EAU CLAIRE — Eau Claire small-business owner Rebecca Cooke announced today she will run for the open congressional seat representing western Wisconsin.

If elected to the 3rd Congressional District seat held by retiring Democratic U.S. Rep. Ron Kind for nearly 25 years, Cooke would become the district’s first female representative.

Cooke, 34, a Democrat, brings a broad array of experience to her campaign, having operated a retail store, Red’s Mercantile, in downtown Eau Claire for the past six years and running the nonprofit organization Red Letter Grant since 2016. Red Letter Grant, which provides start-up capital, technical assistance and networking opportunities to female entrepreneurs in a 10-county area of western Wisconsin, has helped launch 23 women-owned businesses.

Born and raised on a dairy farm just west of Eau Claire, Cooke also has served on the Downtown Eau Claire Inc. board of directors and was appointed by Gov. Tony Evers to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. board, where she is co-chair of the newly formed Entrepreneurship & Innovation Committee.

“Growing up, it was a struggle to make ends meet like it is for so many Wisconsin farm families, but we always showed up for neighbors in need,” Cooke said. “Those core values of serving others and building community have guided my life, from my own family’s kitchen table to the board room. That drive to bring people together is why I started a small business and founded a nonprofit focused on empowering entrepreneurs right here in western Wisconsin.”

But now Cooke said she’s ready to take the lessons she’s learned in the Chippewa Valley to bring a fresh perspective to politics in Washington, D.C., where she fears many representatives have forgotten where they came from.

“I really feel like career politicians have left us behind,” she said. “I think only we the people can solve a lot of these challenges, and I want to listen to the people and fight for them in the halls of Congress.”

While she hasn’t run for political office before, Cooke is no political neophyte.

After graduating from Eau Claire North High School and St. Thomas University in St. Paul, she served as finance director for several political campaigns, including the successful 2014 reelection bid by California Democratic Congressman Raul Ruiz. She continued doing some political consulting after returning to Eau Claire in 2015.

Thus, Cooke understands the rigors of campaigning in the current hyperpartisan political climate and said she’s “absolutely up for that” even though she prefers a more independent approach.

“I plan to run a common sense campaign that really tries not to play the game of partisan politics,” she said. “I’m about solutions. While on the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. board, I was able to work across the aisle with folks from other parties to get things done. We need more people who will work outside party lines to get things done.”

Cooke’s priorities, if elected, would be to focus on quality-of-life issues such as addressing the cost of health care, creating good-paying jobs, investing in infrastructure and ensuring equal access to education and broadband.

“I’m running for Congress to better serve communities across Wisconsin, provide more opportunities for success and be a relentless fighter for our way of life,” Cooke said. “Our rural communities are tired of Washington turning its back on us, and I’m ready to get to work because we need representation with the lived experience and drive to get results for our region.”

Cooke joins a Democratic primary race that so far includes state Sen. Brad Pfaff of Onalaska and political newcomer Brett Knudsen of Holmen. Pfaff, a former member of Kind’s congressional staff, won election to the Senate last year after Republicans who control the chamber voted not to confirm him as state agriculture secretary, effectively firing him from the post.

Kind announced in August he won’t seek reelection after narrowly defeating Republican Derrick Van Orden in 2020. At this point, Van Orden, a former Navy SEAL who lives in Prairie du Chien, is the lone Republican running for the seat, considered one of the most competitive in the country.

The primary winners will square off in the general election in November 2022.