Republicans had a clear advantage entering the special election for Milwaukee area Assembly District 21 — mainly a governor, Scott Walker, who could time the race quickly for his side and alert his ground troops for a head start.
Yet this was a perfect case of how state GOP politicians meddle too much in the wishes of local Republicans. This race, in a district that covers Oak Creek, South Milwaukee and a sliver of Franklin, has careened wildly to the advantage of the other side — you know, those last-minute messy citizens stumbling around for choices. Eight decades ago, humorist Will Rogers nailed it: "I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat."
Republicans insist they are the disciplined ones, regimented and always in control. My, how they splintered that image in District 21! Through a series of miscues reflecting the dissension caused by tea party extremism, the Republicans wound up with five candidates, many unwanted, trying to out-right-wing each other in a primary Oct. 22. Most represent extremist viewpoints that hardly fit this hardworking family-oriented community.
The Democrats can rightly be accused of seeming flatfooted in mid-August and September — not even worried when their early strong choices withdrew because of job conflicts. They learned less than a week in advance that candidates had only until Sept. 24 to file the necessary 200 signatures. Even Sept. 21 they dithered and debated who to run.
And then in two days the Democrats slammed it together in professional fashion with grass-roots ferocity. Community organizers, unions and almost the entire Milwaukee legislative delegation flooded the district to gather nearly 500 signatures on behalf of Elizabeth Coppola, who now can conveniently focus on Nov. 19 to introduce herself to the voters.
Young (late 20s) and softspoken, Coppola wields business, nonprofit, political and public service experience that dovetails with the neighborhood groups she now will meet. She is group manger of 35 employees at Oconomowoc’s Target Distribution Center. Former president of Alverno College’s student government, she was also elected this year to the Social Development Commission's board. She has been an active community representative for such groups as Hunger Task Force and worked with lawyers and clients in the Milwaukee County public defender’s office.
Most telling, she is a 2011 Emerge Wisconsin graduate. Emerge’s only purpose is to pick and train women to campaign as strong Democrats, learning networking, community issues and how to raise money. It already has helped three dozen women get elected in Wisconsin — including members of the state Assembly and Senate. It is an ever-growing force in local elections.
So almost inadvertently the Democrats emerged with one candidate for the Nov. 19 finale while the Republicans are pulling around a clumsy primary caboose:
— William "Larry" Gamble of Franklin, who helped found the Tea Party Grandsons of Liberty; tried in 2012 to unseat popular GOP Rep. Jeff Stone (who is now resigning to take a job with the Public Service Commission); and opposes several things liked in District 21, such as affordable health care.
— Jessie Rodriguez, who is politically connected to the far right. Her husband, Aaron Rodriguez, is the inflammatory blogger regularly published on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Purple Wisconsin site and linked to by the right-wing MacIver Institute. Her claim to prominence is the national voucher and charter funding she can bring into the race through the Rodriguez-family-dominated Hispanics for School Choice. That influence meant she was tipped off early to run. Her jessieforassembly website was registered Sept. 2, long before the election was set Sept. 17. By Sept. 18 she and a campaign team were doing doors in Oak Creek gathering signatures. Look for money from the voucher network and even the American Federation for Children to creep into this contest, as it did against Chris Larson, the region’s state senator who is now Senate minority leader. Yet if you stroll Oak Creek, you’ll discover that voucher schools are not an issue with traction.
— Chris Kujawa, known for losing to Supervisor Patricia Jursik and for indirectly figuring in the John Doe probe that led to the conviction of former Walker aide Tim Russell for stealing money from a veterans grop. Russell served as an adviser to Kujawa’s county political race.
— South Milwaukee’s Jason "Red" Arnold.
— Oak Creek City Council President Ken Gehl, who bears the endorsement of the original announced GOP choice, Oak Creek Mayor Steve Scaffidi.
The local Republicans didn’t intend to look clownish. They know departing GOP Rep. Mark Honadel — a friend of Scaffidi who tipped off the mayor early — had narrowly won his Assembly seat for a decade (in fact, in 2008 he went to bed election night thinking he had lost to Glenn Brower). The area has long elected a Democrat as state senator and is competitive in federal elections. It is almost the definition of a swing district.
Recently it has become more concerned about congeniality and political cooperation. In August of 2012 it was the tragic site of the Sikh Temple mass killings, which drew national headlines about ethnic hatred and gun violence, causing extensive neighborhood outreach to emphasize comity over partisanship.
The Honadels ran a farm and apple orchard going back a century and Mark's father was once Oak Creek mayor. So family roots the GOP now lacks combined with an “aw shucks” manner helped, as did the pretense of being the workingman’s friend. That image suffered in some of Honadel's anti-worker votes in the Walker era, along with his resisting expanded train service and backing reduced funding and more big business control of the popular Milwaukee Area Technical College, which has a flourishing campus in the area.
Honadel said he was departing midterm to take advantage of private sector opportunities, none of which has materialized. There was speculation that he would go to work for Gogebic Taconite since he helped write the state's new mine law, which Indian tribes are now asking the federal government to stop.
Tipped off early to announce, Scaffidi said he could handle both jobs. But something happened to cause him to withdraw Aug. 30. Insiders say it was anger in the state GOP camp when they discovered Scaffidi was part of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the national bipartisan coalition that features Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Walker’s frequent political foe, as national spokesman.
Scaffidi called this reporter back Sept. 27 to state he didn’t feel “undue pressure” from the suggestions of the state GOP but wouldn’t discuss whether the party wanted to impose its own campaign strategy and staff as widely rumored. But he withdrew to focus only on being mayor — and that set off the unseemly GOP scramble for the job.
At first, both political parties seemed to read the community correctly — moderate, interested in economic development. Now the situation suits Coppola and her Democratic supporters while the Republicans must first endure a primary to take the shells off and expose the nuts.
Dominique Paul Noth, once drama and film critic and feature editor at The Milwaukee Journal and first online producer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, for the past decade was editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and website, milwaukeelabor.org. He now writes as an independent journalist on culture and politics.