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Randy Bryce

Responding to a story about his drunken driving conviction two decades ago, Randy Bryce said, “I screwed up, but I learned from my mistakes.” PHOTO BY MICHELLE STOCKER

With Wisconsin's election season hitting its stride, candidates are trying to get on message — and to remain there. They don't want to spend time explaining past missteps.

But as elections approach, the details of those missteps invariably come out. So it was for Randy Bryce, the Racine County ironworker and union activist whose spirited campaign to replace House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, has put a scare into national Republicans. On Friday afternoon, Bryce found himself answering questions about a CNN report headlined: "Democrat running to replace Paul Ryan in Wisconsin has history of arrests, including driving under the influence."

Ryan is out of the running. But Bryce still faces a primary contest with an able rival, Janesville School Board member Cathy Myers. And if he wins in August, Bryce will go up against the Republican nominee — probably longtime Ryan associate Bryan Steil — in a district that was gerrymandered to elect Republicans.

Bryce has attracted significant support, but he’s in a real race. And it certainly didn’t get any easier when the cable network reported: “According to public records obtained by CNN, Bryce was arrested in April 1998 for operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol — or OUI — in Schoolcraft County, a small, rural county in Michigan. Though Michigan law classifies the offense as an OUI, it's commonly known in other states as a DUI, or driving under the influence of alcohol.

“Bryce initially pleaded guilty, then later failed to appear in court in Michigan and a warrant was put out for his arrest. Bryce ultimately appeared in court again in March 2003, where he was sentenced to 65 days in jail, though the judge immediately suspended the sentence, and Bryce received credit for one day served in jail and paid $850 in fines. He was also ordered to complete four days of community service.”

Bryce volunteers that he “was immature and made a horrible, thoughtless decision.” He remembers the OUI arrest two decades ago, while he was working a job in Michigan — and a trip back for an expected court date that didn’t happen because of a scheduling error. He recalls missing another court date after having problems arranging one more trek to Michigan. And he acknowledges the troubles that ensued — including arrests for driving with a suspended license and registration in Wisconsin.

But he said, “I don’t want to make excuses. I feel horrible about what happened back then. It’s nothing that I’m proud of. It’s not a mistake I will repeat.”

That’s the right answer.

Voters understand that candidates, especially working-class contenders who are not political careerists, may arrive on the campaign trail with some history. If candidates are forthcoming in discussing their mistakes, the voters can be forgiving.

Bryce is certainly not the first Wisconsin political figure who’s been busted for driving while under the influence, or who has had messy details of an arrest revealed. State Sen. Roger Breske, D-Eland, once faced an opponent in the 1990s who tried to make an issue of his arrest for operating a vehicle while intoxicated — and of his struggle to repeat the alphabet as part of a sobriety test. Breske was re-elected and went on to serve as Wisconsin's railroad commissioner until 2011.

Former state Rep. Lorraine Seratti, R-Spread Eagle, was busted as she bid for re-election in 2000. Authorities said she "sped through a stop sign, almost hit another vehicle and refused to stop for squad cars." Seratti refused to submit to a blood test after an unsatisfactory attempt at a breathalyzer test produced a blood-alcohol reading police reports said appeared to be 0.21 percent — double the legal limit. The arresting officer said Seratti swore at him. She was eventually charged with driving under the influence of an intoxicant or controlled substance. She was then re-elected, in 2000 and again in 2002.

It is true that former Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager, one of the finest public servants in Wisconsin history, was defeated in a 2006 Democratic primary after she was cited for driving while intoxicated. But current Attorney General Brad Schimel, a Republican, was elected in 2014 after an old drunken driving arrest came to light. Schimel is seeking re-election this year.

None of this excuses Bryce's actions. But it offers a reminder that Wisconsin candidates have overcome revelations about past arrests.

The key is honesty, and genuine contrition. It has been suggested that Wisconsin does not take driving while intoxicated as seriously as other states. That may have once been the case; but attitudes have changed in recent years.

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Wisconsin voters can be forgiving. But they have a right to expect that candidates recognize the seriousness of all the issues involved in arrests and their aftermath.

In this regard, Bryce is sending the right signals. Recalling what happened two decades ago, he said, “I screwed up, but I learned from my mistakes.” He says his involvement in community projects such as the Hunger Task Force, his union activism and the birth of his 11-year-old son changed him a lot — explaining: “I realized a long time ago that I never wanted to be in that position again.”

Bryce has also learned a thing or two about politics. He knows Republicans will attack him as the election approaches. So he’ll talk about his mistakes, as part of a campaign that has often turned personal as Bryce has discussed his struggle with cancer and the painful financial burdens it placed on him and on his family.

Sometimes, the discussion of his past will intersect with the issues. The CNN report mentioned a 27-year-old arrest for marijuana possession. It was just part of a joint. But he added, “It’s influenced my policy. I’m not going to be hypocritical about this. I’m for legalization.”

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

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Associate Editor of the Cap Times