Thursday, October 18, 2018


By Dominique Paul Noth

Nurse practitioner Emily Siegrist reflects
 the new energy and commitment of Democratic
 candidates shaking up supposedly Republican
bases like River Hills (Assembly District 23).
Republicans in the Madison legislature are depending on an old reliable friend to stay in power – ignorance.  Ask the many candidates fighting to replace them Nov. 6

This is ignorance built up over decades to block any blue wave and it has some tried and true buddies -- inertia and skewed maps -- along for the ride.

The main ignorance is simply that most residents don’t know who represents them and in exactly what assembly or state senate district they live, and the Republicans are counting on that. Surprisingly few voters are steeped in our fast-moving politics – and the GOP is also counting on that. 

The gerrymandering of 2011 was so deep and vast – and unnoticed -- that there is already an imbalance favoring Republicans in many districts, including some once competitive. That means that unless residents are agitated to seek change, and only if there has been hot debate within households long bound to one party over the other, the residents are expected by the GOP to remain complacent.  (To be fair, some Democrats think that way, too.)

Some of the key issues – such as health care protecting pre-existing conditions and tax policies allowing  local control and communities to grow – are important in the details, but the Republicans in power are just not interested in talking about these.  After all, what defense of the failures  could they offer? And they’ll certainly pretend the “failures” are enemy exaggeration.

Our ego helps our ignorance along. Everybody you talk to says “I vote for the person and not the party label.” I asked several of the newer candidates if they believed that was true – and they laughed. Based on months of experience, they said, “It’s just not so.” The D or R after the name is still a determinative and it is hard for many voters to take a deeper interest than party label  Nov. 6.

As pointed out in previous stories, the challengers are not familiars from the Democratic stable but neighborly residents of the community – business owners, community volunteers, even nature guides, local attorneys, many first timers in reaching out to voters. 

Sandy Pasch in 2013
“I am so happy we are getting young hungry people running for office,” said a retired veteran Democrat of the Assembly who still keeps her ear to the ground on political affairs, Sandy Pasch.  “A lot of older Democrats frankly gave up because of gerrymandering but be clear, I mean older in political age, not chronological  age.” 

“Over time  the makeup changes in a district,“ she points out.  Conceding her partisan bias, she adds a pretty established truth.  Republicans “tend to just exchange bodies relying on the R and their voters go a long time without even seeing their state rep.”  This year that laziness – just inserting new pieces into an old system --  is hurting the incumbents.

The Democratic candidates often represent a significant change from the past, limited by money and the number of doors they can personally knock in each community to introduce themselves. But the more the voters become aware, the less these candidates come across like the politicians of yore.

Still, even today the inertia of some communities about Nov. 6 is often the most noticeable thing when you visit – no yard signs, no agitation in local shops and stores about the issues, streets where folks next door don’t talk to each other and, sometimes, seem unwilling to offend neighbors (they might be conservatives!) by raising their voice.

Lillian Cheesman
“I can’t tell you how many times a voter has been friendly to me at the door but looks around to see who is watching,” said Lillian Cheesman, the Democrat running against incumbent Joe Sanfelippo in Assembly District 15 (West Allis area).

In many communities, the inertia is even more reinforcing than the R or the D after a name. There are not even sidewalks in some communities to make door knocking feasible and Republicans more than Democrats seem to rely on such isolation. It takes money, foot energy  and muscle power to overcome.

Yet today in the North Shore suburbs, there is a lot of political agitation in communities with slightly more wealth, more mobility and free time to engage in politics.  Little noticed by the media, many North Shore districts in Republican hands are on the verge of flipping.

In working class communities such as West Allis, or more isolated neighborhoods like Franklin or Brookfield, it is harder to get a lively conversation going about politics. Insiders offer reasons.

When parents have to work two or three jobs to maintain a good lifestyle “they  may think that’s normal and agree with Republicans that it’s the sign of a  good economy,” said one campaign worker in Waukesha County. “These residents have gone so long without that they don’t realize how much a good state legislature could have been doing to help them.”

Similar issues surround the cost of health care, the quality of education, pollution in creeks and potholes on the roads – either residents think that’s all normal or it is not something an elected official can solve. Noted Pasch,   “Many voters don’t believe who is in office affects them.”

She thinks one of the changes this year is the fresh faces that are leading the Democratic insurgency and the determination to forge lasting change.

Candidate Chris Rahlf
In Washington County Assembly District 60 (Saukville, Cedarburg, Port Washington), Democrat Chris Rahlf has firsthand experience about the difficulties  even as her campaign attempts to make headway in a scattered cluster of towns and cities. 

Her opponent may have been censored by his own party for sexist and racist remarks aimed at female (GOP!) lawmakers, but while he agreed to relinquish his assembly leadership role, Rob Brooks insisted on still running again for office.  Though his vagaries were written up in Wisconsin media, Rahlf noted, “Most of the voters in Washington County don’t know who he is, certainly not from personal appearances or discussing his record.”

Instead, she noted, he is in present mainly  in huge plastic signs put up in vacant lots. “I think these are the sort of games that leave lots of voters fed up,” she said.

The problem of trying to discuss issues with the Republicans has become endemic in this election. Ducking debates and candidate forums is clearly the modus operandi of the GOP.  Or setting ridiculous conditions.

The Ozaukee Press detailed the anger of the Ozaukee League of Women Voters, a non-partisan group famous for setting up neutral forums and debates, when the Republicans flatly called them “a group of left-leaning activists masquerading as a non-partisan group” to avoid their famous nationally-recognized  system.  Instead, the GOP wanted to set up a student-organized forum at a friendly site – Concordia College --  miles away from several of the districts invited to participate. 

