Pat Bomhack, a Democratic candidate for the 51st Assembly district in southwestern Wisconsin, does not deny that he may soon leave the race to run for the state Senate.
“A lot of local people have been encouraging me to go for the Senate but I’m totally focused on my Assembly race right now,” he said.
Party insiders believe the 32-year-old Spring Green resident, who is in his last semester of law school at UW-Madison, would be a good candidate to take on state Rep. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, for the Senate seat currently held by retiring Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center.
Democrats believe that Bomhack’s primary opponent, Dick Cates, is a solid contender to win the Assembly district that Marklein has represented for two terms. The district leans Democratic and it is not yet clear who will win the Republican primary, although Dodgeville Mayor Todd Novak may very well make history as the first openly gay Republican Assembly nominee if he wins.
But Democrats are concerned that they may not have a strong candidate to take on Marklein in the race for Schultz’s Senate seat, which is much more important since Democrats actually have a chance of winning control of the Senate, while they have virtually no chance of winning back the Assembly.
So far, the only declared Democratic candidate in the Senate race, Ernie Wittwer, is lagging far behind Marklein in fundraising, a fact that has Democrats, who believed that that Schultz’s Senate seat was their best shot for a pickup in the GOP-controlled chamber, pulling their hair out trying to find a candidate who can work with the party to raise money.
That’s where Bomhack comes in. Although he is clearly the underdog in the Assembly race against Cates, whose deep roots in the area provide him greater name recognition as well as a fundraising edge, Bomhack has already raised more than twice as much money as Wittwer, leading the party establishment to believe that he would be better-suited to move over and take on Marklein in the Senate race.
Bomhack gets all of that, but says the strategic merit of running for Senate isn’t enough to convince him to ditch the Assembly race.
“My commitment is to representing the people of southwestern Wisconsin, not to making political gains for a party,” he says.
A Waukesha native who went to college at Stanford and later received a Master’s degree from the London School of Economics, Bomhack worked for a time as a staffer in former Sen. Russ Feingold’s Washington, D.C., office and later on the staff of former Gov. Jim Doyle. In his first year of law school he clerked for Iowa County Judge Bill Dyke, the last Republican mayor of Madison who later ran for vice president in 1976 on the presidential ticket of Lester Maddox, the segregationist governor of Georgia.
“Clerking for Bill Dyke was an amazing experience,” says Bomhack. “He was a great mentor and I think it goes to show that I can work with people and learn from them despite their political perspective.”
Although a friendship with Dyke might not be a major asset in a Democratic primary, Bomhack’s other experiences have clearly borne fruit in the form of campaign contributions. The great majority of the $20,000 he has raised comes from outside of the largely rural district, specifically the Milwaukee area, Madison, Washington and the San Francisco area.
He moved to western Wisconsin only three years ago, but says he’s hooked on the scenic slice of the Driftless region.
“I have done what generations of people have done, which is see a beautiful place and put their roots down,” he said. “It’s the same thing that the first generation of immigrants to this area did.”
He also believes his personality and vision is in line with what he called the independent-minded people of the area.
“We’ve always valued people in Wisconsin who have a streak of independence, whether it’s Bob La Follette, Bill Proxmire or Russ Feingold,” he says.
Like other progressives in the area, including Cates, Bomhack expresses deep concern about Republican-led efforts to take the power to regulate frac sand mining away from municipalities. And Democrats have to do a better job of impressing the importance of income inequality on voters, he says, citing a minimum wage hike and a more progressive income tax code as potential policy solutions, although he does not offer specific proposals on how to change the state’s tax system.
He declines to comment on Cates, saying he would prefer to focus on touting his own message, and says that one of the leading Republican candidates, Dodgeville Mayor Todd Novak, is a “real nice guy.”
The only person he doesn’t have kind words for is Marklein, who he says has been “a good soldier for his party” but whose positions do not reflect the values of the district.
“My pledge is to provide aggressive representation for our district,” he says. “I want to use my legal training to provide zealous advocacy for my client, which is the 57,000 people of the 51st district.