With just under a week left before the primary election, seven out of the eight Democratic candidates for governor made their case to voters Wednesday at a forum organized by Isthmus, WORT 89.9 FM and The Progressive magazine at the Central Library in downtown Madison.
The candidates stuck together in their focus against Gov. Scott Walker and drew some laughs from the partisan crowd when asked to name the worst thing the governor has done.
“When he said 'I’m the education governor,'” State Schools Superintendent Tony Evers said.
Mayor Paul Soglin said there are “so many choices.”
Milwaukee attorney Matt Flynn, activist Mike McCabe, Kenosha attorney Josh Pade, former state Rep. Kelda Roys of Madison and state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout of Alma were also on the stage. Mahlon Mitchell, head of of the Wisconsin firefighters union, was not present.
The candidates were asked four rounds of questions, each had five opportunities to provide 30 second responses to their opponents' answers and participated in three lightning rounds. During one of those, candidates were asked to pick which of the other candidates they would vote for if their own name was not on the ballot.
Evers and Vinehout selected each other, McCabe also chose Vinehout, Flynn chose Soglin, Pade selected Roys to support a “new generation of leaders” while Roys said Soglin “would be really fun to watch.” Soglin said he would write his own name on the ballot.
In another lightning round, the candidates all raised their hands to support the legalization of marijuana and background checks on all gun sales. On raising the minimum wage to $15, Soglin’s hand shot up immediately followed by Vinehout, Roys, Flynn and Evers.
McCabe said he supports a $15 minimum wage implemented over five years, and Pade said he would favor it but believes the state needs a “smart way on getting there.”
Throughout the 90-minute event, the Democrats positioned themselves against Walker, who is vying for a third term, and took aim at his record on the environment and climate change, education and the state's $4 billion deal with Foxconn.
But during the candidates’ closing statements, Flynn said that a vote for Evers would mean voting for a “Republican light” agenda. Flynn also suggested that Evers would not be a strong opponent to Walker.
“We need a very aggressive, articulate candidate who is going to get up there and eviscerate him,” Flynn said.
Evers asked for a chance to respond and referred to Flynn's remarks as a "cheap shot from someone I respect."
A day after Walker said he doesn't see the point of visiting a state prison, the candidates emphasized criminal justice reform and transparency in the corrections system.
“We have a governor of the state of Wisconsin who is saying he is never going to go to a prison,” Evers said. “This is the leader of Wisconsin."
Flynn added that Wisconsin needs a "hands-on governor” that can hold prisons accountable and make sure prison staff and inmates are “protected.”
Vinehout emphasized the need for a nonpartisan audit of the Department of Corrections and the prison population, including the number of individuals incarcerated for “crimeless revocations” and those that have not committed a violent crime.
“We don’t know how those books are cooked,” Vinehout said.
On education, the candidates argued more school funding is needed. However, only Soglin said he would raise taxes to get there.
"Let's cut the crap," Soglin said. "If you're going to spend more money on schools, you've got to spend more tax money."
Roys suggested using money currently “wasted on corporate giveaways” while Vinehout and Evers suggested rearranging funding priorities.
Flynn offered a plan to eliminate tax credits for manufacturers and agriculture producers, accept federal dollars to expand Medicaid in the state and eliminate the Foxconn tax incentives to find more funding for schools. Pade suggested using tax revenue from legalizing marijuana and other tax measures.
Following the panel, Republican Party of Wisconsin spokesman Alec Zimmerman said the Democratic candidates are "locked in a dangerous race to the left."
"From their wildly unsafe policy proposals like cutting the prison population in half, to their scandals that left children in danger in our schools and churches, it’s more apparent now than ever that all of these candidates are unfit to serve as governor,” Zimmerman said in a statement.
A Marquette University Law School poll in July showed Evers as the favored candidate with 31 percent support from registered Democratic voters. But more Democratic primary voters, 38 percent, do not know who they will vote for yet.
The primary election is Tuesday, Aug. 14. The general election is Nov. 6