Wisconsin state Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison)
Chris Taylor had never planned on running for office. She loved her job as public policy director with Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin. And she had a new baby and a four-year-old at home. Getting into electoral politics was the last thing on her mind.
Then Gov. Scott Walker and the Republicans in the state Legislature "dropped the bomb," stripping collective bargaining rights for most state workers and public school teachers. Among the conservative legislation rushed through in the early months of the Walker administration was a billion-dollar cut to education. Taylor was stunned.
"I was in the process of registering my four-year-old for kindergarten and I was thinking: Why would I tolerate for my child - or anyone's child - what Walker was doing to public education?" she says. "I just felt compelled to run."
Taylor was elected to the state Assembly in a special election in August 2011, filling the old 48th District seat vacated by Joe Parisi when he became Dane County executive. She was promptly redistricted and had to run again in 2012 for the seat she now holds in District 76, which includes the isthmus and parts of the nort, near east and west sides of Madison.
In her short tenure in the Legislature, Taylor has made a big impression. Fellow Democrats were wary at first because she hit the ground running. She was outspoken on a number of issues, got a lot of press and spoke bluntly. Some initially thought she was overreaching.
But now, as she has apparently learned more about Assembly protocol and culture, she's smoothed off some of the rough edges, and a few of her Democratic colleagues are already thinking she could, someday, be Wisconsin's first woman governor. She was recently named co-chair of the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee, charged with recruiting candidates and raising money.
Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison) predicts Taylor will go far in politics if she chooses to pursue higher office. Risser has served in the Wisconsin Leglislature since 1956, when he was elected to the Assembly in the part of Madison Taylor now represents. He's seen a lot of legislators come and go, and he thinks Taylor may be special.
"I think she could win statewide office or national office," he says. "She's young, and she has lots of options. She's a real comer."
Taylor was born and raised in Los Angeles, moving to Madison in 1991 to attend the University of Wisconsin Law School. Like many other students, she fell in love with the city.
"I love the open spaces," she says. "The people are exceptionally nice. I grew up in a big city, and I went to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, another big city. I was looking for something smaller, something with more of a sense of community."
So Taylor and her husband, Jim Feldman, a professor of environmental studies at University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, put down roots in Madison. She practiced law for a brief time after school before accepting the public policy director position at Planned Parenthood in 2003.
Unlike most candidates for state office, Taylor had no prior experience in elected office, but she was convinced that her time working behind the scenes, advocating for women's health care and negotiating with legislators, would make up for that.
"Being a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood was the best preparation," she says. "I did the electoral strategy, so I knew elections and how to communicate with people on issues. I was the lead advocate at the state level for women's reproductive health care, and these are some of the hardest issues to lobby on. That job taught me how to be persuasive and strategic."
Taylor is proud of the agency's success during her time there, especially the passage in 2007 of the Compassionate Care for Rape Victims Act, which was the first proactive reproductive health bill to pass in more than three decades.
"When I started at Planned Parenthood, we had no shot at getting anything done because of the composition of the Legislature. I've learned you have to have proactive strategies because one day you'll have a chance and you need to be ready," she says.
Protecting public schools
Defense of public education and policies that benefit families are at the top of Taylor's agenda.
"It is absolutely critical to have a strong public school system," she says.
"It's the one thing I hear most about from my constituents. They have a lot of anxiety because the governor has already taken so much money out of public education. Now there's a zero dollar increase for schools in the current budget, while $94 million is going to private, unaccountable voucher and charter schools."
Taylor worries that this budgeting policy will result in two tiers of education - one for the most privileged and one for everyone else.
"It's the wrong way to go. It doesn't help our kids. It doesn't help our economy. And it doesn't help long-term business growth and development," she says.
At a time when wages are stagnant, Taylor continues, support for struggling families should be a priority. The slow pace of job creation (Wisconsin ranked 44th in the nation in the latest U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics Report) has left many people unemployed or underemployed, and she is extremely critical of the job-development path the current administration is following.
"They have chosen to go with 19th-century technology instead of 21st-century technology," she says in reference to the mining bill that passed this past spring. "They don't have commitment to the industries that are really taking off - biotech, information technology, renewable energy. These are the kinds of jobs that will retain and attract people and business to this state. Mining is a boom-and-bust economy."
Taylor voted against every version of the mining bill, including those proposed by Democrats.
