In an election that could help determine control of the state Senate, voters in Wisconsin’s 32nd District will chose between a veteran lawmaker swept into power last year in a wave of anger over collective bargaining reforms and a relative newcomer pushed into politics by rising property taxes.
Sen. Jennifer Shilling, who studied politics and public administration at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, has two decades of political experience. She served one term on the La Crosse County board and was a legislative and congressional aide before being elected to the state Assembly in 2000.
The La Crosse Democrat easily held the 95th District seat for 10 years before being elected to the Senate in a 2011 recall against two-term Republican incumbent Dan Kapanke.
Shilling won with nearly 56 percent of the vote in an election fueled by furor over a 138-page bill that Republicans introduced that year, shortly after taking control of both legislative houses and the governor’s office.
The bill, known as Act 10, included sweeping reforms, notably the elimination of collective bargaining rights for most public sector workers, and it sparked weeks of historic protests, with tens of thousands of people descending on Madison. Fourteen Senate Democrats fled the state in an effort to stall the bill, which Gov. Scott Walker said he wanted passed in seven days.
In the end, nine senators — six Republicans and three Democrats — were hit with recalls. Democrats won two seats, but weren’t able to win a majority until 2012, when John Lehman defeated Van Wanggaard in another recall.
Republican challenger Bill Feehan came to politics late in life.
A salesman with the food company Unilever, he traces his involvement to a 2005 letter to the editor calling for personal Social Security investment accounts.
“That was a very scary thing for me,” he said. “To actually put my ideas in writing in a letter to the editor.”
That led to a column, but it was President Barack Obama’s acceptance of the Democratic party nomination in 2008 that Feehan said spurred him to volunteer with the local GOP.
Then in 2009, Feehan said, “I got mad about my property taxes and decided to run for county board.”
Though one of a handful of conservative voices on the board, Feehan said the experience showed him government isn’t all bad.
“When you look at people who are conservative, you have too many who don’t see that government does good things,” he said. “On the other side you have people who are Democrats and liberal who think government can do everything. For me it was about coming to a place to see it in a way that’s more balanced.”
Shilling and Feehan agree that jobs and the economy remain the top concern for the district’s 172,122 residents. Their approaches differ, though.
Shilling says the state needs to look for ways to partner with businesses and to restore education funding — particularly to the technical colleges — in order to close the skills gap, which has left some 44,000 open jobs even as unemployment remains above 7 percent.
Feehan points to property tax reform — he would rely on a sales tax — and loosening regulation, particularly at the Department of Natural Resources, which he singled out for being unfriendly to business.
“I think it’s part of the culture,” he said. “Are the people from the state DNR there to work hand in hand as a partner with businesses, or are they coming in in a heavy-handed way and not being sympathetic to the challenges these businesses are facing?”
Both say education is a priority, but only Shilling advocates immediate restoration of the K-12, university and technical college budgets, all of which suffered deep cuts in the last budget cycle. Feehan supports restoring funding only as the economy — and subsequently tax revenues — improve.
Shilling advocates paying for it in part by closing the so-called Las Vegas loophole, which allows businesses to avoid Wisconsin taxes by opening phantom offices in states without corporate income taxes, as well as reining in spending on prisons.
“It’s about priorities,” she said. “We’ve seen $2.3 billion in tax breaks over the next 10 years in (Gov. Walker’s) last budget. I hope we can have a more balanced approach. When we talk about shared sacrifice, we need to recognize those who were asked a lot in the most recent budget.”
With Democrats holding a one-seat majority, won in the course of two rounds of recalls, the race could play a critical role in determining control of the Senate.
The race has been competitive, with Feehan outraising the incumbent through July and Shilling coming back with a hardball mailer highlighting Feehan’s 2000 arrest in a domestic battery case. (He ultimately pleaded guilty to a non-criminal disorderly conduct citation.)
The 32nd district’s voters have been fickle.
Dan Kapanke won even in 2008, a big year for Democrats. In 2010, Scott Walker carried the district by 412 votes; the following year, it swung hard to the left as Shilling defeated Kapanke by nearly 6,500 votes. But in this summer’s recall election, Democrat Tom Barrett’s margin was just 81 votes.
Political observers point to the 32nd as one of the four most vulnerable Democratic districts.
Republicans expect to pick up the 12th, which has become redder with redistricting and where incumbent Jim Holperin is not seeking another term. A win there would give them a majority, but with Sen. Dale Schultz proclivity for breaking ranks, as he did with the collective bargaining bill, an extra seat would ensure control.
“The 32nd is one that we’ve had our eye on for a long time,” said Dan Romportl, executive director of the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate. “It’s not the easiest seat for us, but I keep saying that’s the seat that’s going to surprise people on election night.”
Nevertheless, the state GOP has not put money into the race, which Romportl said reflects both thinner resources and Feehan’s ability to raise money on his own.
Feehan got an early jump on fundraising, putting him in second place among legislative candidates through the first half of the year, and he claimed to have raised more than $100,000 by early September. Candidates aren’t required to file another report until Oct. 29.
Arnold Shober, a political scientist at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., doesn’t expect many districts to change hands — with the exception of possibly King’s and Lehman’s — thanks largely to the GOP’s strategy of consolidating votes in already Democratic districts.
“With the new legislative districts, there are essentially no marginal districts,” he said. “Democratic districts are more Democratic, and Republican districts are more Republican.”
Either way, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse political scientist Joe Heim sees the 32nd District as the region’s premiere matchup this fall.
And he summons a Wisconsin political adage: “Almost always in every election there’s at least one surprise.”