Wisconsin Democrats have chosen a newcomer to lead their party: Sheboygan businesswoman and community activist Martha Laning.
More than 1,300 party delegates elected Laning from a field of four candidates Saturday at the Democratic Party of Wisconsin convention in Milwaukee.
The winner needed a plurality of delegate votes to become chairperson. Laning won a majority with 721 votes, or 53 percent.
The other candidates were Democratic National Committeeman Jason Rae of Milwaukee, former state lawmaker Stephen Smith of Shell Lake, and former Democratic Party of Wisconsin chairman Joe Wineke of Verona. Former state lawmaker Jeff Smith of Brunswick had been a candidate but announced Thursday that he would urge his supporters to back Laning.
Rae finished second with 428 votes, or 32 percent, followed by Wineke with 191 votes, or 14 percent, and Stephen Smith with 6 votes.
The post was open because Mike Tate, party chairman since 2009, didn’t seek another term.
It was only last year that Laning became an official member of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. But she capitalized on her outsider status at a time when Democratic activists, reeling from a string of recent, high-profile defeats at the polls and in the halls of the state Capitol, are eager for change.
Laning also emphasized she identified with Democrats and volunteered for party campaigns long before she became a dues-paying member.
Speaking to reporters Saturday, Laning pledged to give rank-and-file activists a greater voice within the party.
“I want to bring our party back to the grassroots, where we’re listening to the people in our communities,” Laning said.
Laning also denied that she made any promises to Jeff Smith in exchange for his support. She said she will work full-time as party chairwoman and accept a salary for the job.
Also Saturday, Democrats elected state Rep. David Bowen of Milwaukee as the party’s first vice chair.
Wisconsin Republicans quickly pounced on Laning’s lack of experience.
Moments after she was elected, the Republican Party of Wisconsin Twitter account posted that Laning’s win proves “you can wake up one day, decide to be a Democrat, and be elected Chair of their Party.”
The Democratic Party of Wisconsin chairperson plays a key fundraising role for the party and serves as its public face.
This year’s party chairperson race garnered more interest than usual, in part because it was an open seat and in part because of the party’s recent fortunes.
Party spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said the 1,349 delegate votes cast Saturday were the most at a state party convention in the last two decades.
Laning cast herself as a fresh face and a consensus-builder. Her political resume includes an unsuccessful bid for state Senate in 2014.
Before that she worked in finance for Target Corp. and led a community effort in Sheboygan to raise more than $4 million for a community center.
Rae emphasized his longstanding involvement with Democratic causes. Wineke pointed to his past success as state chairman from 2005 to 2009. Stephen Smith emphasized the need for Democrats to compete in rural areas, not just in Madison and Milwaukee.
Now Laning hopes to lead a resurgence for Wisconsin Democrats.
They hope that will start with the party helping Russ Feingold, who roused delegates with a speech to the convention Friday night, defeat Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson in 2016.
Other priorities will be gaining congressional seats — Democrats now hold three of eight in Wisconsin — and leading the party back to relevance at the state Capitol, where Republicans control both houses of the Legislature and the governorship.
Democratic delegates made it clear Saturday that they’re eager to see the party get a fresh start.
Delegate Judy Nelson of Whitehall says she was persuaded to support Laning after meeting her two weeks ago in Black River Falls.
Nelson said the Democratic Party of Wisconsin has had a top-down approach in recent years. After meeting with Laning, Nelson was convinced she’s a high-energy leader who will listen to party activists.
“She’s got go-power. She’s got ideas,” Nelson said.
Nelson said she was influenced by her state senator, Kathleen Vinehout of Alma, an early and outspoken Laning backer.
Delegate Sagar Tolani of Milwaukee was impressed with Rae’s resume. In 2004, the 17-year-old Rae became the youngest-ever person elected to the Democratic National Committee. Tolani said Rae’s youth and longstanding ties to the party made him the best choice to lead it.
“You need someone new, someone fresh, to move the party forward after the years we’ve had,” Tolani said.
Delegate Robert Heule of Greenfield said he has known Wineke for more than 30 years. Heule fondly recalls when Wineke led the party to big wins in the 2006 and 2008 elections.
Those electoral wins now seem like ages ago for Wisconsin Democrats. Heule, a former United Autoworkers union member, believes both Democrats and unions will see a resurgence in Wisconsin when voters are reminded of their value.