Candidates for the Democratic nomination in the 77th Assembly district debated last night before a meeting of the Dane County Dems at the Madison Concourse Hotel. The five candidates stuck to their messages, which, with the exception of former Middleton Mayor Doug Zwank, are similar in content but differ in emphasis. None of the candidates explicitly attacked each other. All stated support for an increased beer tax.
Here is a run-down of what the candidates said:
Dianne Hesselbein: The 39-year-old County Board Supervisor from Middleton emphasized her passion for public education, and reiterated the belief she expressed in an earlier Sconz interview that Madison schools have changed for the worse since she attended them as a child. This included anecdotes about the fewer number of foreign languages offered and school delays in Middleton because of mold.
Hesselbein summarized her candidacy with four E's: Education, environment, equality and economy. She was most passionate and articulate about the first. On the environment she again emphasized the change in fortune during her life, talking about how she used to be able to swim in the lakes without health concerns. Perhaps in anticipation of criticism from Hulsey, Hesselbein also mentioned the County Board's purchase of the Ice Age Trail, and said "we have to be patient" when negotiating prices with developers who may wish to rip the county off.
On economic development and jobs, Hesselbein stated support for credits, subsidies and programs to preserve jobs, such as the efforts to keep Mercury Marine from shutting down in Fond du Lac. She made clear to list her endorsements in her closing remarks, including those from AFT, 15 County Board members and Paul Soglin.
Brett Hulsey: The long-time Dane County Board member began the debate by discussing his admiration for Spencer Black, who he called a "hero." Hulsey emphasized his environmental record, including legislation he has passed on the County Board, such as the phosphorus ban to protect the lakes, as well as legislation he plans to pass in the Assembly, such as increased restrictions on mining in the state. He also noted that he supported an earlier purchase of the Ice Age Trail, but he did not call out Hesselbein specifically. He gave more specifics on environmental and energy proposals, such as cow-powered manure digesters.
Hulsey similarly criticized the school funding formula, saying not enough money goes to special-needs and low-income students. When asked about jobs, Hulsey made clear that the first issue is not laying off public workers, which he credited Dane County for doing well in the face of tight budgets.
Hulsey also touted his endorsements from Mayor Dave and a carpenters union, and noted his strong environmental voting record.
John Imes: Imes is the candidate with the least amount of political experience. The director of the Wisconsin Environmental Initiative as well as an environmentally-friend hotel, Imes repeatedly emphasized his small business experience and urged the audience to elect a representative who would bring business, government and citizen groups together for environmental, energy and economic solutions.
Imes called it the state's "constitutional obligation" to provide quality education to kids and said the state had to move beyond the school referenda which "pit property tax payers against each other." He endorsed the Penny-for-Kids program as well. Asked what his top two non-environmental priorities were, Imes offered job creation and good government, the latter of which he said is embodied in his refusal to accept PAC contributions.
Fred Wade: The 68-year-old attorney stuck to the theme he put forth in his recent Sconz interview: Protect education, the university and public services. In his opening remarks he noted his endorsements by "progressive leaders," such as Barbara Lawton and Peg Lautenschlager. Furthermore, he deviated from the other candidates on school funding, saying that another one of his supporters, former Superintendent of Public Instruction Libby Bermeister, had told him that the school funding formula is "actually quite good;" the problem is lack of funding.
Wade did not touch on his strong feelings about representative government and the partial veto until the very end of the debate, in which he outlined his reasoning for fearing such an overbearing gubernatorial power. He reiterated his belief that a progressive policy agenda may not mean much if there is a hostile governor who will rewrite entire pieces of legislation, including a bill to revise the school funding formula.
Doug Zwank: The former Middleton mayor opened by stating that he was not a Democrat and that he believed the Democratic Party is not a "whit different" than the Republican Party. Throughout the debate he emphasized his belief that government no longer represented the people, was spending too much money and was not being proactive in creating jobs. In his closing remarks, Zwank apologized to those he might have offended in his opening statement.
Summary: Nothing too exciting or unpredictable. I'd be interested to know how the moderator came up with those questions. I was glad to see a question on redistricting the candidates' generally endorsed Tom Barrett's plan to have the legislature redistrict and then have the GAB review it.
It was also interesting to hear the candidates respond to a proposal to raise the beer tax. It would have been even better if they had been forced to answer other questions about tax policy. The 77th is one of the most progressive districts in the state. In the face of budget deficits, the Democratic candidates in the 77th should be prepared to give tax proposals that may be politically unpopular in Waukesha.