Last column, I laid out the possibilities of the Democrats taking back the Wisconsin Senate. Somewhat likely. But in the Assembly the odds are gigantic. The Republicans have a 63 to 36 edge.
People better at math than I am say Democrats need to pick up 14 seats to take control. They also say that’s impossible given how extremely the state was gerrymandered after the 2010 census. Few districts started out competitive based on the old voting patterns and there are even fewer now.
But if this turns out to be a wave election up and down the ballot, these smart politicos say, there could be an outsized impact. Major polls now suggest the people want the Democrats in control, and that could include state houses.
Even cutting deeply into the Assembly majority – say by eight or nine -- could have a positive effect, especially to curb Gov. Scott Walker’s tendencies.
A lot of money and pleadings are going on down the ballot to keep Republican voters in their own lane and try to protect locally from what is happening nationally.
But nationally the country is pretty well off by every measure – economics, jobs, more health coverage, etc. Wisconsin? It's lagging most of its neighbors in almost every category – jobs, environment, school funding and transportation. So if people want a state legislative change, the evidence is firmly on their side.
Walker’s answer to everything has been that at least he held taxes down (questionable if you look at where state revenue went and the built-in inequities). To many even in rural Wisconsin that translates into holding down the quality of life.
|AD1 challenger Lynn Utesch
With attached map links to guide you, let’s take a numerical stroll among the most interesting races, possible and previously im. If you have friends in those areas, they need to know this time they have real chance and choices.
Assembly District 1: Issues of clean water, better agriculture and local control are hot buttons right now and they’ve pushed Lynn Utesch into prominence in a race that once looked assured for the Republican. But there is a difference between making noises for the ecology, as GOP Rep. Joel Kitchens has done, and knowing what you’re talking about, which is Utesch’s stock in trade.
The district covers much of Kewaunee County, a sliver of Brown and all of Door County, so Utesch’s roles in Kewaunee CARES and in pushing the Gaylord Nelson environmental vision are having resonance.
Assembly District 14: This would normally be the longest of longshots for the Democrats – except the target is Republican Dale Kooyenga who has not done much for his Brookfield area district, except to drop conservative nostrums in every speech. But he has done a lot of mental damage to the big city that many Brookfield residents believe they are a part of. He’s demeaned Milwaukee deliberately, thinking that is how his community wants him to behave.
If Milwaukeeans know people in his district and start talking things up – such as “Would these suburbanites like an all-boys legally troubled boot camp plopped in their own backyard rather than on Center St.?” -- he could face some embarrassing questions.
Just October 12, the state DPI confirmed that he had been wasting a lot of taxpayer money and time on a bad “MPS Takeover” plan. His OSPP no longer has a target left given how well MPS had improved schools even before he interfered.
You shouldn’t have to live 10 miles away to realize he knows diddley about education. How he’s gotten away with this in Brookfield is hard to figure since back in Madison you can find a number of Republicans unhappy with his tampering in Milwaukee politics.
Now, after the national debacle for Republicans, along with the particular enmity Kooyenga has developed in Milwaukee, Rockwood emerges as prescient engager. I don’t know if a wave could swamp Kooyenga, but I frankly have my fingers crossed.
Assembly District 21 (Oak Creek and South Milwaukee): Here’s a strong chance for a pickup within spitting distance of a solid Democratic stronghold. Republican Jessie Rodriguez is personable but her main focus, and the focus of her legislation, are voucher schools. Oak Creek certainly doesn’t give a fig about that, what with strong public schools and a record in both parties for moderation and working together. Their mayor is a Republican highly regarded by both sides. Their senator is Democrat Chris Larson, who pulled 6,895 votes out of Oak Creek and South Milwaukee in his losing April battle against Chris Abele. If that sort of thinking remains, that’s a lot of voters who could be looking Jack Redmond’s way.
GOP’s Rodriguez won a special election in 2013 and ran unopposed in 2014, but she won in 2013 by successfully branding the Democrat as an interloper. Rodriguez was only eligible then because she lived in the district’s narrow strip in Franklin, a bit of gerrymandering that cut out other potential GOP candidates.
Though she’s moved closer now, she’s the one whose interests look interloperish. “No one has really stepped up to challenge her – the only backing she has is really AFP and AFC [the Koch brothers group and the voucher advocate group],” noted Dan Bukiewicz, Oak Creek resident and president of the Milwaukee Building and Construction Trades Council.
