The four Democratic candidates for the 91st Assembly District generally agreed on such topics as increased funding for roads, education and needed changes to the state Department of Natural Resources during a candidate debate Wednesday, but they did their best to distinguish themselves from each other as they discussed those issues.
Jodi Emerson, Eric Larsen, Rich Postle-waite and Thomas Vue are running for the legislative seat currently held by Democrat Dana Wachs. Wachs didn’t file for re-election because he was running for governor; he has since suspended his campaign.
One of the four candidates will emerge from the Aug. 14 primary election and move on to the November general election against the only Republican in the race, Echo Reardon of Eau Claire.
The Democratic candidates touted their relatively long tenures living in Eau Claire and their affinity for its residents. The debate occurred at Lazy Monk Brewing in Eau Claire and was sponsored by local Democrats.
“The reason I am running for office is community is important to me,” Emerson told the audience, noting she is a lifelong Eau Claire resident who worked for the past five years for the anti-human trafficking organization Fierce Freedom. During that time Emerson worked to get seven separate pieces of legislation approved, and that took bipartisan efforts.
Larsen has lived in the city for 50 years. The retired Eau Claire police officer worked for the department for 28 years, and toward the end of his career, he worked on public policy measures such as regulating pawnbrokers and adult book stores. Larsen served on the Eau Claire City Council and serves on the city Plan Commission.
Postlewaite, a political science and economics professor at UW-Stout, said he has worked behind the scenes in campaigns since 1992.
“One of my main concerns is I’ve had two children go through the opioid epidemics,” Postlewaite said. He said one of children nearly went to prison for a non-violent crime.
“I want to see less incarceration for less serious crimes,” Postlewaite said.
Vue said he came to the United States in 1979, and has lived in Eau Claire for the past 20 years. He previously served on the Eau Claire City Council.
“My main concern is to make sure that all the people in Wisconsin can affordably pay for their health care,” Vue said. “I want them to be able to pay their premiums.”
The candidates agreed they would change change the way public education is funded in Wisconsin.
Postlewaite said the state is looking at significant sales tax revenue increases from Internet sales, and that money should be immediately earmarked for schools, rather than returned to state residents.
Vue said he would like to see the state aid formula be revisited, so the state contributes a higher percentage of school budgets.
Emerson said the lack of quality teachers shows a lack of respect by Gov. Walker when he created Act 10. She criticized public funding being used for private schools, including in Eau Claire.
“As a state, we aren’t respecting our teachers,” Emerson said. “Teaching really is a calling.”
Larsen agreed that public education funding has been cut to an unacceptable level. “It’s not just the voucher system, either,” he said. “Our state funding for education has been cut twice since (Gov. Scott) Walker took office. We are funding too much of our schools with our property taxes.”
To fix a teacher shortage, Larsen said he would repeal Act 10, which essentially bars state employees from collective bargaining.
The candidates were asked about how to change funding for roads and infrastructure. Larsen pointed out that indexing the gas tax — setting it to the rate of inflation — was repealed in 2005, and that is why the gas tax hasn’t increased.
Postlewaite said he favors a gas tax increase of 7 to 10 cents. He isn’t in favor of tolls.
Vue agreed with Postlewaite that the gas tax must be increased. He also didn’t like the idea of starting toll roads.
The candidates also discussed health care reform. Postlewaite said health care is a difficult discussion on the state level because it is really a federal issue, but he added that expanding broadband would allow rural areas to view video conferencing to have minor illnesses diagnosed without having to travel to see a doctor.
Larsen said he would immediately ask the state to accept federal Medicaid money, which Gov. Scott Walker has declined to take.
“I think eventually, we are going to have to have universal health care,” Larsen said.
Emerson agreed with Larsen that accepting the Medicaid dollars would fix a lot of the issues. Mental health care also would be addressed if the state had universal care, she said.
“It may make health care go up, but maybe it would reduce corrections costs,” she said.
When asked about the most pressing environmental issue in the western Wisconsin, Vue cited sand mines and safe drinking water as top concerns while Postlewaite listed regulations of frac sand mines. Emerson and Larsen criticized cutbacks to the state Department of Natural Resources.
All four candidates spoke on the need for municipalities to have more local control, and make regulations and restrictions tighter than state levels. All four also said they support legislation for a “living wage” in the state.