By Ruth Conniff on July 11, 2011
Shelly Moore, running for Sheila Harsdorf's seat, just won the only remotely tight primary in the recall battle in Wisconsin. Now it's on to the general recall election August 9.

One of the most interesting recall races in Wisconsin is in the 10th Senate district in the westernmost corner of the state, along the border with Minnesota.

There, Scott Walker Republican Sheila Harsdorf is neck-and-neck in the polls with high school English teacher Shelly Moore in what could be the tipping-point election for control of the state Senate. (Recalls against Senators Kapanke and Hopper also look good for the Democrats, who need three seats to regain a majority.)

Citizens of the small towns and rural communities in the 10th worked hard to gather 23,000 signatures to recall Harsdorf, after she sided with Walker on ending collective bargaining for public employees and massive cuts to schools, roads, health care for seniors, and basic municipal services.

In Moore, they have a candidate who practically embodies Wisconsin's progressive tradition.

After teaching school in Ellsworth, Wisconsin for the last fifteen years, Moore announced her candidacy in May, invoking her family history in the northwest part of the state. That history dates back to the late 19th Century, she said, when her great-grandfather served on the St. Croix county board of supervisors, and as the toll bridge operator in the early part of the 20th Century on a historic bridge, the remnants of which stood behind her as she spoke.

"My ancestors dedicated their lives to this area, as teachers, elected officials, and postal workers, and I am here to continue their tradition of service," she said.

Shelly Moore with Senator Kathleen Vinehout at Bobfest North.

Shelly Moore with Senator Kathleen Vinehout at Bobfest North.

I first met Moore at Fighting Bobfest North, a gathering of progressives in Chippewa, Wisconsin, where she was shaking hands with constituents in her Green Bay Packers jacket. Born in Woodruff, Wisconsin, she was inspired to go into teaching by her two schoolteacher parents, she said, and went to college at UW-Stevens Point. She is a gun owner and hunter, and a friendly, outspoken person with a twinkling sense of humor.

On her campaign web site, Moore declares that she is running for State Senate because "she knows there is no challenge so big that it can’t be solved over hot dish in the church basement, over cards in the ice shanty, or over curds at the fair."

She decries the "divisive, underhanded" politics of Walker and Harsdorf, and their policies "that will devastate Northern Wisconsin's way of life."

But local Republican party officials and even the Weekly Standard have made much of the fact that Shelly Moore was a union official.

The implication is that Moore's candidacy is some sort of put-up job by a nefarious network of organized labor. It's the same suggestion Scott Walker makes when he repeatedly describes the massive rallies in Madison as union members "bussed in from other states."

(Actually, it is Moore's opponent, Sheila Harsdorf, who grew up across the border in St. Paul and went to the University of Minnesota. And Harsdorf's politics are, arguably, the politics of Minnesotans who live in Twin Cities bedroom communities along the border.)

St. Croix County Republican party chair Jesse Garza expressed outrage that a unionized teacher was running for Harsdorf's seat.

"It's one thing to have a union member to run, but this is a bought and paid for Kool-aid drinking candidate," Garza said.

In what could have been a script for the Daily Show, the Republicans attacked Moore's high-on-the-hog schoolteacher lifestyle, saying she makes $75,000 a year, including benefits (if you don't count the benefits, Moore, who has a master's degree, makes less than $50,000 a year for her fulltime schedule, plus after-school clubs, and a department chairmanship. Lately, she has been taking time off to campaign while volunteer teaching at her school.)

Moore points out that going to the state senate would more than double her salary. "With the per diem on top of that, I'll be making so much money I won't know what to do with it," she joked.

Republicans and The Weekly Standard have also seized on Moore's use of her public school email account to send messages about the political crisis in the state as evidence of corruption and a waste of taxpayer dollars. (The campaigns are at odds about whether they constituted campaign emails, with Moore's campaign pointing out that they predated her campaign announcement by two months).

Meanwhile, the Republicans are running a phony primary candidate--Menomonie hardware store owner Isaac Weix--in the Democratic primary tomorrow. The primary will cost $55,000 in Pierce County alone, where Harsdorf lives, although Weix acknowledges that he has no intention of ever taking office.

When a local reporter asked him why he wasn't campaigning or putting out position papers on the issues, Weix told the Hudson Star-Observer, “There’s no point. This (recall) campaign is not about issues anyway. It’s about the unions feeling that they are going to lose power."

I talked to Moore recently by phone, on the eve of the primary, and asked how things were going.

"For me, not being a politician, I knew politics was dirty. I just don’t think I realized quite how dirty it could be," she said.

The fake candidate running against her in the primary is one example, she said. Another was her opponent's refusal to debate the issues. And then there are Harsdorf's statements that make it sound like she cast votes to raise gas taxes and property taxes: "even thought I've never even held elected office--how could I cast any votes?!"

Still, Moore is optimistic. She characterizes the primary, which pushes back the general election until August 9, as "a blessing in disguise."

The extra four weeks, she says, is an opportunity to get the word out to more people.

"The more people hear about what’s really in this budget, the more opposed to it they are."

Moore has no illusions that the recall elections--even if the Democrats win the three seats they need to take back control of the Senate--will be the end of the road.

"Even if the Democrats are victorious, it really just helps create some balance and slow down the damage," she says.

"There are some things we could do right away, though," she adds: "First, restoring decorum to the Capitol," and "changing ridiculous laws--like the one that makes it illegal for counties to work together on road construction projects."

Of the recall effort and the fight against Walker, Moore says, "People worked really, really hard--and then they were a little tired in May and June. Now things are getting going again—people are excited and we’re really on the upswing."

If that's the case, the voters of the 10th district, may swing the whole state along with them.

If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Scott Walker's CNBC Star Turn."

Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter

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