Kapanke-Sarnowski mashup

Dan Kapanke and John Sarnowski

The two Republicans vying to run for Wisconsin’s 32nd District Senate seat are approaching the race from different career paths, politically speaking.

Dan Kapanke of La Crosse is trying to regain the seat he lost, after serving from 2005 to 2011, in a recall election to state Rep. Jennifer Shilling, the Democratic incumbent from La Crosse who now is Senate minority leader.

John Sarnowski of Onalaska, whose political experience includes being an Onalaska city council member for two years in the early 2000s, being defeated in an effort to return to the council in 2006 and losing a quest when he ran as an independent for the Wisconsin Assembly in 2006, is trying to secure a seat in Madison for the first time.

Voters will go to the polls Tuesday to decide which candidate to pit against Shilling or Democratic challenger Jared Landry of La Farge, and independent Chip DeNure of La Crosse in the November general election. The district includes includes parts of La Crosse, Monroe, Vernon and Crawford counties.

“I just love the competition,” said the 68-year-old Kapanke, owner of the La Crosse Loggers baseball team, adding that running for office is the “journey” portion of politics.

“I enjoy the journey very much. It gives the opportunity to get out into the community and meet people and make friends,” he said.

“I love serving, too,” said Kapanke, who also ran for the 3rd Congressional District seat of U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, in 2010, when he attracted 46.5 percent of the vote, Kind’s toughest challenger ever.

Despite that showing, Kapanke said he passed on challenging Kind again, explaining that Tony Kurtz proved to be a strong candidate in 2014, and he expected Kurtz to run again.

Being a state senator is a better fit with his expanded role with the Loggers, he said of the family enterprise, in which wife, Ruth, plays an active role, as do son Ben, as assistant general manager, and daughter Elizabeth, who is group sales coordinator and merchandising director.

Kapanke said he applies the same philosophy to each — for the Loggers, providing family entertainment where fans can go home happy; for constituents, offering services to improve their lives and those of their families.

Legislatively, he said, “One main issue is the infrastructure — transportation costs have zoomed.”

Lawmakers will need to examine a pending audit report closely to determine how to improve the infrastructure in the most efficient way, Kapanke said.

“We will have to prioritize between maintenance and new, with a comprehensive approach that is sustainable,” he said. “Everything will have to be on the table.”

School funding is a perennial issue, he said, adding that K-12 per-student spending needs a look and “the university system took a hit.”

Efforts to create jobs have encountered unexpected roadblocks, Kapanke said.

“It’s reversed. We want to grow jobs, but it’s harder to get qualified employees,” despite initiatives to provide training and retraining, he said.

“We need dialogue between businesses and the schools,” he said.

Kapanke said he holds no grudges about the 2010 recall elections that cost him his job, saying, “I’m running not to be vindictive but to be positive. … That was part of the political process in Wisconsin at the time.

“They didn’t take out the governor, and several senators won,” he said.

“A lot of good things came out of it,” he said, citing figures such as $5 billion saved from Gov. Scott Walker’s moves against public employee unions and other initiatives, average income tax savings of $1,200 and a surplus in the state’s rainy day fund.

Sarnowski, who characterizes himself as fiscally conservative and whose website bills him as the “Real Candidate” for the 32nd District, said he is a lifelong Republican who ran as an independent for Assembly in 2006 because he felt drummed out of the La Crosse County Republican Party.

“I drive cars until they drop dead, and I live in a house I bought decades ago,” said Sarnowski, IT director for NMT Corp. and president of The ResCarta Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates standards to convert public and private records into digital form to make them more universally accessible.

“The government can get by with less. As the systems develop, when you’re a systems guy, you realize that when you push here, something comes out over there,” he said.

Sarnowski agreed that Walker needed to make changes, but he faulted the governor’s approach in doing so.

“He had the big stick, but when you take the meat-ax approach, you lose the camaraderie in Wisconsin politics,” he said.

Among issues, Sarnowski listed the need to improve water quality to remove lead, as well as end lead paint.

“When you have lead in water and lead in paint, you cause problems for children in education, and you pay for it down the road,” he said.

Sarnowski lamented the disappearance of physical education and civics in education, adding, “When there is no phys-ed, and civics are cut out, you have two big problems — health care and people get what they deserve in politics.”

The state’s infrastructure needs rebuilding, which means increasing the gas tax, he said.

“We need to think intelligently what to do,” he said. “The ‘no new tax’ drumbeat doesn’t work.”

Sarnowski insists on term limits to reverse a system dominated by career politicians, saying, “To do a good job, we need people who have not been in government for 16 years. They should have two-year or four-year terms and then get out.

“It would require a shift, but the government would be better,” he said.

Although Sarnowski and Kapanke are keeping their eyes on national politics and what many consider the disruptive antics of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, they said they don’t anticipate that to influence down-ballot voting in the November general election.

“Trump is getting a lot of attention, but he’s not educating people,” Sarnowski said. “Personally, I don’t think it will be bad for the party … but it might cause a resentment of politicians.”

Kapanke said, “Each candidate must blaze his own trail. In the primary, Trump won this part of the state. I don’t think he’ll be negative.

“What happens at the top, I can’t control, so I have to campaign on just what I can control,” he said.


Mike Tighe is the Tribune newsroom's senior citizen. That said, he don't get no respect from the cub reporters as he goes about his duly-appointed rounds on the health, religion and whatever-else-lands-in-his-inbox beats. Call him at 608-791-8446.