Tonight was the third and probably final debate between state senate candidates Supervisor Chris Larson and incumbent state Senator Jeff Plale. It was held at the Humboldt Park Pavilion. The audience made up for its small size with its apparent devotion to the two candidates.
A brief rundown of the questions that were asked; bear in mind that I have paraphrased the questions and most of the answers.
1. BadgerCare. The question was related to the Republican gubernatorial candidates’ statement that BadgerCare was somehow a form of entitlement. Plale was given the first answer, and stated that BadgerCare was not an entitlement, but had helped “poor people in Milwaukee County.” While he claimed that he did not know if he voted for it, he did say that it was fully funded, and not a tax burden. Despite this, Plale said it had been called “socialism” or a “Wisconsin version of BadgerCare.” (I think he meant to say Medicare or Medicaid.) Larson answered that Walker and Neumann were “out of touch,” and that BadgerCare was a part of the Wisconsin legacy that we need to continue.
2. The rights of single fathers. First answer by Larson: As county supervisor, Larson said he made sure county support programs stayed available and funded until they were turned over to the state. Larson stated that he will look out for families, not corporate interests. He then remarked about how a bill Plale got passed made it possible for telecommunication companies to raise their rates by 20%, hurting families. Plale responded that a colleague of his did something on this matter. He remarked about “taking the emotion out of family courts,” and remarked a second time that his friend in the state leg. has worked on this, but took no credit for doing anything.
3. Parks in Bay View; what would you do? This time Plale got the first answer, and said he cared about the parks. His answer included references to people’s memories of county parks. He claimed that the state legislature was not able to a resolution on parks funding. (Need to fact-check this answer.) Plale claimed to have supported the parks and transit referendum (that Larson initiated and got passed). More references to Milwaukee history, the “sewer socialists” who created the park system. Cited other elected officials. Plale then claimed “we will find a stable funding source for the parks” in the next legislative session. Larson noted that the parks was a very important issue for him. He led the movement to “educate the voters” and pass the funding referendum, “but the state balked at it. I will finish the job.” Larson emphasized that rather than being a “man in a suit” who shows up at events, he would be “there helping make this happen. Larson said that he has organized coalitions to help improve the parks, including the Humboldt Park Pavilion, and cleaning the lagoon at Humboldt Park. He mentioned leading the effort to turn county land that been empty for 30 years into a community garden.
4. Alterra’s possible new location in Bay view: The question pertained to Alterra’s apparent hesitation to create a new cafe/bakery at the corner or Lincoln and KK due to the fact that there are two major bus stops at the intersection. (The company’s efforts to have the stops moved to different sites have been rebuffed.) Larson answered that Ald. Zielinski and Sup. Dimitrijevic would work on this, as the site in question was in their respective districts. Larson emphasized that the availability of transit affects you even if you do not use it, as thousands of people do use it every day to get to work. He said that access to thousands of jobs would be lost if further cuts in the bus system occur, but that will happen because the state legislature did not take action when it was presented to them. Plale began his answer with another reference to Milwaukee history. He said Alterra was a great company, and said “I don’t understand why there’s an issue with the county putting bus stop there.”
5. Give an example of when you have turned down a campaign contribution because you didn’t agree with the contributor. This question went to Plale, who struggled to remember having refused or returned a donation. After a very long, awkward pause, he changed the subject to campaign finance in general, claiming that “donations don’t have an impact on me; people do.” (Fsct check that!) He mentioned the special interest groups who’ve been “flooding” our mailboxes with anti-Larson and anti-Plale pieces. He claimed that “five dollar and ten dollar donations from people who I know can’t afford it have a big impact on me.” (I strongly disagree with that assertion.) Larson stated that in contrast to his opponent, he takes no corporate or lobbyist contributions. He cited the prospect of huge corporate contributions that the recent Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United decision has made possible. Larson was able to specify a contribution that he returned: a person he (and I) went to school with at UWM who had worked to remove funding for the UWM Women’s Resource Center and LGBT Center sent him a check, and he (Larson) returned the check. The would-be contributor was quite offended at this, but Larson stood by his principles and refused the donation.
6. Should Wisconsin have an open primary? The current state law has primary voting by party only. Larson said the system “works as it is,” as it prevents one side from weakening the other. It also prevents people from voting for both Chris Larson and Scott Walker, which he said some voters have told him that they wished to do. (Boggle over that!) Plale said that the South Milwaukee Women’s Club lobbies to open primaries, and that he would co-sponsor a bill for that.
7. Wisconsin has a reputation for excessive drinking. How has the Tavern League effected legislation intended to fight drunk driving? The first answer came from Plale who said that “we’ve made strides.” (What would Jeff Wood say?) Plale gave the legislature a big back-slap, saying “we did a lot… we took a broad (sic.) leap” in the face of pressure from the Tavern League. He talked about a need to treatment, not just punishment of drunk driving. Larson said that he had restored AODA (Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse) funding to the county budget when it had been slashed by the county executive. He said the drinking culture needs to change, and shared a story about losing a high school friend and classmate to a drunk driver two days before Christmas.
