EAU CLAIRE — State Rep. Jesse James, R-Altoona, and his Democratic opponent, Emily Berge of Eau Claire, have differing approaches on how the state Legislature should help Wisconsinites deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As a state, we have done the best we could have considering this is a whole new worldly situation that we have never been through before,” James said. “We were able to pass bipartisan legislation in April which helped to provide the necessary tools, resources and (personal protective equipment) for those in our state.”
As the coronavirus evolves into 2021, James said, the Legislature needs to focus on the health care system.
“We can help our Wisconsin health care system stay strong so that COVID patients can get the vital care they need during this health crisis,” he said.
“This means taking whatever necessary steps to keep the curve flattened,” James said.
Concerning the coronavirus, the federal government passed the buck to the state government and the state Legislature passed the buck to local units of government, Berge said.
“I am frustrated that the Legislature has made the decision to not govern in a health and economic crisis. The last day they met was on April 15,” she said.
“If they can’t show up in the worst of times, how can we depend on them in the best of times? People and businesses are struggling,” Berge said. “What we need is leadership, support and solutions.”
Having a game plan about testing, informing the public with science-backed facts, being role models in how to treat others and showing real leadership on how to move forward could do a lot to change the direction we are going in, Berge said.
“Geographic barriers don’t exist when you are talking about a virus, so we need to work together and find plans that can work across borders,” she said.
“We need our elected leaders to be leaders,” Berge said. “As for what solutions, I believe that those who are closest to the problems are closest to the solutions. They need to listen to municipal leaders and citizens to see where help is needed and act to get them that help.”
James, 48, a freshman assemblyman and Altoona’s former police chief, and Berge, 40, a licensed professional counselor and a two-year member of the Eau Claire City Council, face off in the Nov. 3 election for the 68th Assembly District seat.
Berge said she is running for office because her job as a mental health counselor is to listen to people and help them find ways forward.
“I know firsthand how the lack of affordable and accessible health care can devastate a family and prevent people from getting the care they need, especially mental health,” she said.
“I focus on finding solutions, working with people of all persuasions and getting things done, which I think we need more of at the state level,” Berge said.
James said he is seeking re-election to build on his first two-year term.
“My theme was look, listen and learn. I have a long way to go. There is still more work to be done,” he said.
“As a law enforcement officer, it takes you approximately three to five years to get the hang of things and I truly believe the same holds true for this position,” James said. “I have four bills waiting in the Senate to pass and if they don’t make it this time, this will be my priority in January when the session starts.”
James said he is proud to have passed five bills through the Assembly during his first term.
James said his top priority is to do what needs to be done to keep Wisconsin open.
“We have to consider the emotional, mental and spiritual health of everyone during this horrible pandemic. We have to support our educational systems in Wisconsin as our kids need to be in school. We have to look at the transition to virtual learning and the lack of broadband we have in the 68th Assembly District,” he said.
“We have to look at the increased crime rates to include domestic abuse, child abuse, child sexual assaults, alcohol and other abuse, and having services and resources available for people suffering from mental health issues,” James said.
After talking to people in the district, Berge said, the top issues that repeatedly come up are education and health care.
“The current pandemic has made clear just how those two areas impact our lives. As a parent, I am amazed at how teachers and schools have had to make tough decisions and adapt to our new normal. All kids deserve a good education no matter what their ZIP code is, and I hope the challenges we face now will help us realize how we need to prioritize education in our communities,” she said.
Berge said watching COVID-19 cases spike in the 68th Assembly District “concerns me about the capacity of our health care system and access to good, affordable care, which is critical even without the threat of a pandemic.”
Another top priority, Berge said, is internet access. “Businesses, students and employees trying to work from home suffer when they can’t connect,” she said.
Berge said those issues of education, health care and internet access would be her emphasis in the next state budget.
James didn’t say what he would push for in the next state budget.
“That is a very difficult question to answer because we don’t know what our state’s finances are at this time and we are anticipating a budget repair bill, so I will move forward with care regarding the next state budget,” he said.
James said his constituents should vote for him because this position is about partnerships, relationships and effective communication.
“I have started this and continue to form bipartisan friendships looking at the best interests of not only the 68th District, but all of Wisconsin,” he said. “I take pride in being the voice of all of those in the 68th Assembly District.”
Berge said district residents should vote for her because the state Legislature needs to be responsive.
“I work hard to listen and find solutions even in our most challenging times. Right now local governments are stepping up because there is such a vacuum of leadership in our state Legislature during this health and economic crisis,” she said. “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. I have a track record of listening and working on behalf of the people.”
State legislators need to roll up their sleeves and find solutions to the state’s biggest challenges, Berge said.
“All I have seen from our legislators is partisan bickering and pitting communities against each other during our worst economic and health crises,” she said. “Being a leader means you show up, even in the toughest times. Especially in the toughest times.”