Gov. Scott Walker’s era of divisiveness was over, several Democratic candidates for governor agreed during a Sunday night forum at Madison La Follette High School.
“For the last eight years, Scott Walker has treated us like enemies,” said former state Rep. Kelda Roys of Madison. “He used the words ‘divide and conquer’ and that is a poison on our state. And that’s going to end when one of us is governor.”
“This race has got to be about treating people with dignity. Divide and conquer is gone,” State Superintendent Tony Evers said later in the forum.
There wasn’t much division Sunday, as candidates largely agreed with each other and never directly attacked statements from each other. Even in a race with a double-digit number of candidates and no clear frontrunner, much of the discussion centered on issues that united them.
Evers, Roys, Andy Gronik, Matt Flynn, Mike McCabe, Mahlon Mitchell, Paul Soglin, Kathleen Vinehout and Dana Wachs spoke at the forum. Hundreds attended the event, organized by the Madison East Side Progressives and moderated by state Rep. Melissa Sargent, a Madison Democrat.
Among the areas of general agreement: open up Badgercare for all, fully fund K-12 and post-secondary education and make major changes to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and the state corrections system.
Candidates also agreed on the importance of refinancing student loans and recommended raising the gas tax as a way to solve the state’s transportation issues.
Education funding was a major theme of the night, and candidates said they were unimpressed with Walker’s recent increase of almost $650 million for K-12 funding, pointing to his cuts in previous years.
“That’s like taking a knife, sticking it eight inches in my back, pulling it out four inches," said Mitchell, president of the Professional Fire Fighters Association of Wisconsin. "I’m supposed to say, ‘Thank you’? You can’t do that. We have to adequately fund education.”
Many candidates painted a picture of returning Wisconsin to its former glory, with good roads, a strong university system and a clean environment. Asked about his environmental priorities, former chairman of the state Democratic party Flynn talked about restoring the independence of the Department of Natural Resources and regulating and heavily zoning large farming operations, or CAFOs.
“I would be an environmental governor, and I’m sad I even have to say it, because we were at one time the environmental state,” Flynn said.
This general agreement among candidates was thrown into sharp relief during a “lightning round,” when candidates had one sentence to respond to the idea of legalizing medical and recreational marijuana.
In just a few minutes, every candidate had declared they would support both measures, except Evers, who said he would support medical marijuana and let voters decide on recreational marijuana through a referendum.
The night wasn’t devoid of unique ideas: Wachs, a state representative from Eau Claire, talked of forming an office of retention in the Department of Commerce to help keep businesses like Oscar Mayer in the state. McCabe, former head of the campaign finance watchdog Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said he wanted to make Wisconsin the first state fully powered by renewable energy. Madison Mayor Paul Soglin was the only candidate to highlight the issue of housing, and pointed to Madison’s goal to build 1,000 affordable units of housing in five years.
The question that drew the most diverse answers asked candidates to describe a successful experience outside their home culture. Stories varied from volunteering with the Peace Corps in Africa (McCabe) to working with Republicans across the aisle (Roys) to a childhood experience living in Mexico (Flynn) to representing discrimination cases as a lawyer (Wachs).
Mitchell, an African-American who grew up in Delavan, said he “had a lot of time working with people outside of my culture. Like every day.” His more serious answer described his experience with at-risk youth as a street outreach coordinator with Briarpatch and Youth Services of Southern Wisconsin.
In their closing remarks, the candidates made the greatest effort to distinguish themselves from the others on stage. Gronik, a Milwaukee businesssman, highlighted his role as a political outsider, Flynn as an aggressive candidate who could call out Walker on the “lies and fraud of his administration.” Evers pointed to his significant lead in a recent poll, and Vinehout, a state senator, said she knows what it’s like to grow up on food stamps or without health insurance.
Mitchell said Walker has faced elected officials and business leaders before, but “Governor Walker’s never seen anyone like me head to head.” McCabe said that while no campaign would raise more money than Walker's, he was prepared to run a grassroots effort to reach forgotten places and people.
Candidates said reaching voters who feel left behind by politicians will be crucial to a 2018 Democratic win.
Roys said Walker and Republicans have used the idea of an urban/rural divide to exploit Wisconsinites. Instead, she said, Democrats need to talk about the issues these areas have in common, like poor infrastructure and lack of funding for schools.
McCabe talked about the importance of connecting with rural Wisconsin, saying that Democrats can’t win with just Madison and Milwaukee.
“There are too many forgotten people living in too many forgotten places around our state,” he said. “We have to make them a better offer than they’ve been made in a very long time, and that’s how we take the state back.”