With four Democrats who share many similar views seeking the same legislative seat in a rare August primary, projecting the winner or the number of votes needed for victory is nearly impossible.
This is uncharted water in the 91st Assembly District, which is widely considered a strong Democratic district and is comprised of most of the city of Eau Claire. Candidates seeking the seat are Jodi Emerson, Eric Larsen, Rich Postlewaite and Thomas Vue, all of Eau Claire.
Three-term Eau Claire Democratic state Rep. Dana Wachs, the only person to represent the 91st District as it is currently configured, created the logjam when he elected not to file for re-election because he was running for governor. He since has suspended his gubernatorial campaign and is as puzzled as everyone else about who will succeed him.
“I have no idea what to expect,” Wachs said. “We’ve got four good, talented people who are bringing different things to the table. I think any one of them would be good.”
The leading vote-getter among the four Democrats in the Aug. 14 primary will move on to the Nov. 6 general election to take on the lone Republican in the race, Echo Reardon of Eau Claire.
As one of only five Assembly primaries in the state with at least four candidates from the same party and a race sharing the ballot with eight Democrats seeking to challenge GOP Gov. Scott Walker, the 91st District primary may draw higher-than-normal turnout, but nobody really knows because it’s still competing with summer vacations, beaches and back-to-school preparations.
For the candidates, the top challenges in such a crowded primary are trying to introduce themselves to as many voters as possible and differentiate themselves from their generally like-minded competitors.
Emerson, 45, pointed to the practical political experience she gained during five years as director of public policy and community relations at the anti-human trafficking advocacy group Fierce Freedom as something that sets her apart.
In getting seven bills passed to protect victims of human trafficking and punish those who buy and sell people, she said, “I was able to bring people together from opposite ends of the political spectrum to get something done.”
Proud of her record working on local, state and national public policy at Fierce Freedom, Emerson decided to run for Assembly to put her connections and talents to use on behalf of all Eau Claire residents.
“I accomplished a lot in the anti-human trafficking realm and wanted to take those same skills and work on other issues we’re facing in the 91st. This was the next way I felt I could contribute to the community,” she said. “I’m the one with the experience and the connections to hit the ground running on Day One.”
While her professional experience focused on one issue, Emerson noted that she has experience with several other issues as a mother and community member. Specifically, she mentioned focusing on education as a former parent-teacher association president, dealing with the need for affordable, accessible health care when her family faced medical issues and volunteering at agencies helping the homeless.
“I look at this job as being a representative of Eau Claire and taking the stories that I hear and that people tell me and being able to work on behalf of the citizens of Eau Claire,” Emerson said.
Larsen, 59, emphasized his more than 30 years of service to the community, including 28 years at the Eau Claire Police Department, one year at the Lake Hallie Police Department and four years on the Eau Claire City Council.
“I think the length and breadth of my experience in public policy is above the other candidates,” he said.
In particular, Larsen pointed to his leadership while at the Police Department on policy issues such as passing an electronic pawn shop registration ordinance, regulating adult bookstores, pushing to establish the Chippewa Valley Regional Computer Forensic Laboratory and installing prescription drug disposal bins at the Eau Claire County Courthouse as examples of experiences that would serve him well in Madison.
“When I got to the end of my police career, I was inspired by what can be done through public policy,” said Larsen, a former deputy police chief. “I realized that you can reduce crime if you have good public policy instead of just by chasing criminals.”
Larsen also acknowledged another aspect of his candidacy that sets him apart from his competitors: He was a Republican for most of his life, even once serving on the executive committee of the Eau Claire County Republican Party.
He had a public divorce from the GOP and became a Democrat about five years ago after objecting to Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10, massive cuts to education funding by the Republican-controlled Legislature and other GOP policies.
“The more I looked at public policy, the stronger a Democrat I became,” Larsen said. “My views have taken a definite shift to the left. I’m now very much a believer that the government really can improve people’s lives.”
Postlewaite, 55, highlighted his resume — 12 years as a business agent for local unions, the past five years teaching about politics and government at UW-Stout in Menomonie after previous teaching stints at UW-Eau Claire, Chippewa Valley Technical College and Lakeland College, and decades of working on political campaigns — as an asset that, if elected, would help him to be effective immediately in Madison.
Among his campaign highlights were serving as state director for Democrat Jerry Brown’s presidential campaign and northwest Wisconsin field coordinator for Russ Feingold’s successful Senate campaign, both in 1992.
“I’ve run campaigns and helped people get elected, I’ve read the state and federal Constitutions, and I’ve taught young people about how the process works,” Postlewaite said.
