Most political observers agree that the United States’ politics have become increasingly polarized. Gerrymandering has led to increasingly partisan districts, in which candidates focus on winning over the dominant party’s base, rather than appealing to voters in the middle of the political spectrum.
In such a political landscape, candidates such as Robb Kahl, the Democratic nominee for the solidly blue 47th Assembly District, are rare.
Kahl, the former mayor of Monona, has a history of supporting Republican candidates. In fact, a liberal blogger recently unearthed a picture of Kahl at Gov. Scott Walker’s victory party on election night 2010.
“The photos confirm that Robb Kahl has hoodwinked not only his future constituents; but every good progressive Democrat and organization who has endorsed him,” wrote Scott Wittkopf on his Badger Democracy blog.
“This is very disturbing,” said Madison radio talk show host John “Sly” Sylvester (WTDY/AM 1670), expressing frustration with party leaders who supported Kahl in the primary. “This is a Dane County Assembly seat!”
Although Kahl has countered that he also stopped by the Barrett party on election night, he admits he voted for Walker.
Kahl says he has supported members of both parties in the past, but that his policy positions are more in line with Democrats. In particular, he cites his socially liberal views on abortion and gay marriage, as well as his opposition to the governor’s cuts to public education.
So why did he support Walker in 2010?
“He presented a better idea economically for Wisconsin going forth,” he says, referencing what he believed would be a business-friendly agenda, including initiatives such as the creation of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, the quasi-governmental body that now works to spur business growth by offering millions of dollars in loans, grants and tax credits.
But Kahl says he has been turned off by Walker’s actions in office, particularly the education cuts and the near elimination of collective bargaining rights for most public employees.
“There’s a lot of people who voted for him and said, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t know he was going to do that,’” he says.
He also makes a point of criticizing the mismanagement of WEDC, whose chief financial officer recently resigned after it was revealed that the organization had lost track of roughly $9 million in loans given to companies.
Kahl also attributes some of his past political affiliations to business connections.
For instance, he is currently executive director of the Construction Business Group, a nonprofit organization made up of representatives of construction companies as well as officials from the International Union of Operating Engineers, a union that represents thousands of workers in the construction trades. In that role, Kahl has advocated for policies that favor the industry, including more spending on highway construction, and rules that require local governments to contract with private construction companies for certain highway projects.
On issues important to CBG, Walker has generally been deemed a success. In fact, IUOE is one of only several unions in the state that endorsed the governor in 2010, although it remained neutral for the recall election.
Kahl says his position at CBG explains why in 2004 he contributed $500 to Tim Michels, the Republican candidate for Senate who unsuccessfully challenged then-Sen. Russ Feingold.
Michels’ company – Michels Corp. – is one of the four companies on the board of CBG.
“Tim Michels is the largest union employer in Wisconsin,” Kahl says.
Kahl insists he signed the petition to recall Walker, although his name does not appear in the online database of signers that was compiled by the Government Accountability Board.
He contends he signed a petition circulated by Zac Kramer, head of the State Senate Democratic Committee. Kramer backs him up on this, and says he does not know why the petition does not show up in the database.
Because of his understanding of transportation issues, says Kahl, he was appointed by Walker in October of last year to sit on the newly created Wisconsin Commission on Transportation, Finance and Policy.
Was it awkward to support the recall of the official who appointed him to that position?
Kahl says no.
“I have a different view on many transportation issues than this administration,” he says, noting his support for the high-speed rail link between Madison and Milwaukee that Walker killed. “My personal politics are my personal politics.”
Ultimately, says Kahl, a segment of the progressive community in Madison may never accept him if his views don’t conform to theirs “on every single issue … since birth.”
If candidates have to prove such unwavering loyalty, however, the Democratic Party will be doomed to minority status forever, he says.
“I’m not so naïve to think that I won’t need Republicans to get legislation passed,” he says. “I’m somebody who would say check your ideology and ego at the door and sit down at the table and compromise.”
Indeed, Kahl's endorsements point to a wide range of support, from traditionally progressive groups -- such as unions and environmental organizations -- to traditionally conservative groups, such as the Realtors Association and the Restaurant Association.
Kahl is a heavy favorite against GOP opponent Sandy Bakk, who he faces on Nov. 6.
Correction: This article previously stated that the International Union of Operating Engineers endorsed Walker in both 2010 and the 2012 recall election. In fact, it only endorsed in 2010.