Russ Feingold DPW convention

Russ Feingold

Associated Press archives

GREEN BAY --In a party split between presidential candidates, two things brought Wisconsin Democrats together Friday at their state party convention: a dislike of Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump and cheers for their likely U.S. Senate nominee, Russ Feingold.

The party's annual showcase event runs through Saturday afternoon. The tension underlying the convention centers on differences between backers of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who convincingly won the Wisconsin Democratic primary, and Hillary Clinton, who has a solid delegate lead in the national nomination process and support from many elected Democratic office-holders.

The reaction of Democratic delegates Friday night showed both sides could rally behind Feingold -- and a running criticism of Trump that was part serious, part humorous.

Keynote speaker and U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who has been floated as a possible vice presidential pick for Clinton, praised both Democratic presidential candidates in equal measure.

Then he implored Democrats to unite to defeat Trump.

"In the face of a demagogue, to be divided is to be defeated," Perez said.

Other speakers picked up the theme, albeit in lighter terms.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin sought to link Trump to Wisconsin Republicans, ridiculing him as “Scott Walker with a spray-tan.”

U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore used a Trump bobblehead doll as a prop in her remarks. Rep. Mark Pocan's introductory video montage drew one of the night's biggest laughs with a clip of former GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush saying of Trump: "He needs therapy."

Feingold is vying to return to the U.S. Senate by challenging Republican Sen. Ron Johnson. In his speech Friday, Feingold called for raising the minimum wage, preserving and strengthening Social Security, and making broadband Internet service a public utility.

Feingold frequently invoked his recent tour of all 72 Wisconsin counties -- saying no one at those tour stops urged him to build a wall on the Mexican border, as Trump has vowed to do.

He also focused on the changes brought to Wisconsin by Walker and GOP state lawmakers, while rejecting the notion that the state has been hopelessly divided by the political battles of the last five years.

"What I hear from most Wisconsinites is that we are ready to unite again," Feingold said.

Feingold, speaking in a press conference after the convention, blasted Trump for his recent remarks that a California federal judge should recuse himself from lawsuits concerning Trump University over which he has presided due to a conflict of interest because that judge is of Mexican ancestry.

“I think the language (Trump) is using in the context of this judge, the language he has used in other contexts, is disqualifying for him to be President of the United States,” Feingold said.

Day two of the convention on Saturday is when Democratic delegates will debate resolutions and elect Wisconsin's four Democratic National Committee members for terms beginning after the Democratic National Convention in July.

In a sign that party officials may be skittish about the Sanders-Clinton dynamic, the website wispolitics.com reported Thursday that Wisconsin Democrats are banning the site from buying a table at the convention to conduct a straw poll of Democratic delegates -- which it has done regularly at conventions of both parties for 16 years.

A few Sanders supporters held a press conference at the convention Friday afternoon to charge national Democrats have "stacked the deck" in favor of Clinton winning the nomination.

Sanders supporters say they plan to propose resolutions Saturday urging the national party to end the system of so-called super-delegates, or party leaders who vote, as delegates, for the party's presidential nomination. Super-delegates are not bound by the results of states primaries or caucuses as most delegates are, leading critics to say they do not reflect the will of voters. Some super-delegates to this year's convention have not signaled which candidate they will support, but the overwhelming majority of those who have are backing Clinton.

Internal divisions notwithstanding, members of both camps gave a warm greeting to Feingold, who served in the Senate from 1993 to 2011.

Speaking Friday morning before the convention, Pocan, D-Black Earth, said the enthusiasm for Feingold stems both from the candidate and the role he could play in Democrats retaking the U.S. Senate this fall. Wisconsin is considered a virtual must-win state for Democrats if they are to do so.

“Russ is going to be the star of the convention," Pocan said Friday morning. "Clearly the path to taking back the US Senate starts in Wisconsin.”

Check back for updates Friday and Saturday as the convention continues.

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Mark Sommerhauser covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.