His work negotiating contracts for the Wisconsin Education Association Council and the Teamsters familiarized him with several issues important to Wisconsin workers — wages, health insurance, retirement benefits and working conditions — and also taught him how to bring two competing sides together to reach an agreement.
“By negotiating all those contracts, I’ve learned the art of compromise,” Postlewaite said.
Vue, 57, maintained his nine years on the Eau Claire City Council give him experience listening to constituents, studying issues and making policy decisions that would help him succeed in the Legislature. Like Larsen, Vue stressed his role in supporting the revitalization of downtown Eau Claire while on the council.
Vue also didn’t hesitate playing the race card.
He emphasized his background as a Hmong American who spoke no English when he arrived in the United States in 1979 and now is bilingual and the potential historic nature of him possibly becoming the first Hmong state legislator in Wisconsin.
“We need to have more diversity in the state Legislature in Madison so I can get more civic engagement from the community at large, not just for Eau Claire but for the state of Wisconsin,” Vue said. “I really believe that the over 45,000 Hmong people in Wisconsin don’t feel like the vote is very important for them. I’d like to listen to their voice and tell them to vote each time we have an election.”
If his bid for office is successful, Vue said he believes it could inspire more Hmong candidates to run for office in the future and more Hmong residents to vote and otherwise get involved in politics. Hmong volunteers supporting his campaign from La Crosse and the Twin Cities are evidence of that pent-up political enthusiasm, he noted.
Vue also said his path from a janitor making $2.75 an hour to a City Councilman with a professional job and college degree helps him appreciate the importance of education and the struggles of people from all socioeconomic levels.
Though they agree on a lot of issues, the 91st District candidates differed somewhat when asked what issues they would prioritize as a legislator.
Postlewaite said he would like to put more emphasis on treatment and less on incarceration for people struggling with addiction to opioids and methamphetamine.
Increasing funding for the UW System and improving access to health care are among his other top priorities, Postlewaite said. He proposed improving access and affordability by expanding broadband so people with minor illnesses or limited resources could communicate with medical experts and possibly receive treatment over the internet or by phone.
Vue also emphasized the need for affordable health care and his desire to restore lost funding to K-12 schools and the UW System.
“We want our children to receive the best education,” Vue said.
Larsen called for restoring funding for public education, collective bargaining rights for public workers, restriction on “dark money” in campaigns and the indexing of the gas tax to help pay for repairs to crumbling roads — essentially undoing some of the damage he believes Walker and the Republicans in the Legislature have done during eight years of controlling state government.
“I believe they’ve moved us 180 degrees in the wrong direction,” Larsen said.
Emerson said she is focused on fighting for affordable and accessible health care, restoring education funding, fixing failing roads and working to address social justice issues and protecting the environment. She expressed dismay at how Walker has rejected science and gutted the state Department of Natural Resources, saying it can take decades to recover when policies lead to environmental harm.
“We’re seeing so much money getting funneled to southeast Wisconsin to pay for roads for Foxconn ... and meanwhile up in Chippewa County there’s a bridge that’s sunk,” Emerson said. “A failing bridge should take priority over expanding a lane for a private company in my mind.”
Abortion has become an issue in the primary mainly because of a public reversal on the issue by Larsen, who recently explained his position in detail on his campaign website and Facebook page.
While Emerson, Vue and Postlewaite all indicated they considered themselves solidly pro-choice, Larsen carved out a more nuanced position.
Larson acknowledged he considered himself an abortion rights opponent for many years — and in many ways would still call himself a “pro-life” person who believes “human life is a miraculous creation of God that should be respected and loved and protected” — but said he now is opposed to criminalizing abortion and would support repealing Wisconsin laws that would make abortion illegal if Roe vs. Wade is overturned.
He called abortion “a problem that needs to be dealt with human to human, not legally,” and said, “We don’t do our fellow citizens any favors by trying to get in the way between a woman and the medical care she need, including the possible termination of her pregnancy.”
Emerson, however, predicted abortion rights will be a big issue next session, especially considering the possibility of a conservative majority U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe.
“If Roe gets overturned, we need someone in this position who is willing to fight for a woman’s right to determine her own health issues,” Emerson said. “I’m the one who’s come out most vocally supporting it.”
The issue is just another wildcard in an up-for-grabs race.
In the end, even the man whose seat the four candidates are hoping to fill has only one prediction about the race involving four people he considers friends.
“I think it will be tight,” Wachs said.
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