In what amounts to the local kickoff to Barack Obama's presidential campaign, Valerie Jarrett stopped in Madison Monday to headline a $200-per-person fundraiser at the Sherman Avenue home of Mary Lang Sollinger.
Sollinger, a local philanthropist and activist, was an early and important local supporter of Obama and is a member of his national finance committee. She says she was thrilled to have Jarrett, a longtime mentor, friend and now senior adviser and assistant to Obama, speak at the event.
The afternoon gathering, which featured a question-and-answer session with Jarrett, was closed to the press because of Secret Service security concerns, says Sollinger. A hundred people attended, she reported after the gathering, with supporters coming from Eau Claire, La Crosse and Richland Center, as well as Madison and around Dane County.
Sollinger maintains that Obama supporters are opening their wallets despite the stiff competition for funds for Democratic efforts and candidates. There are recall campaigns under way against Gov. Scott Walker, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and four Republican state senators. There are also local Democrats running for open seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate.
"We are really cooking," says Sollinger. "People are coming through very well."
Sollinger says the backlash against the "hard times" created under Walker has invigorated potential supporters and countered any "donor fatigue" that might come from competing demands for money. "It has really drawn in people who have never been in politics before."
Attendees at Monday's fundraiser challenged Jarrett on Obama's 2008 campaign pledge of "change," says Sollinger. Jarrett responded by citing policies forged by the president including the Affordable Care Act, which prohibits insurers from denying coverage based on preexisting conditions, and the return of troops from Iraq.
Sollinger already helped raise or "bundle" more than $50,000 for Obama in the second quarter of 2011, according to campaign records. She says the fundraising goals identified by the president's national finance committee will need to be "rehashed" after seeing the kind of money raised through super PACs during the Republican primaries in Florida and elsewhere.
"I think it shocked everybody," she says.
Obama announced Tuesday, in fact, that he would drop his opposition to super PACS and accept super PAC monies from Priorities USA.
Vinehout's progressive stripes questioned
Planned Parenthood had some initial reservations about endorsing Kathleen Vinehout when she ran for state Senate in 2006. After all, the farmer and former college professor from Alma even acknowledged that she was a board member of Democrats for Life when seeking the group's endorsement.
But Planned Parenthood ultimately endorsed Vinehout, who won office in 2006, was reelected in 2010 and now says she will run against Gov. Scott Walker if a recall election is triggered (see Opinion, page 9). The endorsement was based on Vinehout's "100% pro-choice candidate questionnaire," says Nicole Safar, legal and policy adviser for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin.
So Planned Parenthood felt betrayed when, during committee debate over a bill designed to ensure access to birth control, Vinehout authored an amendment to allow pharmacists and pharmacies with religious objections to refuse to dispense contraceptives and send women elsewhere. Vinehout also offered an amendment that eliminated the clarification in the bill that birth control should not be included in the definition of abortion in Wisconsin statutes.
Both amendments passed with the support of Republicans on the committee, but the state Senate ultimately passed a version of the bill without Vinehout's restrictions. That bill failed to win Assembly approval, but a measure that requires pharmacies to dispense birth control without delay was later passed in the 2009-10 budget.
Because of Vinehout's amendments, and other disagreements with her over women's health issues, Planned Parenthood took the unprecedented move of rescinding its endorsement, says Safar.
Vinehout has consistently maintained that she offered a so-called conscience clause exemption to ensure that the bill would not violate the Wisconsin Constitution, which states that no "control of, or interference with, the rights of conscience be permitted." She also says that it is "not a common problem" for pharmacists to refuse to fill birth control prescriptions.
Perhaps most troubling to pro-choice activists, Vinehout claims that the current law does what she intended to do with her amendment. "With the prescription drug bill, my 2008 amendment did include a conscience clause," she said in a Feb. 5 statement. "The final version, passed in the 2009 budget, was better language even though the effect was the same."
NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin issued a Feb. 3 statement saying that was not true. Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison), who was political director of Planned Parenthood while the bill was being deliberated, concurs.
"Her amendment was the antithesis to what is current law," says Taylor, stressing that Vinehout's amendment would have allowed pharmacies and pharmacists to refuse to dispense birth control on site.
Taylor gives Vinehout credit for supporting such things as comprehensive sex education in the schools, but says the senator's misrepresentation of her record on birth-control access raises questions about her judgment and truthfulness.
"Can you trust this person to do what she says she will do?"
Vinehout says she won't respond to what she calls Taylor's "name-calling," but is sticking to her guns on the intent of her amendment, which she says she crafted from available case law at the time. She argues the final law puts the responsibility to dispense birth control on the pharmacy, not pharmacist, which ultimately satisfied her concerns about violating the state Constitution.
Speaking like she's already on the stump, Vinehout adds: "People want a governor who will pay attention to the details of the Constitution."
New DHS building policy restricts public access
Dan Bohrod likes to get his morning pick-me-up from the basement cafeteria at 1 West Wilson St., the stately state office building that houses the Department of Health. On Tuesday, he was met at the main doors by two security guards at a new security desk.
Bohrod, an analyst with the city of Madison's finance department, says he flashed his city ID and was on his way, but he questions why, in a time of fiscal austerity, these new procedures have been put in place.
"Shouldn't the public be able to freely access whatever offices they need without disclosing identity or the nature of their business?" he asks. "It distances the public further from their government and it costs a bunch of money."
It's all part of a security plan that's been in the works for two years, says Beth Kaplan, spokeswoman for the Department of Health Services. The Department of Health Services and Department of Administration building, she adds, are the "only two state agency buildings that still do not have this type of security plan in place."
Under the new restrictions, which are still being phased in, visitors need to check in with security guards before gaining access, and employees must wear newly issued security badges.
Kaplan says the project costs are under $25,000, with the DOA picking up most of the tab. The cost for two guards is $45,600 a year, which will be paid for by the health department. The guards are contracted employees, Kaplan confirms. The badges and new access cards cost $8,800.