Six Against Walker

State Senator and Gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Vinehout. Photo by Callen Harty.

Now that Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board has officially certified the recall signatures against Governor Scott Walker, Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, and four Republican Senators it appears that the candidates to run against Walker are finally settled.

Early last week Secretary of State Doug La Follette announced that he would enter the race.  After the GAB announcement on Friday Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett declared that he would run.  On Saturday all those who were holding out hope for Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca to enter the race were disappointed when he released a statement announcing that he would not run.  And no, former Senator Russ Feingold will not suddenly change his mind.  He has made it clear that he will not run.  So La Follette and Barrett joined a field that already included former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, State Senator Kathleen Vinehout, and independent candidate Hari Trivedi.  In addition, Walker has a Republican challenger, Patrick O’Brien of New Glarus, who admits he voted for the Governor but is now running against him.

For those who dislike Walker and believe that he should be voted out of office the reality is that for the Democrats this is a luxury, to have four choices who would all be better than the incumbent.  Really, all of them have mostly good Democratic credentials.  Some are more progressive than others, but each of them would be a vast improvement over the leadership Wisconsin has endured the last year or so.  The independent and Republican candidates would likely be better than Walker, too.

Each of the candidates in the Democratic primary also comes with some baggage and with some positives.  Many Democrats have never forgiven Falk for her attacks on incumbent Peg Lautenschlager when they ran against each other for Attorney General.  Falk won the primary, but then lost the race to current Attorney General J. B. Van Hollen after that grueling pimary.  In addition, while she handily won elections as Dane County Executive she has yet to win a statewide race, having lost the Attorney General race and a previous race for Governor.  Finally, many believe she comes across as stiff and unfriendly.  She looks like the CEO of a corporation, an image that doesn’t do well in the age of the 99%.

Still, most would agree that Falk did a decent job as Dane County Executive.  She also has a strong background on environmental issues, which people tend to forget and which she probably needs to emphasize a little more.  She has several endorsements already and got about a two-month head start on everyone else in the primary, so her name has been out there for a while.  Because of that she gained ground on the other candidates early and has far better name recognition than she did just a short time ago.  Her ads have been playing constantly.

The other Kathleen, State Senator Kathleen Vinehout, has a major problem with name recognition and with money.  She is still fairly new to politics, having spent most of her life in health, education, and as a dairy farmer.  She represents western Wisconsin, where she is well-known and liked, but those in the rest of the state really don’t know who she is.  She also has been attacked by some in the pro-choice movement for a somewhat controversial vote which she has defended, but not to everyone’s satisfaction.  The vote was regarding a bill that would allow pharmacists to refuse to fill birth control orders if the pharmacist had a personal objection to birth control.

On the other hand Vinehout is generally perceived to be a good progressive politician.  Her weaknesses could also be her strengths.  Being newer to politics she will not be seen as a career politican.  She is very down-to-earth and comes across that way, while also coming across as a very smart and astute person.  Her background in education, health, and dairy farming gives her valuable experience that should translate well to the governorship.  Being from western Wisconsin means she isn’t part of the Madison/Milwaukee pipeline to the Capitol that those outstate tend to resent.  Rural Wisconsin may be very open to a small-town farm girl.  As far as the pro-choice issue, abortion foes generally don’t like her voting record.  It was one vote that pro-choice advocates didn’t like, but for the most part her record has been good on that issue.

Like Kathleen Falk, Tom Barrett has lost a race for Governor previously.  He is actually the candidate who lost to Scott Walker just two years ago.  In addition there are those who don’t believe he has done a good job managing the city of Milwaukee, the most racially divided city in the country and one of the poorest.  There is also a perception that he is a reluctant candidate and, interestingly, he was the last one to declare.  Some believe that he is just not an exciting candidate.  Others have portrayed him as anti-union.

But in recent polls, even though he hadn’t officially declared yet, Barrett was the candidate who fared best head-to-head against Walker.  He barely lost to Walker in 2010 with both of them getting just over a million votes.  If even a small percentage of those votes switched over to him he could win.  He has also already asserted that Milwaukee’s issues are due to Walker’s budget that took vast amounts of money from the city, so he has taken the offensive less than two days after declaring.  If he can hammer that message home he should only improve his standing.  He is generally considered to be a nice guy and many still remember him getting beat up when he stood up against a man attacking a woman in Milwaukee during the last election.  A heroic act like that can’t hurt and it also shows a concern for others.  He also needs to show his detractors evidence of his support of unions.

Doug LaFollette is well-liked and has a great last name, but there are some that believe he has played on that name to get where he is.  In addition, other than a brief stint as a State Senator (one term), his sole elected office is Secretary of State, a position that many politicians on both sides of the aisle believe is an unnecessary and outdated office that really has little or nothing to do.  He has run unopposed for several elections, so his mettle as a candidate has not been proved for a while.  In addition, his age may work against him.  He is 72 years old and the other candidates all come across as younger and more vibrant.

LaFollette does have that name going for him.  LaFollette is the most revered name in Wisconsin political history (although Walker and the Tea Partiers are trying to undo the legacy and take the shine off the name).  Doug LaFollette has been a good Democrat for years.  Many don’t know this, but he helped Gaylord Nelson organize the first Earth Day and was also the founder of Wisconsin Environmental Decade, so his record on the environment is good.  He is also not one who is beholden to the party, unions, or anyone else.  He is an independent-minded person.

Hopefully the candidates won’t spend the short primary season attacking each other.  The enemy is Scott Walker, not fellow Democrats.  On the other hand, there is nothing they can say that Walker, the Koch Brothers, Americans for Prosperity, and others won’t also say, so if they do go somewhat negative it won’t be the end of the world.  If they go that route, though, they have to understand that negativity like that often reflects as much upon the person doing it as the target.

What would be far better and more productive for the electorate is for each of them to talk about themselves, their experience, voting records, and policy ideas.  Let the people know how they have succeeded, not how others have failed.  Let voters know how they will move the state forward, how they will help Wisconsin heal after the divisions of the last year.  The candidate who does that best deserves the nomination.

About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.
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