Genrich, Hansen - BadgerCare (copy)

Democratic former state Rep. Eric Genrich, stands to the left of state Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, during a news conference at the state Capitol in 2017. Genrich was elected mayor of Green Bay on Tuesday.

Democrats have been in a rough spot in Wisconsin’s gerrymandered state Legislature in recent years. With Republicans maintaining overwhelming control of the state Assembly and state Senate, it can be frustrating for smart, young progressives. So some of the ablest members of the minority party have been heading back home to the cities that sent them to the Legislature and bidding for mayoral posts.

On Tuesday, an especially able former legislator scored an especially important victory.

Eric Genrich, a member of the Assembly from 2013 to 2019, was elected as the new mayor of Green Bay. His win is a big deal politically, as it represented a shift in direction for the state’s third-largest city — and another sign that progressive ideas are gaining traction in cities well beyond Madison and Milwaukee.

Wisconsin elects mayors on a nonpartisan basis. But it was no secret that Green Bay’s longtime mayor, James Schmitt, was popular with Republicans. He exchanged compliments with former Gov. Scott Walker and according to the Associated Press, “was briefly considered for a position in the (Republican) governor's cabinet.” Locally, Schmitt was a controversial figure, who was convicted on three counts of violating state campaign finance laws during a high-spending 2015 re-election campaign. He decided not to seek another term this year.

The race to replace Schmitt saw legislative Democrats, labor unions and the national LGBTQ advocacy group, the Human Rights Campaign, line up in support of Genrich, who chose not to seek re-election to the Assembly in 2018 in order to focus on the mayoral race. At the same time, the Green Bay Press-Gazette reported that his opponent, Patrick Buckley, “was endorsed by the Republican Party of Brown County and received a boost from $12,000 in mailers paid for by Midwest Growth Fund, an independent expenditure group known for backing GOP candidates.”

Genrich’s “For ALL Green Bay” campaign, with its emphasis on investing in infrastructure, backing renewable energy projects to power the city and embracing Green Bay's diversity, swept to victory Tuesday night. After winning 58 percent of the vote, he told reporters, "I really want Green Bay to be known as an open and welcoming community, a dynamic community, one that is willing to embrace all ideas and all perspectives because those are, I think, the most successful communities around the country.”

That’s a similar message to the one that former state Rep. Cory Mason, another progressive Democrat, carried into his winning campaign for mayor of Racine in 2017.

On Tuesday, Mason was re-elected with over 70 percent of the vote and declared victory with a promise to spend the next four years working to strengthen Racine as a city “that is equitable, that is inclusive, that is innovative and that has all the workings of a middle class that allows families to thrive.”

Another former Democratic legislator, Tom Nelson, was re-elected Tuesday without opposition to a third term as Outagamie County executive in the politically competitive Fox River Valley. Nelson’s been an outspoken advocate for workers and their unions in the region, and he’s recently been arguing that his experience shows what progressive officials can do at the municipal and county levels to lead on behalf of economic fairness and family-supporting jobs.

By taking their ideas and their energy back to their hometowns, Nelson, Mason, Genrich and other former Democratic legislators — such as Dane County Executive Joe Parisi and Kenosha County Executive Jim Kreuser — are creating vital models for how progressive policies can work at every level of government.

A note to readers: My partner has accepted a position with the administration of Satya Rhodes-Conway, who has been elected as mayor of Madison. Able Cap Times writers will have much to report regarding the next mayor. I’ll step back and let others have their say, while continuing to have my say about everything else.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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