8. MPS: I don’t have the exact question, but Larson got the first response. He said means a change to how $50 million is taken away from it every year. H esaid the legislature needs to “lock arms” and bring all the stakeholders together. He argued for moving the school board elections to the fall as a way to fight the miserably low voter turnout in those elections. Plale, who has received steady funds from voucher school interests, said that the legislature had “screwed up” in crafting the school funding system, but absolved himself of responsibility for that. He focused on the cost of running the Bradley Tech school, yet failed to mention the startlingly high number of developmentally disabled children who attend that school. He made reference to a lack of accountability in the leadership of MPS, yet offered no solutions. His answers seemed to stir up the audience.
9. Expand or maintain the parental “choice” program? First answer by Plale. Keep it. Need to “get over this battle, our kids versus their kids.” He said he found “the politics of this extremely distasteful.” Culture in Madison (at the state capitol) is bad. “Senator Lena Taylor [who came to the debate] and I have locked arms on this.” Kids are hurt by this. He spoke of the importance of making the current systems more accountable. Larson said that he doe not support pulling money out of the system, nor pulling the best and the brightest out of the system, which also pulls parental involvement out. (Interruption from audience.) We need to put emphasis back on MPS. Larson mentioned the misleading push polls and mailings.
10. If you got $5 million to improve a single area of Bay View, what would it be? First answer by Larson. The Humboldt Park bandshell bathrooms would be a great project to use this on, as anyone who’s attended Chill on the Hill will testify to. [Yes, we will—they’re hideous! Thanks, Scotty!] The money could go to a BID on KK. [Such a BID exists, but could use more funding.] Plale answered that “we have people who care in Bay View,” and that it would be nice to get the high school “up to speed.” He added that money doesn’t drop out of the sky, so it’s useless to speculate on it happening.
At this point, questions from the audience were read.
11. Unemployment is up. What actions can you take now? First answer by Plale. People need jobs. Trepidation about jobs. “Don’t do any harm [to the business environment].” Wisconsin is a manufacturing state. Need to foster manufacturing climate. [Dog whistle alert.] Promise in ‘green’ energy. We will get a bill passed. Need to train workers. Lots of folks at technical schools. Do no harm. Larson answered that the clean energy jobs bill that Plale killed would have created 15,000 jobs. He talked about the airport, and how the many municipalities in the area near the airport were not at all cooperating to bring businesses to use the Milwaukee airport. Larson said he has been active in “courting businesses” to come to the area.
12. Very concerned about the Hoan Bridge. First answer by Larson. He was co-founder of Coaltion to Save the Hoan. Bridge is vital link to Milwaukee, state. Removing the bridge puts area at risk. I pushed to get funds. I wasn’t playing political games with it. This incensed Plale, who shot back, “You’re playing political games if you think they’re fixing the bridge.” I expressed loud opposition to the D.O.T. over their plans to remove or build anew. I am committed to re-decking. “This is about possibilities.” Put money into existing assets. Federal money comes and goes. People are now talking about the bridge. [Plale went over his time, thus giving Larson extra time.] Larson: We agree. The big difference is that I’ve not been sitting in the state legislature while nothing happened on this, and then trying to invoke an act of Congress and disobeying the President.
13. What factors go into your consideration of an energy or jobs bill? First answer by Plale. Claimed that he made the first renewable energy bill, cited a number of ‘green’ energy facilities. [Fact check! What about the Oak Creek coal-fired plant?] Clean energy jobs act was shellacked together, would have killed jobs. Would have raised energy bills. Price tag [to industry] killed the bill, not me. Absolved self, passed blame on to Assembly Speaker Sheridan, who “told me” that he didn’t have enough votes to pass the bill. Larson retorted that the Clean energy jobs bill was not a “shoot-from-the-hip” bill, took two years to build by governor’s committee. WMC dog whistle. Renewable energy would have kept billions of dollars in the state, rather than exported to coal and petroleum producers. Would have substantially lowered energy bills in long run. Need to build consensus, need to lead. [Larson went over his time, thus giving Plale extra time.] Plale: I was on that committee, spent two years of my life working on the bill. Deferred to manufacturers yet again.
14. Independent expenditures, PACs, outside forces. Will you work to stop this? First answer by Larson. This issue is key to me. Called for publicly funded elections, having $ tried to talking to voters, not dialing for dollars. “I wince every time” a new independent expenditure mailer comes out. They take attention away from issues that matter the most. Plale replied that “Unfortunately, Chris and I have become bit players in this race.” It would be great if this changed. Suggested that Larson did not wince when a mailer attacking Plale appeared, but Plale expressed no regret about anti-Larson mailers. Said he’s worked on campaign finance. Need to work on this.
Plale: I ran [for the Assembly] in 1996 because of a “reverse Robin Hood” that was hitting the schools in South Milwaukee. Jobs. Build middle class. Don’t hurt manufacturing. Jobs.
Larson: Clear difference: leadership. Will be active, involved with communities, building coalitions, “not whatever talk radio is screaming about.” Coalitions, leadership. Statement about a PAC mailing.
My take: While I doubt anyone’s mind was made or positions altered as a result of the event, it showed where the two candidates were coming from and how they differed in their approach to being in office. While Plale can talk a lot about happy-feely history, and claimed small donations influenced him the most, he made it clear that he operates in the interest of big business and manufacturers. Larson emphasized coalition building and his lengthy record of community involvement. He suggested that he would be able to extend this into the state legislature to build coalitions to effect positive change.
That’s my take on the debate, and I stand by it.