So Redmond knows a lot of people, they know him, and subsequently he has powerful grassroots and union support – nothing Rodriguez’s right-wing backers can exploit. His issues are the working man, more attention to infrastructure and public education, and his experience in negotiations will be a healthy change for Madison.
Assembly District 31: Anger over gerrymandering and what’s happened to public education underline a strange case of young college David taking on female Goliath in the Beloit area.
Republican Rep. Amy Loudenbeck is a true Tea Party baby having first been elected in 2010. So far her principal legislative accomplishment has been helping lift the financial cap on the state voucher school program.
It’s not just politics that ticked off Clinton Anderson, a junior psychology major at UW-Whitewater who easily won the Democratic primary. He knows he has an uphill race against Loudenbeck because of gerrymandering.
What upset him is the way Beloit was carved up to create a Republican leaning 31st, since he can literally step across the street from his house and be represented by a Democrat (Mark Spreitzer, District 45).
Anderson doesn’t give himself much of a chance unless this is an election determined to reverse the mistakes of 2010. “Obviously the same ole same ole isn't cutting it in Madison, so maybe someone like me might be a good change," he told a TV interviewer.
Assembly District 38 (a bit of Waukesha County, then Jefferson County and the east portion of Dane): In 2012 Democrat Scott Michalak could only muster 40% against veteran incumbent and spouse of the lieutenant governor Joel Kleefisch, but there are signs that Kleefisch’s behavior is going to make this closer four years later.
From voter fraud on the floor of the Assembly in 2012, the male Kleefisch’s portrait in news stories has gotten uglier.
In 2013 it was interceding on behalf of a DNR violation by a supporter. Also three years ago it was cribbing legislation and press releases. Two years ago it was attempting to sneak in a special law to please a rich constituent. Last year it was for turkey poaching. And this year he helped Wisconsin make national television (uncomfortably) when HBO’s John Oliver skewered him over the voter ID bill.
The Oconomowoc legislator apparently so assumes no Democrat can win that he isn’t worried about obeying the law.
Michalak, a hearty outdoors type with a basic message of reform, seeks to make the race a squeaker this time even in strongly conservative territory.
Assembly District 40: Think Outagamie, Shawano, Waupaca and Waushara counties and consider the inroads other Democrats are making in this territory, which could well spill over into this Assembly race.
On paper, 10 year GOP veteran Kevin Petersen looked untouchable – but he often ran unopposed and lately supported raising the limit on campaign contributions. This is a new year where Petersen is under harsh attack for engineering an end to the moratorium on nuclear reactors, putting his district at risk of becoming a toxic dumping ground.
Martin and Utesch have been cited in editorials as the fresh faces and community activists the Democrats need.
Assembly District 42: This is an area north of Madison that occasionally gets the progressive breezes. George Ferriter hopes the greater familiarity with Democrats will give him a boost to knock out Republican Keith Ripp, chairman of the state transportation committee who has avoided forums or debates.
Ferriter has a lot of friends busy on Facebook to pass on his messages – but apparently not as busy as he has been at the doors. He’s a Vietnam veteran from a military family, recently retired as a mechanical engineer for Fairbanks Morse, with six grandchildren.
Assembly District 49: No greater study in contrasts in these elections can be found than between progressive Jesse Bennett and WMC praised dairy farmer Rep. Travis Tranel. Bennett, a conservationist and goat farmer native to the region, is the latest to take on GOP’s Tranel, who was born in Iowa and arrived in the Assembly as part of that infamous 2010 splashdown.
Assembly District 50: Juneau County has an interesting contrast in style and age. Republican Edward Brooks though 74 was first elected only eight years ago. Art Shrader, a community banker and veteran of Operation Desert Storm, is new to politics but eager to change things.
“Our state has simply gone the wrong way,” he said. “There are extreme agendas in Madison that have almost defied logic. I see some of these ideas that come out and ask myself, ‘Who wanted this? Who asked for this?’ and it’s not anyone in the 50th Assembly District.”
Assembly District 51: Democrats are convinced they have the right candidate (pun intended) in Jeff Wright (sure enough and what a great name for a website), an assistant principal for the Sauk Prairie Schools whose family roots are deep in Wisconsin and whose anger over what’s been happening in the state propelled him into a winnable contest in this district west of Madison.
