Just last week, eight candidates for governor participated in the first broadcast Democratic primary debate, an event that showcased plenty of agreement, like on criticism of Gov. Scott Walker and the Foxconn deal and support for an early release program to reduce the state’s prison population.
A forum held Sunday on Madison's east side featuring just four of the Democratic candidates covered more common ground on issues of school funding and the rights of undocumented immigrants. When asked to delve into the details of their ideas over the two hour event, the candidates attempted to differentiate their policies from the pack.
The participants were former state Rep. Kelda Roys; Mahlon Mitchell, head of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin; political activist Mike McCabe and state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout.
Asked about funding public education, all four candidates said they would end state voucher programs. McCabe, Roys and Vinehout advocated for creating a new formula to allocate school funding, with Vinehout saying hers would be “based on the needs of the child rather than the antiquated notion of property tax.” Mitchell said he would call for a constitutional amendment that would ensure the state funds two-thirds of the costs of each school district “and be done with this nonsense of talking about it every two years.”
A question from Voces de la Frontera, an immigrant rights organization based in Milwaukee, asked if candidates would support a law that would allow undocumented immigrants access to driver's’ licenses “no matter what their status or income.” All four candidates said yes, and pointed to a larger need to support immigrants.
“It is time to have a governor who will never be afraid to stand up to the bigotry and the racism that we have seen from President Donald Trump,” Roys said.
McCabe argued such a measure would allow all people to have access to insurance and driving instruction, and Vinehout additionally called for legislation providing protection for DACA recipients, in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, and the ability to get professional and occupational licenses using a tax ID number rather than a Social Security number. Roys said she supports in-state tuition for DACA recipients.
Asked to explain her plans to “resolve injustices in sentencing based on race,” Vinehout said she would create a sentencing review commission. Roys noted that the criminal justice system is a “failure of front-end investment”, advocating for “holistic response” including universal paid family leave, universal high-quality early childhood education and environmental justice. McCabe called for banning the box, “sensible parole,” and the end of imprisonment for non-violent offenses.
Mitchell listed proposals like an end to truth-in-sentencing and crimeless revocations, and support for an earned release program and funding for mental health, but pointed to a larger issue of economic injustice and disparity of opportunities.
“Take a look around you real quick. You don’t see a lot of brown and black people in this room … We need to go into counties that are affected, bring them into the conversation, before we actually make real sustainable change,” he said.
All the candidates support a $15 minimum wage, and McCabe said he stood apart from the rest of the candidates in his support of a basic income program statewide experiment.
“This is going to be a necessity in 10 or 15 years, we’ve got to start the conversation now … I think Wisconsin should be a national leader on that front,” McCabe said.
Asked how to “make sure that voter intent is honored and voters can be confident that each of our votes is counted accurately,” Mitchell said he would support a paper ballot as he “doesn’t trust” the voting machines. Vinehout pointed to the importance of preventing Russian interference.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that the Russians are going to be back ... We must invest in a foolproof system that those Russian hackers can’t get into,” which means giving money to counties to fund those efforts, she said.
Not included in Sunday’s forum: State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, corporate attorney Josh Pade and Milwaukee attorney Matt Flynn. Evers is generally considered the front runner in the race after receiving 25 percent of Democratic primary support in a recent Marquette University Law School poll.
That poll found Flynn, McCabe and Soglin tied for second with 7 percent in the poll each. Five percent of primary voters supported Vinehout, 4 percent supported Mitchell, 2 percent supported Roys and just one percent supported Pade.
Sunday's forum was hosted by Wisconsin’s Choice, a collaboration between of Our Wisconsin Revolution, a self-described democratic-populist organization, and the Wisconsin Working Families Party. The candidates at Sunday’s event represented represented the organization's “Final Four," chosen through two rounds of an online polling process. Only those who committed to taking action on behalf of a candidate or Wisconsin's Choice — like hosting a house party or making calls — could vote in the second round.
The moderator, Cap Times associate editor John Nichols, kicked off the debate by calling the forum into session on behalf of progressive heroes like Bob La Follete, Gaylord Nelson and “honorary Wisconsinite Bernie Sanders.”
“This is a session that each of those people would have appreciated,” Nichols said, saying that the present candidates didn’t get on the stage by buying their way in, winning “some sort of name recognition game” or knowing the right people.
In the Wisconsin’s Choice online poll, voters ranked candidates in order of preference, but the group did not disclose the number of votes or order of preference for the “final four” candidates. A spokeswoman noted none gathered more than 24 percent of the first place votes.
A third round of Wisconsin’s Choice voting, which requires a commitment to 10 hours of volunteering, runs from July 15 to July 19, with the results announced on Monday, July 23. To be declared the “champion,” a candidate must receive 50 percent +1 of the vote.
If no candidate is declared the “champion,” Wisconsin's Choice will still encourage voters to fulfill their commitment of 10 hours of volunteering to any of the final four candidates before the primary on Aug. 14.