Wanted: Democratic women for public office and a gubernatorial candidate

Lisa Speckhard

So far, more Democrats have announced that they won’t be running for Wisconsin governor in 2018 than have announced they will try to take Gov. Scott Walker's place.

Former state Sen. Tim Cullen, U.S. Rep. Ron Kind and state Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling have said they’re not running for Wisconsin’s top office. The only declared candidate is Bob Harlow, a 25-year-old with a physics degree. 

But Joe Zepecki, a Democratic strategist who worked on the Obama 2012 campaign, and Mary Burke’s Democratic bid for governor in 2014, has a fairly positive outlook on the left’s political prospects.

 “I’m really encouraged by the number of people who are looking at (running) right now,” he said on a recent episode of political talk show “UpFront with Mike Gousha.”

He wasn’t the only one looking ahead; this Sunday's political talk shows were abuzz with possibilities for the next elections, with Democrats discussing a suitable candidate for governor and their strategies to get more women into office.

Zepecki noted that the 2018 race for governor is still a ways off.

“If you look historically, it’s still very early in the calendar,” he said, adding that Burke didn’t announce her candidacy for the 2014 race until October of 2013.

In fact, more people are considering running now than at this time last election, he said, and the people considering running are all quality candidates. He mentioned state Rep. Dana Wachs of Eau Claire, Jefferson County District Attorney Susan Happ and Dane County Executive Joe Parisi.

Host Mike Gousha asked whether money is a major barrier for a Democratic victory, as Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign spent $36 million in 2014. When explaining his decision not to run, Cullen cited the “demeaning” practice of intense fundraising.

While Walker’s budget is formidable, Zepecki wasn’t impressed with Cullen’s response.

“I don’t think the solution is to bemoan selling yourself to potential campaign donors one phone call at a time. Listen, we have business people in the state, entrepreneurs, who every day are out there trying to get capital for their startups,” he said. “If you want to be governor and you can’t commit to making that case to get contributions for your vision for the state of Wisconsin, you don’t have any business running for governor.”

There’s no way to escape fundraising, but there are different ways to go about it, he said. You can “chain yourself to your desk” and make calls asking for $5,000 and $10,000 donations, Zepecki said, but you could also take a “Bernie Sanders-style approach” and fund-raise online for low dollar amounts.

“If you have a compelling message for the people of Wisconsin and a vision for where you want to take the state, that can catch fire in an instant these days,” he said.

And while Walker may have money, he doesn’t have control over a powerful deciding factor: the national political environment.

“Being a Republican could turn out to be a very big problem for anyone in 2018 no matter how much money they raise, no matter what their track record has been in the past,” Zepecki said.

The gubernatorial race isn’t the only election on Democrats’ minds. Erin Forrest, a guest on the the talk show “Capital City Sunday,” argued for the importance of local elections.

“We also talk about the local level, because a lot of things that, from our perspective, need to be protected, that’s the only place we can do it right now,” she said. “A lot of important things happen on your city council or village board.”

Forrest is the executive director of Emerge Wisconsin, an organization that trains Democratic women to run for public office. Emerge is a six month, cohort-based training that has put has put over 40 women in office, with six in the state legislature.

Local offices can serve as “stepping stones” for women to work their way up the political system, Forrest said.

Emerge exists because women are “horrifyingly underrepresented” in politics, she said.

Women make up half the population, but only 25 percent of elected officials, and 75 percent of town boards in Wisconsin have no women at all, she said.

Women make up only 25 percent of political candidates, but last election may have changed that for the better: there was a huge spike in interest in the Emerge program, which then doubled in size.

“As much as women were upset about Donald Trump being elected and shocked by that, they were also really inspired by Hillary and by seeing her out there,” she said. “When a woman runs for a higher profile office … we see more women running.”

Getting more women in government is not just an issue of equality in representation, she said.

“We know that government is more effective when there are more women at the table and when there’s a diverse group of voices represented,” she said. “This is true in business; it’s true in government.”


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