Democracy on the March in the Badger State: 10 Democrats Vie to Take on Scott Walker

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Oshkosh, WI — After 10 years under the destructive, divisive policies of Scott Walker, Wisconsin Democrats are ready for a change. Over a thousand intrepid Democrats made their way to Oshkosh this weekend to listen to the ten candidates competing in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, which will be held August 14, 2018. The candidates printed their lit and polished up their speeches hoping for a "breakout" moment. But when all was said and done, for many voters, indecision won the day.

Below we summarize some of the top priorities of the Democratic field:

Kelda Roys

Kelda Roys, an attorney and former state legislator who famously dragged her massive wooden desk onto the capitol lawn to meet with her constituents during the 2011 Wisconsin Uprising, was the first of the 10 to speak.

Roys, 38, made it clear that she thought it was time "for a new generation of leaders" in Wisconsin, and she hit themes sure to appeal to that generation.

"In our Wisconsin, it's time to reinvest in higher education and address the student loan debt crisis. Too many Generation Xers and Millennials have had every one of life's milestones delayed or denied because of debt incurred before we were old enough to drink a Spotted Cow," she said. It's time to for "student loan refinancing, expanding our public service repayment, and making 2-year colleges at UW tuition free."

Addressing a set of issues that got little attention at the convention, Roys said: "It's time to stop the shame of being the worst state in the nation for African Americans, to end mass incarceration, end voter suppression, end the racial disparities infant mortality."

And she was the only candidate to address retirement: "It's time to make sure that all workers -- from family farmers to health care workers to the self-employed -- earn a living wage, have affordable healthcare, and can opt in to a stable, secure public retirement system."

Before becoming a legislator, Roys was the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin. She now runs a tech firm designed to help people sell their homes called Open Homes. The youthful-looking Roys made national headlines when she cut her first campaign ad while breastfeeding her four-month-old baby.

Tony Evers

Taking the stage to Alice Cooper's classic "Schools Out," Evers, the state's superintendent for public education -- who fortunately bears little resemblance to Alice Cooper -- made a strong case as to why he was the front runner.

Evers, 66, reminded the crowd that he had run and won three times statewide, that he has a double-digit lead in the polls over the other Democratic candidates, and that he was beating Governor Walker in the polls by four points.

As an educator, who has worked in school systems all over the state, Evers made the case that he could win rural Wisconsin. "Rural, red communities that Scott Walker won three years ago, like Elkhorn, Clinton, Howard-Suamico, and Marshfield, have overwhelmingly passed school referendums in the last two years. As state superintendent, I won these communities just one year ago. As your governor candidate, I will win these communities next November."

Evers noted that unlike the other candidates, he had "run things," including a school, a school district, and a statewide school system with 860,000 kids and 100,000 employees.

"You know, I frequently am asked why I'm running for Governor. 'Tony we need you to stay where you are, we need to you to keep fighting for our public schools.' Frankly folks, that is WHY I am running for governor. I am running for governor because I am goddamn sick and tired of Scott Walker gutting our public schools, insulting our hard-working educators and destroying higher education in Wisconsin," he told the crowd.

Mahlon Mitchell

Mahlon Mitchell, 41, is the current President of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin (IAFF). Although the union was not directly covered by Walker's 2011 Act 10 union-busting bill, it stood in solidarity with other impacted unions and played an essential role in the popular uprising against the bill. Mitchell quickly garnered key union endorsements from the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, AFSCME, UFCW and SEIU before the convention, and attended with a crowd of burly firefighters.

Rather than citing a laundry list of issues, Mitchell told the story of a young man, a veteran and a firefighter, who was in a terrible snowmobiling accident that left him paralyzed. According to Mitchell, firefighters from around the state rallied to help him "in his greatest time of need."

"But I often think in our state what happens when someone doesn't have a that kind of support system in our state; when you don't have brothers and sisters there to help you build a house like we did for Casey; when you don't have access to the best health care that you deserve; the best wheelchair money can provide... Well, I believe that we can do better in our state; we can we help all citizens in our state... but we can only do that together and that's why I am running for governor," he said.

Mitchell embraces a $15 minimum wage: "Fifteen dollars is just the floor and then we'll go from there," he said, concluding "we can make history. We could have our first African-American governor."

