MILWAUKEE — Wisconsin Democrats elected Martha Laning to lead the party for the next two years by a definitive margin at the state party's convention on Saturday.
Laning, a community activist from Sheboygan, received 721 of 1,349 votes. Democratic National Committee chairman Jason Rae followed with 428 votes, and former DPW chairman Joe Wineke received 121. Former state lawmakers Stephen Smith and Jeff Smith received six votes and three votes, respectively.
Voter turnout was the highest it's been in the past 20 years, said DPW spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff.
Laning will replace outgoing DPW chairman Mike Tate, who has led the party for the last six years. Tate did not seek re-election.
"We're going to build a stronger team," Laning told reporters of her plans for the party.
The 50-year-old businesswoman mounted an unsuccessful state Senate bid in 2014, and became a dues-paying state Democrat just last year. But she has said her activism and support for the party dates much further back.
The race was a contentious one, with in-fighting carried out mostly on social media and in a few news stories leading up to the convention. Laning, who presented herself as offering a fresh perspective for the party, was portrayed by opponents as an inexperienced newcomer.
Both Wineke and Rae in their speeches to convention delegates said the party could not afford to spend time giving "on-the-job training" to a new chairperson.
The week before the election, Jeff Smith sent a letter to supporters pledging to offer the job of DPW executive director to Laning if he won the race. Laning called the move "misguided at best, and at worst, sexist." But days later, Smith dropped out of the race and threw his support to Laning. He appeared onstage with her on Saturday, nominating her for the position.
That move led some to question whether a deal had been brokered to secure a job for Smith, but Laning said Saturday "there have been no promises made to anyone."
Tate told reporters Friday night that Democrats tend to "punch a little harder" within their own family fights, but said he's confident activists will unite behind the party's new leader.
Felesia Martin, a Rae supporter from Milwaukee, said the party needs to do just that in order to move forward. She backed Rae because of his long commitment to the party and the plan he had laid out for it, but she said she isn't worried about what would happen with someone else at the helm.
"What I really hope is people are willing to be unified. The common denominator here is supposed to be that we’re all Democrats," Martin said. "It isn’t about me, it isn’t about I. It has to be the story of us. That’s the only way we’re going to win 2016, '18 and beyond."
Asked how she plans to move Democrats past the divisiveness of the race, which was largely seen as a three-way contest between Laning, Rae and Wineke, Laning said, "That's my job."
"I’m going to reach out to everybody and say, 'What has happened is in the past, and it's time to move forward,'" she said.
Laning declined to name specific races she plans to target, but said the party will focus on races where it can make a difference. That includes taking back majorities in the state Legislature and electing Russ Feingold to replace Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, she said.
She said the "house of cards" built by Republicans is falling, and said Democrats need to bring the party back to the grassroots and ensure opportunity for all.
"She is solution-focused," said Kyle Whelton, a Fitchburg delegate who said he's known Laning for a long time.
Whelton cited her efforts to raise funds to build a $4.6 million community center in Sheboygan County as an example of her fundraising prowess. Laning also has experience working for Target Inc.
Ethan Braun, a supporter from Milwaukee, agreed that Laning would be a strong fundraiser for the party.
Braun said Laning brings to the table a perspective from outside the Democratic strongholds of Madison and Milwaukee, adding that he'd like to see increased focus on counties throughout the state from the party.
"She's the kind of person who brings people together," Whelton said.
Laning pledged to develop "values-driven messaging" to inspire voters throughout the state, strengthen county parties and identify voter turnout problems.
She said her party involvement is inspired by her father, who "grew up dirt-poor in northern Wisconsin."
"It was thanks to the commitment of all of us, people like us, to give him the opportunity to succeed, that he had a successful life," Laning said. "Wisconsin has a rich tradition of being behind those progressive values, and today we are seeing those slip away."
Laning said she plans to treat the position as a full-time job, and will take a salary. She did not announce any immediate staffing changes, but said she would bring in "the best people" with the necessary skills to lead a successful DPW team.
She said she would "reach out to our customers" to find out their needs and how best to fulfill them.