She also wants to see more affordable and accessible childcare and universal four-year-old kindergarten. One bill she intends to draft would fund 4K classrooms in every school district in the state.
Paying women equally would have an enormous impact on both families and the state economy, Taylor continues.
"If women earned what men do, the average working family would earn an additional $10,000 a year," she contends. "But, while we have one of the highest percentages of women in the workforce of any state, we still are lagging in the pay gap. In addition, paying women equally would increase tax revenues. But Wisconsin repealed the Equal Pay Act in the last session. It doesn't make sense."
Taylor also bemoans a proposal for a middle-class tax break that she says favors higher-income people at the expense of what she calls "the real middle class." She is developing a middle-class tax-cut proposal that would give most of the tax savings to lower-income middle-class people and fund it by closing corporate tax loopholes.
While she is one of the most progressive Democrats in the assembly, Taylor has been happy to learn that she can collaborate with Republican representatives on some issues that are dear to her heart.
She and Gary Tauchen, a Republican from Shawano, are working together on a proposal that would allow people to erect solar panels or install biodigesters with capital advanced by renewable energy companies in exchange for an agreement to purchase power from that company.
Samantha Kerkman (R-Randall) serves with Taylor on the Children and Families Committee and, like Taylor, has two young children. Kerkman says she can work with Taylor to improve Wisconsin Shares, a W-2 program that helps poor parents pay for childcare, although Taylor's main concern is access and affordability, while Kerkman worries more about eliminating fraud.
In May, Taylor cosponsored a bill to restrict the use of drones with Rep. Tyler August (R-Lake Geneva), Rep. Frederick P. Kessler (D-Milwaukee) and Rep. Dave Craig (R-Town of Vernon).
And Taylor and Rep. Amy Loudenbeck (R-Clinton), also a member of the Children and Families Committee, recently hosted a symposium together on homeless youth in Rock County.
"I like her and I respect her," says Loudenbeck. "Chris is very outspoken and confident and very wise about family law, and she is not shy about sharing her opinions and knowledge. We may not see eye-to-eye on everything. But both Democrats and Republicans care about families and children. We are not all about politics all the time."
Still, Loudenbeck allows she sometimes flinches at some of Taylor's no-holds-barred statements.
"While we were debating the  mining bill, she said that her five-year-old could have written a better bill. I thought that was over the top."
Taylor says there are opportunities to work in a bipartisan way, though "they are limited and they are often not issues that are important to a lot of people, like tax policy, access to the courts and education." Still, she adds, "It is better than the last session, which was very contentious. At least now we can have some discussions."
Defending free speech
When Taylor invited Capitol Police Chief David Erwin to meet with her last September, she wanted to talk about how Capitol Police officers were enforcing new rules about gatherings in the Capitol. These rules had resulted in dozens of arrests, but it was not clear to Taylor what people were being cited for. And she was concerned that the rules violated First Amendment rights to speech and assembly.
During what turned out to be a very short meeting, Taylor says she asked exactly how the protesters broke the rules and what conduct, specifically, would result in an arrest. Erwin and Gwendolyn Coomer, a Department of Administration executive assistant, would say no more than that the citations were issued on a "case-by-case basis." After Taylor pressed the question, she says the chief announced: "This meeting is over," and he and Coomer left.
When Isthmus followed up on this incident, Stephanie Marquis, spokeswoman for the Department of Administration, said that Erwin and Coomer left because Taylor's behavior was "unprofessional."
"Unprofessional! No one has ever said that about me before," Taylor laughs. "It's not unprofessional to expect an answer to a direct question from an elected official. I did press the question. My training as an attorney is to ask probing questions. My feeling was they had a strategy not to answer questions with specifics."
Rep. Terese Berceau (D-Madison) says being unprofessional would be out of character for Taylor.
"I have never seen her do anything unprofessional," Berceau says. "I think this administration seems to think the executive branch has authority over the legislative branch. I think they simply saw her as being more demanding than they were willing to deal with. They do not recognize the authority of a legislator, especially when that legislator is in the minority and challenges them."
Many of the tickets issued since September have been dismissed, though the Department of Justice won its first jury trial on a Capitol protest ticket on May 14. Neither the Capitol Police nor the Department of Administration returned calls seeking comment on Taylor or the dismissal of citations.
