• WisPolitics

Friday, June 05, 2015

 11:21 AM 

WisPolitics.com interviews with Dem Party chair candidates

Ahead of this weekend's Dem convention, where four candidates are now vying to head the party, WisPolitics.com interviewed the candidates for chair about their platforms, their views on the party's electoral future and their thoughts on campaign financing.

Read below for excerpts and click through for complete summaries of their interviews, which were conducted the week of May 26. Jeff Smith, who has since dropped out of the race and endorsed Martha Laning, was still a candidate for chair at the time of these interviews.


Laning, 50, was born and raised in Wisconsin and lives with her husband, Wayne, in Sheboygan. She graduated from public schools and went to UW-Madison, where she earned an undergraduate degree and MBA in finance.

Q: What is the platform you're running on for state chair?

Laning said she believes the state is "going in the wrong direction" and that the Dem party and its values are the keys to correcting course.

"The way I believe our party can turn things around," she said, "is we need to first create values-driven messaging that really resonates with our voters and helps get a message out to voters across the state that we believe that there should be opportunity for all and responsibility and fairness."

She said she also wants to find ways to improve voter turnout and strengthen the Dem party.

"I want to bring people together, all the different Democrats that are working for our progressive values out there," Laning said. "And I want to do things that help them get our message out in our communities year round and also help us identify great legislators that can help us build a stronger Wisconsin."

She said she does not "like the fact that money is in politics at all" but understands the importance of strong fundraising.

"And that's the rules we have to play by," Laning said.

Read more from Laning's interview


Jason Rae, 28, said he started volunteering for candidates in and around his native Rice Lake before he could vote. Later, he ran for and won a 2004 campaign to represent Wisconsin at the national convention, becoming at age 17 the youngest person elected to the DNC.

Q: The party now has the least number of seats in the Assembly since the 1950s. Knowing the maps Republicans drew in 2011 will be in place for the remainder of this decade, what would you do as chair to begin winning back seats in the Assembly?

Tate said expanding voter engagement and bringing more people into the party would make a big difference in Assembly elections.

"I know that the Republicans have gerrymandered the maps to the point that it will hurt Democrats," he said "But if we are out there expanding who we're engaging with, and making sure that we're bringing more people in, I think that will help us get a really great opportunity."

He also said it was important to plan ahead and look a couple election cycles into the future.

"When I win on June 6, if we're not starting to talk already about the election 2018 and 2020, I think we're severely behind."

Read more from Rae's interview

NOTE: About a week after this interview, Smith dropped out of the race and endorsed Laning for chair

Jeff Smith, 60, served in the state Assembly for two terms -- winning elections in 2006 and 2008 -- before losing in the 2010 GOP wave.

Q: The party now has the least number of seats in the Assembly since the 1950s. Knowing the maps Republicans drew in 2011 will be in place for the remainder of this decade, what would you do as chair to begin winning back seats in the Assembly?

"First of all, I really never accept the excuse that we can't win, because they've gerrymandered the district," Smith said. "With that attitude, then we are forever going to be in the minority because that means we're waiting for something to happen. It's not going to happen unless we make it happen."

He said Dems can win back seats by listening carefully and finding common ground to communicate with constituents. In the past, he said, there have been operatives from urban areas coming in to communicate with rural voters, which he said can sometimes be problematic.

"They've determined that our messaging should be pretty much the same all across the state, and it doesn't necessarily work that way," he said.

He said his working-class background as a window cleaner gave him a different perspective on work and on talking to voters. He said his work -- which included climbing ladders, carrying things and sweating all day -- meant he showered after work.

"When we have persons who shower before work determining our messaging and how to talk to people, I'm going to tell you, from my own experience, sometimes it seems rather offensive to someone like me when they tell me how hard they're working for me, when I know I work harder than they do."

Read more from Jeff Smith's interview


Smith is a 64-year-old retired businessman living in Shell Lake. He owned a school bus company and a retail store. He served in the Assembly one term. He said he has been active in getting Dem candidates elected since 1974.

Q: What would you do as party chair to build the Dem bench for statewide races? And what do you need in a candidate to win back the guv's office in 2018?

Strengthening the bench goes back to becoming more involved in April elections, he said. The majority of legislators started out in local governments, and that's where the focus must be, he said.

"In order to have good future leaders, candidates, we need to help people get elected at the local level," Smith said. "If we get some progressive majority at the local level, we'll be able to point at what good governing looks like, not just talk about it.'

He said taking back the governor's office depends on conducting a complete, statewide campaign. He cited U.S. Tammy Baldwin's election in 2012, saying her numbers in Waukesha County were better than the average Democratic candidate, and that pushed her to victory.

"You have to win in all the nooks and crannies in the state of Wisconsin," he said.

Read more from Stephen Smith's interview


Joe Wineke, 58, was the chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin for four years and a division administrator in charge of collective bargaining under Gov. Jim Doyle. He spent 10 years in the state Assembly, six years in the state Senate and three years on the Verona City Council. He still lives in Verona.

Q: The party now has the least number of seats in the Assembly since the 1950s. Knowing the maps Republicans drew in 2011 will be in place for the remainder of this decade, what would you do as chair to begin winning back seats in the Assembly?

The Dems need a strong message, Wineke said.

"We have allowed the Republican Party to define us as Democrats," he said. "We have not come strongly back beyond our criticism of the governor and the Legislature into explain to people in a simple way what Democrats will do for them if they vote for them."

That message, he said, touches on economics, equal rights, tax fairness and making sure public money goes to public schools.

He said redistricting didn't help Dems, but there is more to it than that.

"I would argue, though, it was the Democrats in '09 and '10, when they had the governor and both houses of the Legislature that failed to pass redistricting reform," he said. "So we can't blame the Republicans completely. We have to look in the mirror."

Read more from the interview with Wineke


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