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Democratic gubernatorial debate

The eight Democrats running for governor met for the first time in a televised debate July 12.

Eight Democrats fighting for a chance to take on Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in November faced off Thursday in a debate featuring more agreement than discord.

In their remarks, most candidates kept their focus on offering an alternative to Walker's bid for a third term. Candidates fielded questions from TV and radio reporters, audience members and each other at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. 

With the exception of political activist Mike McCabe, every candidate onstage pledged to support the Democratic nominee, regardless of which candidate emerges from the Aug. 14 primary election. McCabe agreed with the rest of the candidates that Wisconsin needs a new governor, but said it's a "mistake" to adhere to a party loyalty pledge. 

All eight candidates highlighted their opposition to the state's Foxconn project as-is, but Milwaukee attorney Matt Flynn argued he is the only candidate prepared to dismantle what he called a "sneaky, crooked deal."

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers said it's unrealistic to promise voters the deal can be undone, and said a Democratic governor should be focused on ensuring the company acts as a good corporate citizen and holds up its end of the contract. Former state Rep. Kelda Roys said she's not opposed to a company like Foxconn doing business in Wisconsin; rather, she opposes the breaks the company has been given by state government.

"I welcome any company large or small that wants to start here or grow here," Roys said. "As long as you pay your taxes and follow our laws, we welcome you and want to make you thrive."

Madison Mayor Paul Soglin said he'd "like to know what (Walker) was smoking" when he signed the state's contract with the Taiwanese manufacturing company.

The entire field also agreed on supporting an early release program to reduce the state's prison population, and generally voiced support for funding treatment alternatives and diversion programs. 

"We've got to stop locking up people who don't commit a violent crime or damage property," McCabe said. 

Mahlon Mitchell, head of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin, said it is not lost on him that he's "raising two black kids in the worst state to do so." He said he would end truth-in-sentencing, which requires inmates to serve their entire sentence without parole, and argued that Walker is only making changes to the state's juvenile corrections system because he is running for re-election.

Mitchell said Walker "doesn't give a crap about the people of the state of Wisconsin."

Evers and Flynn sparred a handful of times throughout the evening, both over their approaches to the Foxconn deal and Flynn's responses to calls from two Democratic lawmakers to exit the race. 

Flynn was defiant when asked by moderators about the call from Reps. Chris Taylor and Melissa Sargent, both of Madison, to end his campaign based on his work representing the Archdiocese of Milwaukee against claims of sexual abuse by priests. He said the two lawmakers were part of the Democratic party elite who "regurgitated Republican lies," and said as a Navy veteran and former chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, he won't tolerate "people fragging their men in office from behind." 

He noted, as he has throughout the campaign, that he did not represent individual priests accused of abuse, and said his job was to ensure victims were compensated fairly and to prevent such abuse from occurring again.

Asked by a moderator whether he would have represented a priest accused of abuse, he declined to answer a hypothetical question.

"The truth is I very rarely turned down any client because I think people are entitled to defense, but I was not asked to do that," Flynn said. "It’s not something I had to face."

State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, emphasized her appeal as a Democrat representing western Wisconsin, where both Walker and President Donald Trump have performed well in recent elections. She also highlighted her work while in office to draft "alternative budgets" to the ones Walker has introduced.

Corporate attorney Josh Pade, a political newcomer, said he was disappointed women's rights issues haven't come up more during the campaign, and used his chance to question Roys to ask her what she would do to make Wisconsin better for women. Roys pledged to work to overturn Wisconsin's criminal abortion ban, and to pardon anyone charged under it if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

Four of the eight candidates — McCabe, Mitchell, Roys and Vinehout — will meet again on Sunday for a forum hosted by Wisconsin's Choice, a collaboration between Our Wisconsin Revolution and the Wisconsin Working Families Party.

A recent Marquette University Law School poll showed Evers in the lead, supported by 25 percent of Democratic primary voters. Evers also led in name recognition, but 61 percent of voters still didn't know enough about him to have an opinion.

Flynn, McCabe and Soglin each pulled 7 percent in the poll, which found that 34 percent of primary voters were still undecided. Five percent of primary voters supported Vinehout, and 4 percent supported Mitchell. Roys was supported by 2 percent of primary voters, and Pade trailed at 1 percent.

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.

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