Taylor worries that limits on citizen protesters represent just the surface of restrictions on speech in the Capitol - restrictions that are affecting legislators as well as citizens.
"On the floor, we have a two-minute limit for speaking. There's even a timer. There are new limits on how long we can debate an issue. This is a crackdown on speech, especially dissent. Without dissent, you have one-party rule, a dictatorship. I don't think the public realizes the extent of what's happening in the building."
Many of Taylor's Democratic colleagues were initially put off when Taylor took her seat in the Assembly. She didn't seem to be following the unwritten rule that novice legislators keep relatively quiet and defer to their senior colleagues. Instead Taylor made a splash almost from day one, speaking out publicly on a variety of issues, getting a lot of coverage in the news media and occasionally saying things that ruffled feathers.
"There was an assumption that she was a publicity hound," says Berceau. Berceau herself was initially wary, but she's changed her mind about Taylor.
"I've come to respect her enormously," Berceau says. "She does get a lot of press, but it's warranted. Chris makes herself easily available to reporters, and she is very articulate. She does well in front of the camera, but I don't think she gets involved in things just to get in the news."
As for her relationships with other legislators, Berceau says she has seen Taylor explode and speak extremely bluntly. When another Democratic legislator proposed something in the Democratic Women's Caucus, Berceau recalls Taylor injecting, "That's a terrible idea!" The miffed colleague left the meeting.
However, Berceau now chalks up Taylor's outspoken demeanor to passion. "She's an attorney. She's used to speaking in public. She's very smart and highly principled. And she's a workhorse," Berceau says.
Taylor admits that she may have stepped on some toes in her early days in office. But she seemed surprised to learn that some people thought she would be hard to work with.
"I don't think I'm hard to work with, but I am a very hard worker. I'm tough, diligent and thorough, and I hold myself to a very high standard," she says. "I have learned that you have to be careful when you speak out about issues that others have been working on. Every freshman legislator has to learn that."
What turned Taylor into the passionate powerhouse she is now at age 45? She says her commitment to social justice and progressive policies started with her family. She grew up in a strong union family, and says her parents and grandparents instilled in her a belief in the value of labor unions. Her mother was a public school teacher, her paternal grandfather a union electrician. Her mother's mother was able to raise three children on her own after a divorce because she got a union job with a fair wage and benefits.
"I was really lucky to have had a lot of great mentors, too," Taylor says. One was a woman named Sue Osthoff, whom Taylor worked for while she was an undergraduate.
"Sue ran an organization out of her house advocating for women who had been abused and then incarcerated for striking back against their abusers. It used to be you couldn't even get evidence of prior abuse into court in these cases. Sue put everything on the line for battered women in the criminal justice system. She taught me that it was possible for ordinary citizens to make a real difference."
Another mentor was Linda Balisle, a Madison attorney Taylor worked for while she was in law school. Taylor says Balisle taught her about negotiation skills.
She credits her first boss, Lynn Adelman, a federal court judge and former state senator, with showing her how the law could be used to advocate for the underdog. He also trusted her to argue her first case in court - his own lawsuit against Wisconsin Manufacturing & Commerce over ads it was running against him during one of his Senate reelection campaigns.
Taylor consulted with another role model, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, when she was considering running for the Assembly.
"I asked her if I was crazy to run when I had two very small children. She asked me, 'Why do you think we have such bad policies on children? It's because we don't have enough mothers at the table.' That has stayed with me."
Taylor says she tries to mentor others as well. "I have interns working for me and many students in my district. I hope I can be someone who makes that kind of positive influence on their lives."
At the end of the workday, Taylor says she strives to balance her many public commitments with things that keep her from overloading. She joined a gym near the Capitol and works out regularly to blow off steam. She enjoys reading, and while her current personal reading tilts toward nonfiction and political biography, she admits to having devoured every book in the Twilight series. Currently she is enjoying rereading Harry Potter to her kids, whom she says help her keep perspective.
"Kids provide so much levity. Kids don't care if you're in the Legislature. You're the mom and they want to play Legos."
Some Democrats are already suggesting that Taylor could be going places. But would she run for governor or for national office? Taylor isn't sure.
"I'm just getting started, and right now I am focused on representing my constituents. But you can never say never. Maybe it's possible when my kids are a little older. Opportunities come up, and you can't always predict what you'll do."