Wisconsin Democrats Debate Who Can Beat Scott Walker

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Seven Wisconsin Democrats drew an overflow crowd to the public library in downtown Madison for a final debate on Wednesday night, August 8, before the August 14 primary. The debate was co-sponsored by The Progressive, along with the Madison weekly paper Isthmus and the community radio station WORT.

The August vote will determine who runs against Republican Governor Scott Walker. Walker is seeking a third term, after weathering the massive protests of 2011 over his controversial Act 10 law ending public employees’ collective bargaining rights, surviving a 2012 recall effort, and winning re-election in 2014 with a divisive political message that helped turn Wisconsin into a red state in 2016, redrawing the national electoral map.

In Madison on Wednesday night, Democrats argued about what it will take to turn the tide.

Tony Evers, the state superintendent of public instruction, is leading the field with 31 percent in the latest Marquette Law School poll. Seven other Democrats (including Mahlon Mitchell, the head of the statewide firefighters union, who missed Wednesday’s debate) all posted poll numbers in the single digits. Evers told the audience that he is the only candidate who can beat Walker.

With his gentle, smiling demeanor and a thick Upper Midwest accent, the lanky, white-haired Evers reminded voters of his small-town roots in Plymouth, Wisconsin, and his success winning three statewide races for superintendent, carrying all of the counties in the northern and central parts of the state.

Leading candidate Evers reminded voters of his small-town roots in Plymouth, Wisconsin, and his success winning three statewide races for superintendent, carrying all of the counties in the northern and central parts of the state.

“This race will not be won just bashing Scott Walker,” Evers said. Instead, Democrats must speak to Wisconsinites’ aspirations—great schools, a clean environment, good health care, and a well-maintained infrastructure. “Those are Wisconsin values,” Evers said, “and we are going to win on those because they are not Scott Walker’s.”

But Matt Flynn, a Milwaukee lawyer and former chair of the state Democratic Party, launched an aggressive attack against Evers for not being tough enough.

Reminding voters of the high stakes in the race against Walker, he warned, “If we don’t beat him . . . the University of Wisconsin is going to get strangled, and Act 10 will be deeply embedded in law, and there will be a new reapportionment in 2030 that will destroy this state.”

“So regardless of whom you may like or not like, the question I ask you to consider is this: Who can beat him?”

By praising Walker’s education budget, Flynn said, Evers has failed to offer a contrast: “It gives the appearance of Republican-light.” Furthermore, he added, Evers is not the kind of “aggressive, articulate candidate who’s going to get up there and eviscerate [Walker] on the stage.” Walker, he told Evers, “will have you for lunch.”

Evers called Flynn’s attack a “cheap shot,” and defended the education budget, which, he said, he wrote and Walker adopted almost in its entirety.

As for the idea that he is the “Republican-light” candidate, “Frankly, that is an outrageous comment from someone that I respect,” Evers said, sounding like a true ambassador of Midwestern civility. “We can win this race without that type of diatribe, I’ll tell you that right now.”

The audience at the library burst into applause. Clearly, as even Flynn seemed to acknowledge, Evers is the more likable candidate, and the room was with him.

In Illinois or New Jersey, or any other state with a brass-knuckles political culture, Flynn’s attack would be unremarkable. But in Wisconsin, where progressives and Democrats continue to lament Walker’s “divide-and-conquer” politics, and often call for a return to a more civilized era, Flynn’s aggressiveness seemed out of step.

Still, he might have a point.


Twice before, Democratic candidates have sought to unseat Walker by essentially calling for a return to more bipartisan times. In both the recall election against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and in his 2012 re-election run against businesswoman Mary Burke, Walker’s bitter politics won.

It might take a more aggressive approach for the Democrats to turn things around.

The issue of civility came up in various ways during the debate. Kelda Roys, a former state legislator who has raised far more money than all of the other Democrats, including Evers, had to answer for a negative campaign ad she once ran when she was competing for an open Congressional seat against Madison’s popular progressive representative in Congress, Mark Pocan. What lesson had she learned from that losing race, she was asked.

“Don’t go up against a well-loved, great progressive candidate with a negative ad,” Roys said wryly. She and Pocan are friends now, she said. But, she added, “We have to be able to disagree with each other and move our country forward.”

