Six Democrats took the stage Saturday morning in Eau Claire for what in effect was a giant job interview.
The job they seek now belongs to Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who they all agreed needs to be replaced.
One by one, the candidates took turns making the case for why they are the best person for the top job in Wisconsin government, as about 200 people listened intently during a gubernatorial candidate forum at the Eau Claire Children’s Theatre. The event was sponsored by liberal advocacy group Citizen Action of Wisconsin.
Candidates who participated in person were clean government advocate Mike McCabe of Madison, union leader Mahlon Mitchell of Fitchburg, state Rep. Dana Wachs of Eau Claire, Milwaukee businessman Andy Gronik, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin and former state Democratic Party chairman Matt Flynn of Milwaukee. Former Democratic state Rep. Kelda Roys of Madison took part via a live video feed. State schools Superintendent Tony Evers and state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout of Alma were the only ones unable to participate of the nine top-tier candidates invited by Citizen Action.
Former Wisconsin Democracy Campaign executive director Mike McCabe, who touted his record of devoting much of his career to being a government watchdog, drew some of the most enthusiastic cheers of the day when he pledged to clean up Wisconsin government he portrayed as riddled by corruption and cronyism.
“We need to shake up and transform a political system that is failing us ... so we can have a state government that works for all of us and not just the wealthy and well-connected few,” McCabe said. “I want this state to again become what it was known as for so long — and that is a beacon of open and honest government, an industrial powerhouse and a place where everybody has a seat at the table and everybody can make it in the middle class.”
Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin union President Mahlon Mitchell attracted laughs when he announced to the crowd that he and Walker both attended the same high school in Delavan and then added, “We obviously took some different classes and learned some different lessons.” Mitchell vowed, if elected, to fight for policies that create opportunities for everybody.
Wachs, serving his third term representing the 91st Assembly District, argued that the current state government run by Walker and a Republican-controlled Legislature has strayed from its mission and tilted in favor of the wealthy. “We need to have policy in this state that cares for people, enlarges the middle class and makes sure that there’s economic justice and health care in this state,” he said.
Gronik emphasized that politics as usual isn’t working and said he, as someone who is not a politician, offers voters something different.
“We have a governor that’s beaten establishment Democrats three times, but he does not have a playbook to beat me,” Gronik said. “I’m a former middle linebacker, and I know how to take opponents down.”
Soglin, who has served for 21 years as Madison’s mayor, said he is the only candidate with the experience of defeating three incumbents and running a city with an economy that has received national recognition for its strength, which he attributed to policies that make it a place people want to live.
Flynn highlighted his status as a U.S. Navy veteran and said he has the demeanor, experience and instincts to go toe-to-toe with Walker on the debate stage.
“Up until 10 years ago (in Wisconsin), we were known for honest government and clean water, and now we’re known for corrupt government and dirty water, and I’m not putting up with that,” Flynn said, putting the blame squarely on Walker. “We need a tough, aggressive candidate running for governor against him to take him out before he reapportions again in 2020.”
Roys, a small-business owner, pointed out that the Democratic candidates agree on many policies but said she offers a rare combination of state government and executive experience and has the ability to appeal to sectors of the population such as young voters and independent women that could be key to a Democrat ousting Walker.
An Aug. 14 primary will determine who will take on Walker in the Nov. 6 general election.
Several of the questions audience members asked revolved around the environment, and the Democrats agreed that Walker and the Republicans had not been good stewards of the state’s natural resources, with candidates criticizing the Walker administration for politicizing the Department of Natural Resources.
Flynn labeled Republicans the anti-science party, and McCabe ridiculed the Walker administration for requiring the DNR to remove all mentions of climate change from its website.
Mitchell called it “wrong and criminal” that Foxconn Technology Group has been granted exceptions to environmental rules, Soglin vowed to push for the creation of more biodigesters that would transform cow manure into a major renewable energy source, and Wachs called for cracking down on high-capacity wells.
The Democrats also were highly critical of Walker and the GOP Legislature for passing laws that make it harder for people to vote, such as requiring voters to show photo identification and limiting times for early voting, and for gerrymandering legislative districts for their party’s advantage.
Several of the candidates called for Wisconsin to adopt a redistricting model such as Iowa uses that appoints a nonpartisan panel to draw fair district boundaries.
“Actions speak louder than words. I’ve been working for decades to try to get redistricting reform in Wisconsin,” McCabe said. “Voters should pick their representatives, not the other way around.”
In echoing the assertion of the field that Wisconsin should invest more in public education and less in private voucher schools and prisons, Soglin took it a step further and proclaimed, “We’re going to raise taxes to pay for public schools.”
State Republican Party spokesman Alec Zimmerman defended Walker’s record and portrayed Democratic candidates as out of touch with Wisconsin families.
“While Democrats struggle to sell voters on more of the same failed policies of yesterday, the governor is focused on real results and getting positive things done for Wisconsin, with more people working than ever before, unemployment at an all-time low, Wisconsin businesses expanding and historic investments in our classrooms,” Zimmerman said in an email after the forum ended.
Audience members found the forum useful.
“I just thought it was a good opportunity to get to hear what all of them had to say,” said Pat Montanye of Eau Claire, adding that she was disappointed that Evers and Vinehout were unable to participate.
Mark Stanley of Eau Claire came away feeling positive about the quality of the Democratic candidates.
“As a progressive, I’m very enthusiastic about the whole field,” he said. “We’re going to have a good candidate.”
Former Democratic state Rep. Jeff Smith, now an organizer for Citizen Action Organizing Cooperative of Western Wisconsin, said the group made a conscious decision to invite only the nine candidates it deemed the most serious of the 17 Democrats registered to run for governor. Smith then asked attendees at Saturday’s event to fill out evaluations of the candidates to help the organization reduce the field further and ultimately make an endorsement.
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