By Ruth Conniff
On Wednesday night at Madison’s Concourse Hotel, the Democratic Party of Dane County held a candidate forum and a members-only straw poll for the four Democratic candidates challenging Scott Walker for governor: Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, Secretary of State Doug LaFollette and State Senator Kathleen Vinehout.
All four candidates turned in their nomination papers earlier this week and will be formally certified to run for governor next Tuesday when the Government Accountability Board meets.
Before the forum officially began, Mike Basford, chair of Dane Dems, gave a short speech about the importance of getting out the vote. He listed four numbers on a whiteboard at the front of the room and explained what they represented:
812,086 - People in Wisconsin who voted in 2008 but not in 2010
61,494 – People in Dane County who voted in 2008 but not in 2010
124,638 - Scott Walker’s statewide margin of victory over Tom Barrett
105,041 - Ron Johnson’s statewide margin of victory over Russ Feingold
Basford described the moral of the story: “When you don’t vote, you get Scott Walker.”
In front of the over-capacity, standing-room-only crowd of about 400 people, the candidates made their opening statements. They were then asked eight questions and were given two minutes to reply to each one. Click here for a link to Wisconsin Eye’s coverage of the entire event.
These were questions put to the candidates:
1) Describe the moment when you decided to support the recall of Governor Walker.
2) As governor, would you repeal Act 21 (the law that consolidates many rule-making and oversight powers in the governor’s office), and if not, how would you use those powers?
3) Do you have a plan for expanding green technology, and what would you consider being a benchmark for success by 2015?
4) How would you accomplish repealing Act 10 (the elimination of meaningful collective bargaining for public workers) if the Assembly is still controlled by Republicans?
5) Even before Walker’s drastic cuts to public education there were problems with school financing. What is your top priority for improving public education?
6) Wisconsin imprisons citizens at a higher rate than any of our neighbors with the exception of Michigan. What will you do to change this?
7) What will you do to help create jobs?
8) If there’s a top priority that you haven’t had the chance to address yet, what is it?
Barrett and Falk are considered the front-runners in this race by the corporate media due to the amount of money they have raised, the high-profile endorsements they have garnered and the backing of various factions of the Democratic Party. Many stories in the mainstream media don’t even mention the existence of other candidates.
The Vinehout and LaFollette campaigns have none of those three elements in place. They are both running on “no politics as usual” platforms rooted in detailed policy initiatives and fueled by statewide grassroots networks of volunteers. One of Vinehout’s favorite lines has become, “If you don’t like money in politics, work for the candidate with less money! And if you don’t like politics as usual, work for the unusual.”
That’s the message that Fighting Bob Fest’s Ed Garvey is spreading with his Tin Cup Movement unveiled at The People’s Legislature event last month. “The goal is to persuade candidates to refuse PAC money no matter if the PAC is a labor PAC or corporate PAC. Refuse all corporate money given directly or indirectly. Only individual contributions should be accepted... Imagine elections run by the people instead of the corporations.”
Doug LaFollette was very direct about campaign finance reform in his answer to question #8: “We need a better way to run elections. People who stood in the cold and the rain (to collect signatures on recall petitions) didn’t want to have the same old kind of politics. They wanted a people’s democracy.”
In an indirect commentary on the dynamics within and between the Barrett and Falk campaigns, LaFollette lamented the fact that the Democratic Party has continually put off campaign finance reform with the excuse that, “This election is too important! We’ve got to take money, we’ve got to attack each other, because people who attack win!”
LaFollette then pointed out what independent candidates like Lori Compas, who led the successful recall against Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and is now running against him, know for a fact: “We are in a unique position in Wisconsin right now given the thousands of people who collected millions of names and stood in the cold – they’re willing to do it again.”
Vinehout and LaFollette had relevant, detailed answers to each one of the questions put to them, while Barrett and Falk only really answered a few. Instead, they used some of their two-minute segments to talk about their past records as elected officials, to relate personal anecdotes about a tangential issue, or to comment directly on Scott Walker’s record. Indeed, it seemed like Barrett and Falk were using the forum as a warm-up for debates with Walker rather than for discussing policy differences amongst themselves.
Both Vinehout and LaFollette stressed their demonstrated ability to win elections in Republican parts of the state – rural areas and the Fox Cities -- precisely because they do not have the support of the Democratic Party, even though their stand on some issues is more progressive than DP-endorsed candidates. They stressed their personal relationships with people in communities and their grassroots volunteer networks as their competitive edge.
Earlier in the evening unaffiliated candidate for Lt. Governor Mahlon Mitchell regaled the crowd with a story that underscored the value of not being closely associated with the Democratic Party and the value of grassroots organizing. He was handing out literature at Miller Park last week during the Milwaukee Brewer’s home opener when a man told him, “I’m tired of people handing out literature for people they don’t even know. Do you know this guy?” When Mitchell informed him that he was the man on the flyer, the guy shook his hand and said, “I stand with Walker, but I’m going to vote for you for Lt. Governor because you’re handing out your own literature!”
Results of the straw poll in which only paid-up members of Dane Dems were allowed to vote were announced shortly after the event ended. Most people voted before the event began, with only a few leaving the room to deposit their ballots near the end of the forum. A total of 259 votes were cast, which means about 150 of the attendees didn’t vote. The dozen or so Vinehout supporters I ran into after the event were not able to vote because they aren’t members of Dane Dems:
Falk – 118 or 45%
Barrett – 93 or 36%
Vinehout – 46 or 18%
LaFollette – 2 or 1 %
A straw poll (participation in which a paid-up membership was not required) taken at The People’s Legislature, which was attended by progressive Democrats and other left-leaning folks not affiliated with either of the two major parties, yielded these results:
Vinehout - 49.6%
Falk - 18.8%
LaFollette - 8.5%
Barrett – 2.6%
Rebecca Kemble is an Anthropologist who studied decolonization in Kenya. She serves on the Board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and is a founding member of the Wisconsin Citizens Media Cooperative.