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9 Democratic candidates at forum, State Journal photo

The nine major Democratic gubernatorial candidates took part in a forum Sunday night sponsored by the East Side Progressives at La Follette High School. Left to right, Andy Gronik, Dana Wachs, Kathleen Vinehout, Kelda Roys, Mahlon Mitchell, Matt Flynn, Mike McCabe, Paul Soglin, and Tony Evers.

STEVE APPS, STATE JOURNAL

The top Democrats running for governor shared the same stage for the first time Sunday night in an East Side Madison forum in which candidates displayed more differences in personality, style and campaign experience than on a range of issues.

Though different combinations of candidates have been participating in forums across the state for the past several months, Sunday’s forum was the first to feature Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, who formally joined the race earlier this month.

The other candidates were State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, former state Democratic Party chairman Matt Flynn, Milwaukee-area businessman Andy Gronik, former Wisconsin Democracy Campaign executive director Mike McCabe, Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin president Mahlon Mitchell, former Rep. Kelda Roys of Madison, Sen. Kathleen Vinehout of Alma and Rep. Dana Wachs of Eau Claire.

The 90-minute forum was fast-paced, with candidates getting a minute or less to respond to most questions, which included topics such as the environment, income inequality, economic development and marijuana legalization.

On most issues, the candidates were in agreement, though some talked about getting rid of the public-private Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. created under Gov. Scott Walker while others wanted to return it to being a publicly overseen agency.

All of them said they supported legalizing medical marijuana, eight of them gave unequivocal support for legalizing recreational marijuana with Evers saying he would support a statewide referendum before legalizing. Soglin emphasized it wasn’t the most important issue of the campaign.

Soglin’s lack of experience in the fast-paced format showed at times with overly explanatory responses that leaned heavily on his mayoral experience. Asked what would be the top three priorities in his first budget, he quipped, “some of you have heard me answer this question before, you don’t get three answers, you get five,” before running through six priorities — housing, transportation, internet access, child care, health care and education — that ran up against the time limit.

Evers also struggled with the time constraints, getting tongue-tied on a few answers and focusing heavily on his education credentials. He emphasized that he is the only candidate who has won statewide office.

“Scott Walker is a disaster,” Evers said in his closing remarks. “But we also have to understand that leadership matters and who can win an election. I’ve shown I can do that.”

Several candidates came ready with snappy one-liners. Vinehout, emphasizing the need to reach out to non-traditional voters in rural parts of the state, talked about working on a farm, and got a big laugh when she said, “I know what it’s like to be slapped in the face by a nasty tail of a cow at 4:30 a.m., so Republican attacks don’t bother me at all.”

Roys, who gave birth last fall, followed up Vinehout’s quip, immediately saying, “I can’t compete with that, but I have been spit up on at 4 a.m.” Roys also got some laughs when she responded to a group question about experience with other cultures and talked about working with Republicans in the Legislature.

Mitchell, the only African-American in the group, highlighted his experience as a firefighter who ran for lieutenant governor during the 2012 recall. In response to the question about experience with other cultures, he said: “I grew up in Delavan, Wisconsin, so I had a lot of time working with people outside my culture.”

Gronik painted himself as an outsider in the race, but also stumbled when asked to name two actions he would take as governor that don’t require legislative action. His response was to go to the people of Wisconsin and look for the very best ideas and to send an anti-pollution message to businesses.

Evers more deftly said in response to the question he would take federal Medicaid money Walker has rejected and “quit appointing political hacks to our agencies.”

McCabe got many in the audience nodding in approval when he talked about making Wisconsin the first state in the country to derive all of its energy from renewable sources.

Wachs was among several candidates who talked forcefully about reinstating collective bargaining rights for public employees and repealing the state’s right-to-work law.

Flynn, who took the most swipes at President Donald Trump and emphasized his background as a Navy veteran, said in his closing remarks the overriding issue in the campaign is “Who can best beat Scott Walker?”

“There’s a lot of good people at this table, I could support any one of them, and they will support me if I’m the nominee,” Flynn said.

With a little more than six months to go before the primary, the event highlighted the challenge facing Democratic primary voters as they try to discern which candidate should advance to take on Walker, who is running for a third term.

“I don’t know which one to support, because they’re all good,” said Rhoda Braunschweig, 77, a retired nonprofit director from Madison. “What I liked seeing was the assorted strengths of the different candidates. One would be better on this, one on this, one on this.”

Phil Grupe, 33, an energy efficiency analyst from Madison, said what stood out for him was what didn’t stand out.

“It was really encouraging that most of the nine people on the stage I’m comfortable with seeing them run for governor and seeing their ideas included in office,” Grupe said. “There was nothing with the ideas presented that was really a dealbreaker for me.”

The forum was among the first to be held in the state’s second-largest city, a key Democratic constituency for any candidate hoping to win the nomination on Aug. 14.

“In a general election, Madison and Milwaukee have a lot of influence,” said UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden. “In a Democratic primary it’s exacerbated because Democrats are so heavily concentrated. The candidates have to spend time in those places. Madison plays an out-sized influence in the primary stage.”

There are 17 potential candidates who have registered campaigns with the Wisconsin Ethics Commission. Nan Brien, an organizer for the East Side Progressives, which organized the forum, said the nine invited candidates were those who have hired a campaign manager and staff and are actively raising money.

Brien said in order for candidates to have a meaningful conversation with voters “it has to not involve a massive number.”

Brien said those who attend East Side Progressive forums tend to have connections around the state. The event was well attended with nearly 700 people in the auditorium at La Follette High School.

“The outreach has the potential to be pretty significant,” Brien said. “They are going to talk to their friends around the state and get them involved.”

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect Sen. Kathleen Vinehout's support for legalizing recreational marijuana.

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Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.