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Saturday, August 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 73.0° F  Overcast
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Choosing Walker's opponent: Let's have a wide-open Democratic primary

There's an old Will Rogers joke that goes: "I belong to no organized political party. I'm a Democrat."

I have used that line more than once, but in all seriousness, the organization of the effort to recall Gov. Scott Walker has been nothing short of brilliant. Not only was the signature-gathering a well-oiled machine, but it was smart and unusually disciplined of my party to keep potential candidates in the background so that the focus could remain on Walker.

This is important because as soon as the governor and the super PACs that support him can train their unlimited resources on a single Democratic standard bearer, it will be no holds barred. Walker knows he can't win by running a positive campaign; only by painting his opponent as even scarier than he is. It will be bloody.

So bloody that if you listen to all the pundits, the Democrats shouldn't nominate anybody whose name is currently being circulated. Not any of the 14 senators who left the state to delay the vote on the governor's union-busting bill. Apparently that doesn't poll well with swing voters. Not anyone from Milwaukee or Dane counties. You know how the rest of the state feels about those places. (Except for the times when they voted for Jim Doyle, Russ Feingold, Herb Kohl and, hey, Scott Walker and J.B. Van Hollen, now that I think about it.) In fact, not anyone with any kind of political background whatsoever. A record is just a script for attack ads.

This narrows the field to a man named Emil Kowalski of rural Rosholt. Problem is that Emil usually votes Republican, and he really doesn't want to move to Maple Bluff anyway. Also, he has a bad hip.

So with Emil out of the running we're back to the long list that everyone's seen. Good.

It will take months to get through the certifications and the legal challenges. The best strategy is to keep a lot of names alive for as long as possible.

This flies in the face of many Democratic political strategists, who seem to want this settled behind the scenes in a smoke-free room. But that would be a terrible mistake.

I do not want the unions and a handful of fundraisers and movers and shakers to pick Walker's challenger behind closed doors. How unlike Wisconsin, the home of the open primary, would that be?

The process to select Walker's opponent is as important as who that turns out to be because the answer to the contempt for democratic processes displayed by the Walker administration is more democracy, not less.

Moreover, the smoke-free room isn't even good political strategy because anyone who can be labeled as the unions' hand-picked candidate will have to contend with withering attacks on that score.

Look, Wisconsin is an independent state. While I might rather have my governor picked by union bosses than corporate elites, I would much rather have neither. I want a governor independent enough to think in terms of the broad public interest, not the special interests that ordained him or her for the job.

The best thing for democracy as a whole and the ultimate Democratic candidate is a crowded Democratic primary. Without knowing who to attack, there will be less time for Walker and his surrogates to define the nominee.

And, so, while I'm at it, let me add a few more names to the mix.

  • Steve Bablitch. An experienced private-sector executive, Steve would be a good contrast to the lifelong public employee Scott Walker. But Steve also has government experience, having been Department of Administration secretary. Bablitch is little known (a good thing in this case) but highly regarded by those who have worked with him.
  • Darrell Bazzell. Quietly effective, Bazzell has run the Department of Natural Resources, and he's now a top UW-Madison administrator. His calm, reasonable demeanor and broad administrative experience could lend credibility to a campaign based on the idea that he would smooth the waters and bring Wisconsin back together.
  • Mary Burke. I know she's running for Madison School Board, but maybe she should set her sights higher. Like Bablitch, she has experience both as a private-industry executive (at Trek Bicycle) and as state Commerce secretary. She has also been a successful philanthropist, the key mover behind the new Boys and Girls Club in the Allied neighborhood and a major contributor to the proposed Madison Prep school, among other things.
  • Kevin Conroy. A serial entrepreneur, Conroy could soon be a hero to a bloc that votes heavily: everyone over 50. Conroy's latest product is a non-invasive test for colon cancer, replacing the dreaded colonoscopy. He doesn't have the public-sector experience of the other three, but he's well versed on the issues, a polished speaker and, like the others, has little in the way of a record that can be attacked.

So if you add my four to the commonly mentioned eight or nine, we've got a dozen or so potential candidates. Let's have a wide-open primary with lots of candidates mixing it up. For the sake of replacing Scott Walker, and for the sake of healing and reinvigorating our democracy, this is no time for my party to get carried away with organization and discipline.

Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave.

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