Lawyer and anti-drunk driving advocate Jimmy Anderson won a three-way Democratic primary in Wisconsin's 47th Assembly District last month. He faces an independent challenger in November, but is expected to replace outgoing Rep. Robb Kahl, D-Monona. 

Cap Times: What’s the game plan for you between now and November?

Jimmy Anderson: I definitely want to take the time to try and meet more people in the district, keep doing doors, talk to people, find out what it is they care about. And then try to meet with different organizations that maybe would have endorsed my other two opponents and again, find out what are their issues they care about, what can I do to try to make that happen for the district. Then after that, it’s doing doors for the Democrats who have chances to pull out victories, and then making sure that we’re focusing on the things that I think we need to be focusing on.

You knocked on a lot of doors during your primary. What did you hear from people?

Yeah, we did a little over 5,600 doors. I think the number one thing that people cared about was education. They were really concerned about their schools always having to go to referendum in order to get the money they need to pay for basic supplies. Local taxes are the most regressive form of taxes and the ones that hurt the middle class the most. I think we’re seeing more and more that the current policies of the last six years, especially when it comes to issues of taxes, hurt the middle class. They’re not really helping the hardworking taxpayers of the state.

When you first talked about running, there was some potential for ugliness if former Rep. Robb Kahl stayed in the race. When he dropped out, it still ended up getting contentious at the end. Did you expect that?

You always kind of have to expect it. It was interesting, the tack that they took. It’s kind of why I got into politics. I’m tired of the negativity, of the ugliness of it. There were other ways to try to address the issues they were concerned about, and that was not the way to do it. But now that we’re here, I’m not the kind of person that holds grudges. Hopefully I’ll be able to sit down with them in the future. We’ve got to work together in the future. Hopefully we can move on.

How will your representation differ from what the district has had in the past?

I describe myself as a progressive. I’ve always been inspired by Teddy Roosevelt and FDR. What progressivism means to me is being able to move forward, being able to get solutions passed. I really want to make sure that we focus on the things that matter to the district. The past representative, I think, focused on certain issues that were not particularly in the interest of the district. In committee he had voted for water privatization. Being how environmentally conscious this district is, I didn’t think that was appropriate.

People tried to paint this as, “He’s demanding a purity test.” That was never it. I’ve always said, if it makes the people’s lives in the 47th District better, I’m going to do it. When I won that night, I said everything I do is going to be focused on the people of the district. If they care about the issue and it matters to them, I’m going to fight for them.

What issues do you think will be easiest for you to work on with Republicans?

Criminal justice reform, I think that’s a place where you can actually move forward. Too many people are being put in jail needlessly, and that ends up hurting them for the rest of their lives. Another issue we can move forward on is the veterans home (at King). It’s unfortunate that it has to take this level of public awareness in order to get something as simple as, making sure their water is clean, but I think that making sure that we provide our veterans with the utmost care is really important.

And that also ties into other issues of health care. There was one woman I met who was dealing with the early stages of multiple sclerosis. She’s given a set amount of hours that she can have people come in to help her during the day. Because we have not been making the proper investments in health care, her hours are getting cut back further and further to the point where she has to decide between bathing or eating. And those are genuine decisions that she has to make, because she only gets a person for a certain amount of time.

It’s unfortunate that these people can’t share their voices and share their stories, because a lot of them are stuck at home or just don’t have access or whatever the circumstances. So if I can shine a light on those issues and maybe bring about a little bit of bipartisanship to address those issues, I think that would be great.

Is it a challenge for you to balance the things you want to accomplish as a lawmaker and the things people may expect you to pursue because of your background? (Anderson was paralyzed and his father, mother and brother were killed by a drunk driver.)

You know, I’m a legislator who happens to be in a wheelchair, not the wheelchair legislator. But, no, I do lend a unique perspective on a lot of issues, whether it’s issues of drunk driving, just because of my personal past experience and also the work that I’ve done with my nonprofit, whether it’s issues surrounding disability. I’ve gone through these experiences and I think I could speak to a lot of these issues from a place of knowledge and compassion and consideration.

But, when I went to law school, I studied tax policy. And it’s something that I care a lot about, and it’s something I hope to be able to work on when I get to the Assembly. Again, it’s not about me, it’s about the district. So the issues that I care about, those are the committees I want to get on, those are the kinds of issues I want to work on.

What kind of role do you see yourself playing in conversations about drunk driving policy?

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It’s also one of those things where there is some bipartisanship. I know Rep. Ott has been trying to work on this for the past few years, and he’s made a bit of headway. Helping the victims of drunk driving, I hear these stories quite often. If my story can move people and try to push them towards a more reasonable drunk driving policy, I think that would be great. Those first offense OWIs being made a ticket, I think, is a cultural thing we have to address. And then making sure that we have more opportunities for people to get the help that they need. No one goes out one night and says, “I’m going to drive drunk, because it’s a lot of fun and it’s what I want to do.” A lot of times they’re ill, and they rely on alcohol to get through the day. We need to provide them with the kind of help that they need to help them get off of alcohol and fix their lives.

You sent a lot of mailers with your “I Sit With Jimmy” slogan — I got seven, and I'm not even in the district. Did you get any pushback on that?

I would say, nine times out of 10, people thought it was a cute slogan. I mean, I’m in this chair. So I think people kind of appreciate when you talk about it frankly. If I can be someone who’s open, an ambassador to the disabled community, I think it’s good. If you have a chance to educate someone, that’s great.

I did get a few people who said, “I’m tired of looking at your face. Please stop sending me mail.” But equally, I’d knock doors and people would say, “Who are you?” These primary races, it’s hard to get people to pay attention. There’s a reason why there’s a 13 percent turnout. Hopefully, I was trying to at least raise a little more awareness for the race.

Did you hear any criticism from people who weren’t pleased with the amount of money you spent on the race?

You know, I can’t get to every door. That’s just a reality. So I know I was going to have to put more money into mail and things like that, to get people to notice me and hear what I had to say. It’s a lot easier to tell my story and share who I am with a piece of mail.

I did put my own money in this race, and I saw it as an investment in my community. I lost my family and was paralyzed. In return for that, I received a settlement, and I’m comfortable. But having lived on one end of the poverty scale and now being on the other end — I thought it was unfair before. I know it’s unfair now. So I want to do everything I can to make sure people who are struggling to make ends meet no longer have to do so. That’s kind of a long-winded answer. I don’t fault anyone that might be curious as to why I put my own money into the race, but that is genuinely it. I saw an opportunity to make the lives of the people in this district better, and I was willing to invest my own funds to make that happen.

Did anything surprise you, during the primary or after you won?

It’s funny, it was the two extremes. There was extreme pettiness. I didn’t think it would get so ugly, and I didn’t think it would get so petty. But the other end of that spectrum, you’re surprised to see the passion that people have about these races. The 47th, you’re either going to get a Democrat or a Democrat-er. But to still see how passionate people were about the race, making sure the people who represents them really represents the things they care about, their beliefs, their values.

It stoked all of the cynicism, but it also stoked all the most positive parts about it. So it’s a matter of just focusing on the people that really bring out the positivity.

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.