Rahlf turned down the offer as did Emily Siegrist, running a successful race in River Hills-Germantown area Assembly District 23, and as did Liz Sumner of Fox Point, who is shaking up the Assembly District 24 race so hard that Jim Ott can longer rely on his climate change “doubting Thomas” meteorologist reputation.

Siegrist is surprising observers in what is state Sen. Alberta Darling’s backyard because many don’t even know who her GOP opponent is (Dan Knodl), so stealthily has he campaigned, preferring traditional Republican intractability and financial advantage in the area. But voters have been responding in large numbers to Siegrist’s rallies in Menomonee Falls and Germantown and to her life story. With Mexican heritage and a loving adopted family she became a military medic and then a nurse practitioner. In a year in which health care and mental health care are strong on the ballot her personality and background are being listened to.

Candidate Liz Sumner
Sumner, a member of the Fox Point village board,  is also benefitting from campaign advice from the national as well as the state Democratic Party whose leader, Martha Laning, has added staff and services and still wishes the party had “more money for so many good candidates.”  Make no mistake, it is giving what money it can and she cites chapter and verse.

But the nature of the election has put unusual stress on down-ballot money raising, especially with the Democrats fielding responsible candidates in so many state senate and assembly races.

One reason the money is tight is that the Internet has made Wisconsin citizens a target for races for senate and governor around the nation, many with legitimate claims for small donor giving from Arizona to Massachusetts, a small-donor arena where the Democrats are doing well.

If you ask believers in the blue wave, they are convinced it will happen in such statewide races as US senate, governor and attorney general but are less positive as you work down the ballot. “We know that someone voting for me is a vote for Tammy Baldwin,” said Cheesman. “But can we be sure that every vote in our district that Tammy’s forces get is also a vote for me?”

Local assembly races show an interesting tale of tight money.  At the state party’s website,, if you enter your address to find the Democrats listed on your local ballot you will discover the down-ballot candidates have been encouraged to load background profiles and even a video to help voters. But there  is a $50 fee, enough to make some candidates balk at providing details, unsure how effectively the website will be used by voters looking for  basic information.

“$50 is a lot of money as you work down the ballot,” said one assembly candidate.  “We are not in the position of local Republicans who get recurring retainers to fund established flyer delivery and radio ads.”

In fact, if you browse the free online voting guides, you often find the Democratic candidates have dutifully answered questions but the incumbent Republicans simply don’t bother.

A cynical veteran West Allis Democrat puts it more bluntly. “I admire the energy of these candidates but they are facing decades of built-in  patterns by the GOP, which is counting on those to carry them through again. We no longer have local newspapers that will follow every issue.  Look at conservative radio – it is providing Republicans hours of free airtime, so they don’t have to work in person, as the newer Democrats do – they can count on seven to 11 contacts simply through media and flyers.”

“I think this is where younger Democrats go awry,” said another veteran legislator who has won four campaigns. “This is the time of year when money and organization do  make a difference and it takes a lot more than raw passion to overcome.”

This is the negative history confronting undoubted new energy and new voters, an energy that  also depends on a public angry with how the Republicans duck and what they won’t talk about. 

Candidate Robyn Vining
In Assembly District 14 (Waukesha County into Milwaukee through Wauwatosa), Robyn Vining is not going to interrupt her success by  going down the rabbit-hole after her strange opponent, former state GOP treasurer Matt Adamzyk,  who is ducking talking about the issues and clearly doesn’t want to talk about his dismaying track record in an office he tried to close.

 “I haven't wanted to use my time to jump through hoops to ask (for forums) and then complain he won't debate,” she said. “It's time consuming, and there are far worse things about him than that he's hiding from debates. So, that's not something I'm fussing with.” 

Nor is Julie Henszey, the state senate candidate in overlapping District 5, wasting a lot of time pursuing her opponent, former Rep. Dale  Kooyenga, whose temper tantrums and drinking have put him back in the news and on  video.

Julie Henszey running for state senate
Kooyenga has already declined a big forum organized by Wisdom for Justice and so far only agreed to an event on familiar home turf (Elmbrook School District). Like other Republicans, he is relying on past voting patterns, but that may not work for him, given the past occupant of the office was Leah Vukmir, who is doing badly in debates with US Sen. Baldwin.

At the forum he did attend, Kooyenga defended voucher schools and Act 10 while Henszey tried to point out to him that the state is now “reaping what we’ve sown.”

Head up to Door County and you’ll find similar GOP avoidance in a state senate contest that is actually a repeat from the summer when Democrat Caleb Frostman won against Andre Jacques in the First District that covers Door and Kewaunee counties as well as parts of Brown, Outagamie, Calumet and Manitowoc counties.

Hoping to stay senator Caleb Frostman
As a journalist I was hoping --  this race being a repeat – for some in-person debate on basic issues, but Jacques from all reports is adopting the Republican playbook of relying on friendly maps and friendly past voting patterns.

Pasch in our interview noted that likelihood.  “The gerrymandering will slow change down, but we will pick up seats,” she said.

But like others asked for comment on how much and how many will win, she suggests it not only depends on the voter turnout but also -- frankly -- on how much residents care for each other and their neighbors.

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.  


  1. Rob Brooks current behavior was virtually predictable. I posted this during his primary campaign. Not many still are aware who he really is, just political spins he puts on his campaign website.

    Feel free to like and share.

  2. A barman will bring bar behavior. And it did. :( It's not rocket science.

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