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Kathleen Vinehout responds to a question during a candidate forum presented by Wisconsin's Choice at the Goodman Community Center in Madison on July 15.

The race for the Democratic nomination for governor is crowded with credible candidates and a case can be made for each of them. I give especially high marks to candidates who have brought fresh proposals to the competition (as Mike McCabe has with his proposal for experimenting with universal basic income strategies as a response to automation-related job losses), and to candidates who talk about using all the powers of the governor’s office (as Kelda Roys has with her promise that, if Roe v. Wade is overturned by the Supreme Court, she will pardon anyone charged under an archaic anti-abortion law that remains on the books in Wisconsin).

I also give high marks to the candidate who has, for more than a decade, stood out as a fierce advocate for the premise that there should never be a wealth barrier to quality care. State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout does not lead in the polls as the Aug. 14 Democratic gubernatorial primary approaches, and she certainly does not lead in the fundraising race. But she has attracted a loyal following around the state — particularly in rural areas — with a campaign that has placed a heavy emphasis on addressing the dramatic disparities in a for-profit health care system that provides exceptional care for the rich but burdens too many Wisconsinites with the chaos of deductibles, co-pays and inadequate and unequal coverage.

Vinehout, a family farmer from Alma in western Wisconsin, understands health care issues from personal experience. She also happens to be an expert. She has a Master of Public Health degree and Ph.D. in health services research from St. Louis University, and she taught health policy as a college professor. As a newly elected state senator in 2007, Vinehout played a key role in helping develop the “Healthy Wisconsin” proposal that sought to put Wisconsin in the lead in guaranteeing access to health care. That plan was thwarted by not just Republicans but cautious and compromised Democrats.

But Vinehout has continued to advocate for a vision rooted in her faith that “it's our responsibility as a society to make sure that nobody goes without health care. People who are sick shouldn't have to worry about how to pay the bills. They should focus on becoming healthy.”

All of the serious contenders for the Democratic nomination talk about capitalizing on opportunities provided by the federal Affordable Care Act, accepting Medicaid expansion and finding ways to expand access to health care. But Vinehout consistently goes deeper, speaking in detail about how it is necessary and possible to create a Wisconsin-based marketplace that can provide a vehicle for offering BadgerCare as a public option. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has already proposed a state-based public option as a tool for countering insurance-industry profiteering, and this gubernatorial contender has big ideas for how to do the same in Wisconsin.

That is not the end of what she wants to do. It is the beginning. “Fixing health care is my passion,” says Vinehout, who argues, correctly: “Health care is more than a right. It is a moral obligation of civilized society to all of its members.”

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

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Associate Editor of the Cap Times