Andy Gronik

Andy Gronik, a 60-year-old Milwaukee businessman, talked up his outsider credentials.

He asked the crowd, "Who thinks politics as usual is working? Raise your hand. It's not working. We have a lot of wonderful candidates running for office... but the fact is that Scott Walker has beaten the establishment candidate three times in a row. So I want to ask every single one of you, do you expect to do something over and over and over again and have different results? Well, it's time to do some things different."

Gronik's literature table held a basket full of fake oversized dollar bills emblazoned with Walker's face which drew attention to some of the huge contributions Walker garnered from billionaires like Diane Hendricks ($5 million), special interests like the NRA ($3.5 million), and corporations like Pfizer. "People are dying taking opioids. Walker is dying to take $40,000 from Pfizer" reads one bill.

"I can't wait until he throws out 2.9 unemployment. Well you know what Scott? Go knock on the doors in the state and what you are gonna find is that people are not home, because people are working that 2nd, 3rd or 4th job, and they are barely getting by," said Gronik.

Josh Pade

Josh Pade, a 38-year-old attorney, Kenosha native and political newcomer, promised to travel the state for a "My Wisconsin Idea" listening tour and "bring a new face to Democratic politics and progressive economics."

Pade, whose literature announced "the revolution will be civilized," referenced Scott Walker's recent claim that Democrats were driven by anger and hatred. "I don't know who they are talking about, because I have been walking around this convention center all day and there is no anger here. We are excited, we are refocused... Democrats are united for a change and we are going to make that change happen," said Pade.

Kathleen Vinehout

Kathleen Vinehout, 59, is a state senator from western Wisconsin. She was one of the 14 senators to leave the state in 2011 in an attempt to prevent the passage of Walker's union-busting Act 10 bill. She was one of the Democratic candidates who challenged Walker in the Democratic primary in 2012.

She made Scott Walker's deal with the Taiwanese firm Foxconn Technology Group the centerpiece of her talk. Vinehout likened the $3 million Foxconn deal to a path of $100 dollar bills that would stretch mile after mile through state after state, before arriving in San Francisco. She compared the huge taxpayer handout to the income of one Wisconsin voter named Rachel.

"Rachel is a single mom, she works forty hours a week, 52 weeks out of the year on a minimum wage job in Racine. On a path of a hundred dollar bills, laid end to end, how far does she travel on a minimum wage? In two weeks, she takes one step. In one year, she gets from her front door to the sidewalk. After a lifetime of working from 16 to 70, Rachel will be less than a mile down the street she lives on. Our priorities are upside down!" she said. "Foxconn doesn't need a handout, but people in our state like Rachel need a hand up."

She concluded with a list of other fixes she would implement, including "let's fix the UW, hire back the scientists, put them to work helping us deal with climate change."

Paul Soglin

A button being sold at the conference had a photo of Madison's long-time mayor, Paul Soglin, looking a bit like Albert Einstein with the formula E=mc2 floating above. Soglin, 73, has overseen an era of enormous expansion and prosperity in Madison. He had a lot of positive accomplishments to talk about, but his speech was a blunt, dark assessment of the state of the state starting with "climate change threatens the planet" and "your wages suck."

"We have the unprecedented attack on families from Walker and Trump. In our cities and on our farms, our middle class is shrinking. All Wisconsin counties are losing a generation of 20-year-olds, the valuable Millenials. And they will not return with jobs so bad and underpaid and schools so inadequate to educate their children and grandchildren. This election is about the Wisconsin family, and its too bad Scott Walker didn't stay in school long enough to get that."

Soglin listed a number of other priorities including public schools, high-speed internet, public transit system and a health care system meeting "your standards and not the Koch Brothers."

Mike McCabe

Mike McCabe, the former head of the campaign finance reform group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, took to the stage next. McCabe, 58, is known for his enthusiastic supporters who show up at community events with handwritten signs and for his populist speeches. He too opened on a dark note.

"We gather here tonight at a dangerous moment for our state and our country. I know people in this hall are counting on a blue wave to change the political landscape of our state. But this election will be decided by people outside this hall who are struggling to keep their heads above water. There are too many forgotten people living in forgotten places, some live in the inner city, some live way out in the country where I am from, but we have a government that is catering to the wealthy and well-connected privileged few at the top, ignoring the wishes of so many people in this state. And that's got to change if Wisconsin is going to become the state it has the potential to be."