Mike McCabe, the founder of Blue Jean Nation, an organization for political independents, and the former head of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a campaign finance watchdog group, is the only candidate who has not pledged to support whichever Democrat ultimately wins the primary, a debate moderator pointed out. McCabe almost didn’t run as a Democrat, the moderator added, and “It’s safe to say you are not favored by the party establishment”—so how can he win?

All of the candidates raised their hands when asked if they would legalize marijuana. Everyone supported increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour. All would focus on reducing the state’s prison population by releasing non-violent offenders.

McCabe does not believe in party loyalty oaths, he said—and neither do “the people we need to convince if we are going to beat Walker. Wisconsinites want a government that works for all the people, not just the wealthy and powerful.”

Madison Mayor Paul Soglin—a fixture of progressive politics in Madison since the 1970s—fielded a question on his penchant for tart remarks that “alienate your allies” on the city council. “No!” Soglin said in mock horror. He refused to back away from using the word “traitors” to describe some Madison city council members with whom he disagreed, and said he’d write in his own name if forced to choose among Democrats on a ballot for governor that did not have his name on it.

But apart from Flynn’s attack on Evers, the atmosphere among the Democratic candidates and the audience in Madison was relaxed and friendly.

In answer to the question, “Who would you vote for if your own name were not on the ballot?” the candidate who got the most votes from the other Democrats was state senator Kathleen Vinehout. Both Tony Evers and Mike McCabe chose Vinehout, a dairy farmer from Alma who sits on the budget committee and has an impressive command of all things finance.

Vinehout is the picture of amiability—she chuckled and guffawed through much of the debate and appeared to be enjoying herself in a running side conversation with Soglin. But Vinehout can also be aggressive. In the state senate she frequently goes after her Republican colleagues with detailed attacks on the damage they’ve done, particularly to rural schools. Evers said he would vote for her because of her staunch defense of public education. Like Evers, she made a pitch for her own candidacy based on her rural roots. “We can’t win with just Madison and Milwaukee,” she said.


All of the candidates raised their hands when asked if they would legalize marijuana. Everyone supported increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour. All would focus on reducing the state’s prison population by releasing non-violent offenders.

Everyone would spend more money on public schools, but most were hesitant to say they would raise taxes and instead talked about rearranging budget priorities—which prompted a cranky response from Mayor Soglin. “Cut the crap,” he said. “If you’re going to spend more money on schools, you’ve got to spend more tax money.”

While Evers, McCabe, and Vinehout were arguing for wooing rural voters—some of whom may have supported Walker—Roys reminded people that younger voters who didn’t turn out have cost the Democrats the last several elections.

One notable difference among the candidates was generational. In the mostly gray-haired group, Roys was the face of a younger generation. She is thirty-eight, the same age as another contender, Milwaukee lawyer Josh Pade (Pade has raised the least money and was at 0 percent in the latest Marquette poll). The two stood out from the field of candidates who range from their mid-fifties to their seventies. (Mahlon Mitchell, the absent candidate, is forty.)

Along with age comes a difference in perspective—on the issues, and on what makes a winning candidate.

Roys’s viral TV ad that showed her nursing her baby worries some voters. “What will women up north think?” a neighbor asked me after the debate. “Every woman in the world does that!” my eleven-year-old daughter shot back in disgust.

Wisconsin has never had a woman governor. But it’s hardly a cutting-edge concept.

Among the debaters on state, Roys was also the only one to emphasize student debt. She talked about a generation of students coming out of college “not at zero, but at negative $30,000”—because of college loans. A tech entrepreneur, she declared that “the economy has changed.” Without guaranteed pensions and benefits packages, she said, “we need to decouple health care” from employment. She favors an experiment in universal basic income. She was the most vocal defender of restoring funding for Planned Parenthood and community health care clinics to address Wisconsin’s health-care “emergency.”

Even before Flynn launched his attack on Evers for not being tough, Roys was asserting herself—the first to break into the conversation after Evers made his opening remarks. She urged voters to choose the candidate who shares their values and who can beat Walker—“That’s why I’m here,” she said, touting her fundraising advantage both in Wisconsin and outside the state. “I have the energy and experience,” she said. “Democrats need to be inspired to vote.”

While Evers, McCabe, and Vinehout were arguing for wooing rural voters—some of whom may have supported Walker—Roys reminded people that younger voters who didn’t turn out have cost the Democrats the last several elections.

Between those two groups—the divided and the disaffected—lies the path to victory for Democrats in Wisconsin.



Source

USA News

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