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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 44.0° F  Fair
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Pick a candidate, any candidate
Six Democrats vie for gig in 81st Assembly race

Democrats in the 81st Assembly District are spoiled for choice this fall. Six candidates are running for the seat being vacated by veteran lawmaker Dave Travis.

All six have solid liberal credentials, with a background in community activism. And they tend to think alike on many issues - every single one wants to trash the current school funding formula, increase support for the UW System and pass a statewide smoking ban.

How's a Democrat supposed to decide among them?

Republican voters have it worse, of course. Not one GOP candidate is running to represent the firmly Democratic district, which includes north Madison, Waunakee and Mazomanie. That means whichever candidate wins the Sept. 9 primary will, barring personal disaster, take the seat - and most likely hold on to it for a while. Open Assembly seats in Dane County are pretty rare. Travis was lodged in his for 30 years.

So how do you choose? Isthmus analyzed the pros and cons of the candidates, and asked them to share a "big idea" that they'll promote once in office. Our handy-dandy voters' guide should give you some idea of whom to pick.

Kelda Helen Roys

Age: 29

Occupation: Former executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin

Pros: Roys was born and raised in north Madison. As head of Wisconsin's NARAL branch, Roys has extensive experience in state politics. She's also the only woman in the race, which could give her an advantage.

Cons: Roys is very young, which means she could be a lifer if she wins the seat. Her youth may also put her at a disadvantage in the Capitol, where she's sometimes viewed as nave.

Big Idea: Perhaps eager to show she's not a one-note candidate, Roys doesn't zero in on women's issues, instead stressing the environment. "I propose that Wisconsin's state government, including the UW, buy 100% of its power from clean, renewable sources by 2020. I'd also like to propose legislation requiring developers to offer geothermal and solar power options on all new residential and commercial construction, possibly paired with a tax credit or low-interest loan to reduce the initial capital cost of renewable energy sources."

Eric Englund

Age: 61

Occupation: Retired insurance lobbyist

Pros: As former president of the Wisconsin Insurance Alliance, Englund knows how to play the legislative game. He's also one of the older candidates, which means he's unlikely to stay in the seat for the next 30 years.

Cons: While Englund has pledged to not take any special interest money in his campaign, can a former lobbyist remain immune to the lure of big money for long?

Big Idea: Severing UW-Madison from the rest of the UW System. Englund wants to discuss creating a separate governing board for Madison's campus: "Consolidation [with the UW System] has not served UW-Madison well. Our flagship is slowly sinking and needs to be resuscitated."

Tim Kiefer

Age: 36

Occupation: Dane County assistant district attorney

Pros: Working in the district attorney's office has given Kiefer a rare perspective on the criminal justice system. He's also a graduate of UW-Madison and Harvard Law School.

Cons: Kiefer is relatively unknown, by both voters and in the Capitol. He's run a lethargic campaign, won only one key endorsement (District Attorney Brian Blanchard), and seems disconnected with the people in his district.

Big Idea: When asked for his big idea, Kiefer referred to a recent press release, in which he offered to accept only half of the state legislator's $47,000 annual salary. Uh, thanks.

Justin Sargent

Age: 39

Occupation: Chief of staff to state Sen. Judy Robson (D-Beloit), currently on leave

Pros: A legislative staffer, Sargent could hit the ground running. He's well known around the Capitol. Oooh, and he's an Eagle Scout.

Cons: While working for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala, Sargent was once accused of forcing state staffers to work on political campaigns. Although Chvala was eventually convicted of misconduct in office, Sargent was never charged. Voters may still perceive a taint, however.

Big Idea: Sargent has proposed a comprehensive energy plan that would "double Wisconsin solar and wind energy collection in the next five years, including residential and commercial; offer strong incentives for 'green' construction, industry and jobs; and increase recycling efforts statewide by linking waste disposal fees to percentage of discarded recyclable materials. The 'Reenergize Wisconsin' initiative will reduce our reliance on foreign energy sources, while increasing local investment and ownership of power generation."

John Laubmeier

Age: 58

Occupation: Village of Waunakee president; social studies teacher at Waunakee High School

Pros: Laubmeier has lived in the district for more than 30 years and has strong local ties. He also has leadership experience as Waunakee's president.

Cons: Well known in the district's rural areas, Laubmeier could have been a stronger candidate. But like Her, he seems unprepared for the scope of an Assembly race. His learning curve in the Capitol will be steep.

Big Idea: "I want to work with Wisconsin Way, Thrive and other groups that wish to work in a cooperative, bipartisan manner to grow business and jobs, to stop the brain drain and provide the additional revenue needed to solve the state's budget problems."

Peng Her

Age: 37

Occupation: Owner of Taste of Asia restaurant on East Washington Avenue

Pros: If elected, Her would be the first Hmong, and the first Asian, to serve in the Assembly. Her and his wife, Mai Zong, are very involved in the community, helping raise millions to build a Hmong cultural center in Dane County.

Cons: Many believe Her is too inexperienced for big-time state politics and should first cut his teeth on a local race, like school board or County Board.

Big Idea: Her supports a number of economic development proposals, including using federal grants to support adult education and draft a job creation plan for the state. He also wants to pass a bill "to protect consumers by capping interest rates charged by PayDay predatory lenders," noting that some lenders charge rates of up to 1,500%.

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