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Jessie Opoien: Gun violence, climate change motivate Assembly candidate Heather Driscoll

Jessie Opoien: Gun violence, climate change motivate Assembly candidate Heather Driscoll

When Heather Driscoll talks about preventing gun violence, she knows the importance of it all too well.

Driscoll’s father, a fifth-generation farmer, died by gun suicide when he was 28 years old and she was two-and-a-half.

When I spoke with her, the anniversary of his death had just passed. And although she’s shared her story with legislators, activists and other families affected by gun violence many times, the loss was still raw, decades later.

“In Wisconsin, 71% of gun deaths are suicide. Across the country it’s about two-thirds. This is an epidemic that a lot of people don’t talk about,” Driscoll told me. “Once I've shared my story, I've had so many people come and tell me they’ve also lost family members.

“ … It’s something that affects so many people. There are so many forms of gun violence: unarmed Black, brown and Indigenous people killed by police, LGBTQ and people of color shot in hate crimes, unintentional shootings. … All of these issues are what motivate me to want to change the gun laws.”

Among the changes Driscoll supports are expanded background checks and extreme risk protection orders, which allow families and law enforcement officers to seek approval from a judge to temporarily take firearms from people believed to be at risk of harming themselves or others.

Driscoll, 40, has fought for reforms to Wisconsin’s gun laws for years as an activist with the Wisconsin Coalition for Gun Safety, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and Everytown for Gun Safety. Now she wants to take the fight to the Legislature as the representative for Wisconsin’s 76th Assembly District.

“I’ve just been seeing across Wisconsin so much harm that’s being done to people and it’s motivated me to want to run and work on the issues that I’ve been already advocating for and organizing on in the community,” Driscoll told me.

Although gun safety is a primary focus of Driscoll’s activism and her campaign platform, she’s far from a single-issue candidate. She’s also passionate about preserving and expanding access to health care and advocating for environmental justice.

Driscoll is also savvy about the political power the seat holds. Because it’s a safe seat for Democrats, she knows she would be well-positioned to look beyond Madison’s isthmus to help candidates in tougher races throughout the state.

Democrats can talk a good game about fighting to get out of the minority, but Driscoll has already demonstrated her commitment to the effort, having knocked on doors in potentially flippable districts for Democratic candidates like Kriss Marion, Jeff Wright and Alyson Leahy.

Driscoll is one of several compelling candidates to launch a campaign since state Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, announced that she would not seek re-election after nearly a decade in office. Given the high concentration of liberal Democratic voters in the district, which covers almost the entire isthmus, the seat is all but certain to be won by another Democrat. That makes the Aug. 11 primary essentially the real election for the seat. Republican Patrick Hull and Independent Thomas Leager are also running.

The other Democrats who have declared are: Francesca Hong, a restaurateur (co-owner of Morris Ramen) and community activist; Tyrone Cratic Williams, a police officer and financial literacy educator; Marsha Rummel, a seven-term Madison alder who works for the Wisconsin Department of Revenue; Nicki Vander Meulen, an attorney and a member of the Madison School Board; Dewey Bredeson, who works in commercial real estate; and Ali Maresh, a mental health advocate.

Driscoll, who lives with her husband and two children in the Atwood neighborhood, ran unsuccessfully for the Dane County Board in 2018. She currently chairs the Environmental Committee for the Schenk-Atwood-Starkweather-Yahara neighborhood group, and she also co-chairs SASY's Equity and Inclusion Committee.

Driscoll’s career has focused primarily on environmental issues, including energy efficiency and sustainability efforts, and included a stint in the Peace Corps.

“Climate change is something that is a critical issue that’s going to impact, is already impacting people around the world and it’s only going to get worse if we don’t take immediate action and make some radical changes to the way we’re operating, so I fully support a Green New Deal and focusing on 100% renewable energy by 2030,” she said.

Even with Democrats in the legislative minority, Driscoll said she sees opportunities to work across the aisle on environmental issues — for example, exploring renewable energy credits or increasing the amount of solar energy used by state buildings.

Like her experiences with gun violence, Driscoll’s commitment to health care access and reproductive rights is grounded in personal experience.

After being stuck with a large bill for an emergency room visit after a miscarriage, Driscoll’s aunt decided not to seek medical attention when she had a second. She ended up bleeding to death.

There are too many families, Driscoll said, who have suffered tragedies like this that are completely preventable.

“Not only am I talking about (health care, gun violence and environmental justice), but I have deep, personal stories and I've shown that I have been effective and a proven leader on those issues,” she told me. And I also have done quite a bit of work on the ground — and outside of Madison — before I was thinking about running for Assembly. It’s something I will continue to do as a representative. I’ve shown that I'm not only willing to do the work, but I've done the work.”

Jessie Opoien is opinion editor of The Capital Times. jopoien@madison.com and @jessieopie

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Jessie Opoien is the Capital Times' opinion editor. She joined the Cap Times in 2013, covering state government and politics for the bulk of her time as a reporter. She has also covered music, culture and education in Madison and Oshkosh.

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