This district has been a closely watched thorn for the Democrats, who lost in 2014 to GOP Rep. Todd Novak by 65 votes. So both sides are plugging hard, the Democrats through a Democratic Assembly action committee while Novak is turning to voucher school money (the American Federation for Children is off-loading funds for ads and mailers).
Assembly District 63: Now this one is flat out of reach in Democratic calculations based on past performance. But it is the seat of Robin Vos, the popcorn man who is quickly becoming the second most disliked politician in the state for Democrats, right behind Walker.
Leader of the Majority in the Assembly (which means Speaker) he is noted for the speed with which he cuts off opposition to his ideas and the gleeful fury in his gutting of the Government Accountability Board (confirming his closeness to big business interests). Lately he seems to be positioning himself to run for governor, even if Scott Walker wants to run. He long has been trying to steal Walker’s thunder on budget issues.
His opponent is Andy Mitchell who provides a quiet resume of family life and public interest, with a simple platform of issues that stand in contrast to Vos’ wheeling and dealing.
No chance, the pundits say, recalling how the same candidate, Mitchell, was vanquished in 2014, 63.6 % to 35.7%. But two years can be a long time in politics and Vos has raised his visibility in unflattering ways. Something Mitchell ran on in 2014 may have higher resonance today: "I believe that a state representative should do the work of his constituents and not follow directives of powerful outside interest groups."
Vos has long been whipping the Assembly into line to do the bidding of others but never before has he faced such media exposure. Now the voters are even aware of Vos’ repeated attempts to shut down open records.
Assembly District 68: (Eau Claire and east) Rep. Kathy Bernier is another Tea Party baby from 2010 but she’s been challenged mightily every election since, partly because she makes it sound like Walker and GOP policies have nothing to do with the region’s problems in drawing more industry. She’s given token opposition to Walker’s education cuts, but no affect since there are too darn many Republicans and they don’t mind a selective protest vote.
This time, a truly mild-mannered lawyer, 61 year old Howard White, a lifelong Democrat involved in local issues, has stepped up in a little noticed race. White says he can “bring Chippewa Valley’s real voice back to Madison.”
Assembly District 70: It didn’t take freshman Rep. Nancy VanderMeer long to gain attention with her vote against Walker’s budget while otherwise being a good rubber stamp. But this Tomah region district has swung Democratic in past years and Mark Holbrook, a novice at running though he has supported many campaigns, has stepped up to the task largely because he doesn’t like the bulk of her votes. Other than the budget, “she voted right down the line with Republicans,” he said. “I’m not saying that voting with your party is wrong − I just think it’s wrong if it’s not good for your district.”
Holbrook certainly knows the district. Among his many jobs before he retired, he taught vocational agriculture and served as principal and assistant principal. He feels the legislature must return to issues the community cares about. “I don’t have all the answers,” he tells interviewers, but then suggests he has the right questions and the right attitude – “an honest voice for the people of the 70th, not succumb to outside influences.”
Assembly District 72: Political newcomer David Gorski is taking on almost the poster child for that Tea Party wave of 2010, Scott Krug, who every two years is a chief target for Democrats in a district (Wisconsin Rapids south through Waushara County) they have often won. Krug has been a notorious shadow voice for the state GOP, but Gorski seems unfazed. (As a retired mental health counselor he could have his work cut out for him in Madison.)
Leading environmental groups are among Gorski’s backers in a region that regards ecology as crucial. He wants to restore the meaning of the Wisconsin Idea.”The state needs to return to its historical support for both public education and environmental conservation,” Gorski said.
Wright, a popular and influential Democrat in the Assembly, is heading back if she wins against radio talk show host Pat Snyder.
The Republicans are not giving up and hope outside money remains a big advantage, if locals don’t get irritated with that. Several candidates are hearing the footsteps of right-wing groups where the donors can remain secret.
Trying to recapture AD85 and known as a forceful fighter for public schools, Wright is facing a big threat of outside money from Scott Jensen’s troublemaking group, the American Federation of Children, the voucher school advocates who are making a habit of sticking their outside money into specific races. (I’m told Mandy Wright and Jeff Wright of District 51 are not related, but both are respected educators, so this probably explains why AFC wants to stop them.)
AFC is also expected to dump $380,000 into the District 12 Senate race where newcomer Bryan Van Stippen is already facing a big ad buy by the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity. So financial interests outside the district are hoping to steer the election back to GOP Sen. Tom Tiffany.
It will be interesting to see what voters let them get away with Nov. 8.