The Democratic candidates for Assembly Districts 47 and 80 sounded similar themes at a Monday night forum, with all taking aim at the state Legislature that fell under Republican control in 2010. Audience members noticed the similarities.
"They were pretty much in agreement [on the issues]," said Bob Rottman, who lives in the 47th district. "I agree with them. What's happening [with the current legislature] is not good."
But the candidates' differences in focus, expertise, and approach to the campaign became apparent over the course of the forum, held in Fitchburg's city council chambers and organized by the progressive group United Fitchburg.
The Democratic primary is Tuesday, August 14. State Rep. Sondy Pope-Roberts, Joe Wineke, and Charles Uphoff are all in contention for District 80, which now includes the southern part of Dane County and southwestern areas including parts of Mount Horeb, Verona and Fitchburg. Democrats Amanda Hall and Robb Kahl are running in District 47, which now includes the Town of Madison and southeast suburbs of Madison.
The candidates each gave opening and closing statements and took turns answering nine questions, some prepared in advance and some provided by the audience.
Sondy Pope-Roberts sought to distinguish herself by touting her experience on educational issues and detailing her goals on education policy. She has served as the representative in District 79 since 2002 and is the ranking minority member of the Assembly Committee on Education. She chose to run in the newly redrawn District 80 to stay with many of her constituents.
"I'm not a career politician. I just want to finish what I started," said Pope-Roberts. "I'm the only one that's been there for the last 18 months. I walked with you in the cold and the snow."
When asked how she would maintain quality public education, Pope-Roberts took a stand against Walker's private school voucher program. The other candidates agreed with her position.
After a question regarding campaign financing, a few candidates spoke in favor of public funding for elections and all of them condemned the influence of money in politics. But Charles Uphoff added something different.
He said he'll "walk the talk" on this issue and won't accept individual campaign contributions above $20. He also refuses to spend more than $1,000 on his primary campaign. He has eschewed robo-calls and TV advertisements in favor of door-to-door visits.
He has, however, spent some money on information cards that include his website along with "Winning Recipes" for a cranberry relish and "The Very Best Tomato Soup in the Whole World."
Joe Wineke grew up in Fitchburg and boasts experience in both the state Assembly and Senate during the 1980s and 1990s. He's also chaired the state Democratic Party. He spoke passionately about many of the issues, criticizing even the Democrats for failing to pass redistricting reform when they had the majority in the state Legislature.
Wineke also condemned the recently passed voter ID legislation, some provisions of which have now been stayed by the courts. "It's Jim Crow; it's wrong," he said. And he spoke against the larger conservative agenda.
The privatization of state services is, said Wineke, "all part of a national agenda to make public employees the enemy."
Amanda Hall comes from the Allied Drive neighborhood in Madison and attended the city's public schools. An attorney, she put her law practice on hold to work to recall Gov. Scott Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.
Hall referenced her experiences growing up in Madison and her desire to represent constituents, rather than interest groups. "Government isn't in touch with the people it's supposed to represent," said Hall.
Her opponent, Robb Kahl, comes to the race after four terms as the mayor of Monona. As a business owner, Kahl said he understands the partnership between public and private endeavors.
"I've got more business experience than the Republicans," said Kahl.
He referred to successful mining laws and correctional policies in Minnesota that could serve as models for Wisconsin.
The general election is on Tuesday, November 6.
Pope-Roberts said whether the Democrats make any real progress in the future will depend less on specific candidates and more on critical mass.
"We have got to have more Democrats in the Senate or Assembly to slow this train down," she said.
[Editor's note: This story was corrected to note the new boundaries of District 47.]