La Crosse County Supervisor Bill Feehan will challenge state Sen. Jennifer Shilling in hopes of returning the 32nd Senate District to Republican hands in November.
Citing the struggles of working people as well as business owners like himself and his wife, Feehan said he has the vision to lead the state to better prosperity.
“I know people are hurting,” Feehan said. “We need to grow this economy to put people back to work.”
Flanked by Dan Kapanke, the Republican who held the seat until seven months ago, Feehan formally announced his campaign Monday afternoon at the Copeland Avenue headquarters of the La Crosse County GOP.
The former senator said he has no formal role with Feehan’s campaign but supports him and encouraged him to run.
“We need good people,” Kapanke said. “The positives far outweigh the negatives of serving.”
Feehan pointed to “failures of leadership” on the La Crosse County Board, where he has served since 2010, in opposing CapX2020, a high-voltage transmission line that a consortium of utility companies want to build between the Twin Cities area and Holmen, and its decision not to loosen restrictions on the number of livestock allowed without a permit.
Feehan also denounced Democrats for opposing a Republican-backed bill to relax environmental regulations on mining that’s designed to clear the way for a $1.5 billion open pit iron mine in northern Wisconsin’s Penokee Range proposed by a Florida-based company that says the mine will employ 700 workers.
That bill has been held up in the Senate, where the GOP has a one-vote majority, by Democrats and Republican Sen. Dale Schultz, who has proposed a compromise bill with stricter environmental protections.
“We’re going to find out if the people we elected are going to vote for economic growth,” Feehan said. “Or are they going to pander to environmental interests?“
Feehan, 51, said he has resigned his sales job with the company Unilever and will step down March 23 as chairman of the La Crosse County GOP, a position he’s held since 2011. He is a partner with his wife, Sue Kolve-Feehan, in several local businesses.
He opted not to seek re-election to the county board in April after redrawn boundaries shifted him to District 1 with another incumbent.
Feehan expects Republican Gov. Scott Walker to survive an all-but-certain recall election but called for an end to recalls.
“It’s created a bitter environment that’s divided us,” he said, “and it just can’t continue on like this.”
Riding a wave of discontent after a Republican-backed measure doing away with most collective bargaining rights for public workers, Democrats challenged six incumbent senators in 2011 recalls. Shilling, a six-term Assembly representative from La Crosse, was one of two Democratic challengers to win, carrying nearly 56 percent of the votes.
Three Democrats also survived recall elections.
Shilling was not available for comment Monday but released a statement saying, in part, “with less than two weeks left in the current legislative session, I remain focused on working with my colleagues in the Senate to address the serious economic challenges that are impacting families in our state.
“I continue to hear from residents who are frustrated with the direction that our state is headed under the current Republican policies, and I look forward to the ongoing discussions about how to move our state forward,” Shilling said.
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse political scientist Joe Heim said Feehan’s experience on the county board and early entry to the race will make him a serious candidate in a toss-up district that includes La Crosse, Crawford and part of Vernon and Monroe counties.
The seat has changed party hands three times since Republican Brian Rude stepped aside in 2000.
“I think the fact that it’s gone back and forth is an indication … timing is everything,” Heim said. “Nobody is real safe in this district.”