Jimmy Anderson's campaign for Wisconsin's 47th Assembly District will pit Democrats against Democrats. And in the party's sixth straight year in the state Legislature's political minority, some longtime members aren't pleased with that prospect.
Anderson, 29, announced earlier this week his plans to run for the seat, which covers Monona, McFarland and parts of Fitchburg, Madison and Cottage Grove. The district has been represented since 2012 by Rep. Robb Kahl, D-Monona.
Kahl, 44, a former mayor of Monona, has acknowledged for years that he voted in 2010 for Republican Gov. Scott Walker. He has since been critical of the governor and has voted consistently with his party.
But that 2010 vote troubles Anderson and played a significant role in his decision to enter the race. In his campaign materials, Anderson makes frequent mention of his progressive bona fides, promising voters he'll never give them a reason to doubt his political ideology.
Some Democrats have taken issue with Anderson's candidacy, arguing it's a waste of the party's resources to spend time and money on a safe seat rather than in districts with the potential to swing.
"This is such a distraction," said Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh. "Think about this. Hopefully all 35 of us (Democrats in the Assembly) are going to come out strongly for Robb. Every dollar and every door that we do for our colleague is another dollar and another door that we’re not doing in a Republican district that we can win. When we pick up a seat or two fewer in the fall, I’m going to think about these so-called progressive hypocrites that went after this unnecessary seat to make themselves happy or to high-five their friends at the co-op."
What makes a 'true progressive'?
Anderson, when asked what makes a true progressive, said it's about consistency.
"I’ve always considered myself a progressive, and I've always — the guy that I was when I first started voting when I was 18 is the same guy that I am now," he said.
Lawmakers need to do more to restore public education funding, protect the environment and serve those who are struggling to get by, Anderson said.
"I think too often our government forgets about the people who are working 9 to 5, 9 to 7, 9 to 10 to make ends meet," he said.
Anderson said his desire to serve in public office stems from personal tragedy. In 2010, he and his family were hit by a drunk driver in California. The crash left Anderson paralyzed from the chest down and killed his parents and younger brother.
A California native, Anderson and his wife decided to stay in Dane County after finishing their law and veterinary degrees in Madison. He founded a nonprofit, Drive Clear, aimed at preventing drunk driving and helping its victims. With that organization established, Anderson started looking for his next move.
Having benefited from the highly politicized Affordable Care Act in the treatment of his injuries, Anderson was inspired to run for office. The provision of the law prohibiting health insurance policies from placing lifetime limits on most benefits kicked in just as Anderson had learned he was close to reaching his plan's lifetime limit.
"It was a wake-up call," he said. "I had been kind of cynical about politics, and it made me realize I needed to do something."
The incumbent, Kahl, hasn't decided whether he'll seek re-election — but he talks like a candidate looking toward a future campaign.
Kahl said the delay is more personal than anything — he and his family are moving to a new home and haven't had much time to discuss it together. He said he'll make his decision known within the next few weeks out of courtesy to anyone else who might be considering a run.
In response to Anderson's suggestions that Kahl isn't representing the interests of his party or his constituents, Kahl challenged him to point to a vote demonstrating that.
Anderson cited a 2013 bill that prohibits people from trafficking food stamp benefits. The measure, signed into law by Walker in July 2013, passed the Assembly on a bipartisan 73-24 vote. Kahl was one of 13 Democrats to support it.
He also cited a bill that would have made it easier for private, out-of-state companies to buy municipal water systems. That bill passed the Assembly on a voice vote, which means no roll call was taken, but Kahl voted in the Assembly Committee on Energy and Utilities to send the bill to the floor. The Senate did not take it up.
Anderson said he's not sure whether Kahl was a Democrat before he decided to run for office in Dane County, and said the lawmaker demonstrates a "degree of inconsistency."
"He (Anderson), like a lot of, frankly, extremists on the far end of the spectrum, cannot seem to get past this fascination or obsession with Scott Walker," Kahl said.
Kahl argued that demonizing the governor and making him the focus of elections whether or not his name is on the ballot hasn't done Democrats any good in their efforts to regain a majority.
Instead, Kahl said, Democrats should focus on promoting the party's principles.
"This whole fascination with whether or not I’ve been a Democrat since birth is frankly nauseating, and the voters are sick of it, too," Kahl said. "My journey here has not been a straight line, but I also do not apologize for that fact ... I think the majority of voters in this state don’t simply live by this strict ideology of politics that is really only being dictated to us by the extremists on both sides."
He argued that by only catering to the far-left wing of the party, Democrats will consistently pull in 25 to 30 percent of the vote. To push beyond that, he said, candidates need to look past Walker and present a vision for what a Democratic-led state would look like.
If he decides to run, Kahl said, that's what he'll talk about.
A 'purity test'
Hintz, who has served in the Assembly since 2007, called Anderson's move shortsighted.
He also noted that Anderson's campaign is being worked on by former members of the League of Conservation Voters and Fair Wisconsin, groups that have endorsed Republicans as recently as 2014. The people to whom Hintz was referring are volunteers, not paid staffers, Anderson said.
"The idea that people who have been directly involved in electing Republicans to the Assembly are going to impose a purity test in their neighborhood is ridiculous," Hintz said.
Staush Gruszynski, political director of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, noted that no current LCV staffers are working on Anderson's race. The LCV hasn't started its endorsement process yet for the 2016 election and hasn't made an endorsement in this particular race, Gruszynski said.
Fair Wisconsin executive director Megin McDonell also said no current Fair Wisconsin staffers are working on the race, and the group has not yet started its endorsement process for the 2016 election cycle.
Responding to Hintz's argument, Anderson said he's proud his campaign has "attracted committed progressives who have been fighting for progressive causes for decades, while Robb Kahl was supporting Scott Walker."
A small business owner and attorney, Kahl describes himself as fiscally conservative and socially "very liberal."
He said he's proud that he's worked with Republicans while in office to pass bills addressing constituent concerns, including one expanding the requirements for notification when an out-of-state sex offender is placed in a community, and one that allows cannibidiol to be used for treatment of seizure disorders.
While Kahl said he'd prefer his party be the one in power, he believes the variety of viewpoints contained within is good for the Legislature.
"People like Jimmy Anderson don’t understand that reality," Kahl said. "It’s clear he just wants to come out and take this hard stance on the far end of the spectrum. That’s his prerogative, but I can assure you, if he is elected, the people of the 47th will not be served, because he will get nothing done."
Hintz said he generally has mixed feelings about primary challenges in safe districts, adding that it's not enough for the incumbent to have voted with the party. Kahl, he said, has been a team player who works to get Democrats elected throughout the state.
That's the kind of attitude progressives should want in a candidate, Hintz argued.
"I'm in the business of trying to elect more Democrats, not trying to increase the size of the Solidarity Singers," Hintz said.
If Kahl runs, he and Anderson — and anyone else who may enter — would face off in an Aug. 9 primary.
This article has been updated to include comments from the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters and Fair Wisconsin and a clarification from Jimmy Anderson.