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Citizen Dave: The quiet Democratic primary for Wisconsin's 78th Assembly District has loud implications
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Both Mark Clear and Lisa Subeck have shown remarkable political courage.
Both Mark Clear and Lisa Subeck have shown remarkable political courage.

On Madison's west side, a more or less routine Democratic primary race for state representative could say something profound about the current mind set of the party's stalwarts.

Madison alders Mark Clear and Lisa Subeck are competing for the party's ballot spot in the 78th Assembly District, a seat currently occupied by Brett Hulsey and once held by legendary progressive Spencer Black. (I was once his legendary aide.) Hulsey is giving up the seat to run for governor. With this vacancy, the primary on Tuesday, August 12 will decide the election as there is no Republican challenger in November.

I know and respect both candidates and each has shown remarkable political courage.

Clear was a close ally of mine on the Madison Common Council who not only took tough votes on issues like the Edgewater, but forthrightly explained those votes during meetings. I never saw him duck a tough issue.

Subeck took office after I left mine, but she played a key roll in a big controversy: a needed increase in bus fares. Madison hadn't increased those fares in a decade, and as a result, the Metro Transit service was in a death spiral of service cutbacks. I proposed a very unpopular fare increase, which passed the council but was stymied by the Transit & Parking Commission. Under the ordinance, the council could override the decision, but only if a citizen appealed their ruling. Subeck stepped forward to do just that, the council reversed the commission, and the fare increase went into effect. The result was that service was restored and even increased, a reserve fund was replenished, and a new program to provide half-price fares for the working poor was created.

The primary in the 78th has gotten little attention, probably because the two candidates match each other with progressive positions on the issues. But they have run very different campaigns in terms of style. Subeck is emphasizing her strong liberal credentials and generally takes an aggressive tack, while Clear is focusing on his ability to work well with others. (Full disclosure here -- in what will probably be my last endorsement in a partisan election, I'm supporting Clear.)

It was a mistake for the Legislature to move the primaries back to the dog days of summer from their traditional timing after Labor Day. August is for casting a fly, not casting a vote. As a result, only the most hardcore partisan types will show up at the polls.

One would think that that might give the edge to Subeck since she has constructed a more red-meat liberal profile while Clear has run with a more restrained tone. On the other hand, the west side is not the isthmus, and so a more moderate image might play better. It's hard to tell until election night.

But here's the thing. Given the strong liberal tradition and tendencies of this small piece of Wisconsin, the result will say something significant about the current mood of Democrats. Do they want to double down on the fight or do they want to find common ground?

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