"This state has lost its way and is becoming a shadow of its former self. We used to be a state of firsts; first kindergarden; the first state to create a vocational technical and adult education system. Workers' compensation and unemployment compensation were invented here. Social Security was invented here," McCabe said. "But now we have levels of economic inequality not seen in our state since the Great Depression."

He challenged the crowd to "dream of a different state," but first we needed to "cut out the cancer" of legalized bribery and achieve campaign finance reform. "We will never get living wages from a dying democracy!" he said.

Mike Flynn

Milwaukee attorney Mike Flynn, 71, served in the United States Navy from 1969-72 and went to law school on the GI bill. He became a partner at the Milwaukee law firm of Quarrels and Brady and was the chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin from 1981 to 1985, when Democrat Tony Earl was governor.

"Wisconsin used to be known for clean water, high wages and honest government," said Flynn. "Now it is known for dirty water, low wages and corrupt government, and that has got to change!"

Flynn said Walker had a lot to answer for. "Most of all he has got to answer for Foxconn, it's a crooked deal and I am going to end it."

"Our state motto is 'Forward,' but for 10 years we have gone backwards," said Flynn. "It's time to make the waters of a blue wave wash over our state capitol, wash out the Republicans, wash out the corruption. It's time for action. It's time to move Wisconsin Forward again."

Dana Wachs

Dana Wachs, 61, is an attorney and state representative from Eau Claire, Wisconsin. He has been a leading voice against the Foxconn deal in the legislature and a champion of civil rights, including rights for transgendered.

In his convention speech, Wachs called for scrapping Foxconn and putting more money toward schools, fixing roads, health care and he supports raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

“In Walker’s Wisconsin, public schools are shortchanged, and teachers are leaving for Minnesota, and students are falling into the achievement gap. In our Wisconsin, we’re gonna fully fund public education. We’re gonna respect our teachers. We’re gonna pay them a fair wage, and give them the resources they need to educate the next generation,” said Sachs.

“In Walker’s Wisconsin, people are drowning in student loan debt and our young folks, like even my own three children, have moved to other states. But in our Wisconsin, we’re gonna refinance student loan debt. We’re gonna build a Wisconsin that brings our young folks home.” With regard to gun violence, Wachs said: "We're going to do a hell of a lot more than offer up thoughts and prayers."

Challenges Ahead

At the end of the day, Kelda Roys, won the straw poll with 184 of the 789 ballots cast -- about double the support for Mahlon Mitchell (93) and Tony Evers (91). The straw poll is sure to give Roys a boost in fundraising and could bring big money into the race if Emily's List endorses her.

But political observers know that a Democratic win over the well-financed Walker won't be easy. Walker retains a passel of seasoned political operatives, and the bottomless stash of Koch cash has yet to be deployed in the race.

The nation's unpredictable president may also play a big role in the race. Gwen Moore, a Milwaukee representative and a veteran member of Wisconsin's congressional delegation, advised the crowd in Oshkosh to not worry about Trump or get so caught up in the daily Trump drama that they forgot about the hard work that needed to be done.

"I know you all are watching the news every night seeing what new charges come up. Trust me. The people in charge have made their Faustian bargain. They have decided that transferring wealth from hard-working, struggling families like yours is more important than protecting our democracy," said Moore.

"Our problem is not Stormy Daniels, our problem its not NFL players taking the knee," she said. "Look at the 33 mansions they occupy, look at the two-thirds of state legislatures they occupy, that is our problem people!"

Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) summed it all up: "You can't catch a blue wave without a surfboard and some very hard work."

Here are the results of the convention's straw poll:

  • Tony Evers: 91
  • Matt Flynn: 71
  • Andy Gronik: 89
  • Mike McCabe: 81
  • Mahlon Mitchell: 93
  • Josh Pade: 7
  • Kelda Roys: 184
  • Paul Soglin: 1
  • Kathleen Vinehout: 83
  • Dana Wachs: 89
Mary Bottari

Mary Bottari is a reporter for the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD). She helped launch CMD's award-winning ALEC Exposed investigation in 2011 and is a recipient of the Hillman Prize for investigative journalism.