barnes thus has a high reputation among the forces most Democrats want activated in this contest – and Evers clearly knows and embraces that influence. It should also be noted that Barnes is an expert on the incarceration problem that Evers has expressed concern about, so he would be a natural leader in prison reform.
This is hardly the only natural area of alliance particularly when looking at the primary’s younger candidates. The team of rivals is something all sides should be cleaving together.
In second place in the primary, largely because of union support, was Mahlon Mitchell, president of the state firefighter union who seems a natural partner for Evers in workforce development. The third place candidate, former legislator Kelda Roys who came up fast on the outside because of her feminist appeal, shares Evers passion for education and many of his ideas for health services.
Dana Wachs, the legislator who left the race to back Evers, also has a following. He has been an outspoken opponent of Foxconn and a natural voice in economic development. Another representative who abandoned her seat to run for governor, Kathleen Vinehout, is a walking encyclopedia of how government works and should work.
All such candidates are going to work for Evers anyway, but openly weaving them together after the primary will underscore the collaboration. And consultation – working together -- is Evers style.