I sat down with Brett Hulsey and his campaign manager, Ben Tobias, to discuss the upcoming primary in the 77th Assembly district. As most of you know, Hulsey is one of the main contenders to replace long-time Democratic member Spencer Black.
Hulsey is optimistic about his campaign. touting the support he receives from local political figures, such as Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, Madison Common Council President Mark Clear and the Building and Construction Trades union.
Above all, Hulsey emphasizes his experience in public service, especially his successes as a member of the Dane County Board. He points to policies he championed at the county that the state is now trying to imitate.
For instance, his attempts to decrease commercial vehicle idling, which he says convinced truckers that there needed to be a statewide effort, instead of a county-by-county approach. Similarly, he says his work to reduce coal usage with biomass for companies such as Alliant Energy have served as examples for a state that still gets two-thirds of its electricity from coal. Hulsey contends that Wisconsin could cut that number in half if it heeded his research on biomass.
Hulsey speaks of environmental issues in the context of human health as much as out of concern for climate change and ecology. He says that 474 people die prematurely every year in Wisconsin because of our dependence on coal and the resulting soot. He makes sure to point out the support his policies gain from the American Lung Association, and says he draws his inspiration from witnessing his own father die of lung cancer.
On most other issues, Hulsey gives few answers that fall outside of the progressive agenda.
He is concerned with the school funding formula, and says the state has fallen short of its pledge to supply 2/3 of funding for local school districts. When prodded on his ideal tax system, he supports higher income taxes to high property taxes. Hence, when it comes to addressing the structural deficits in the state budgets, Hulsey says "all options are on the table."
Nevertheless, he expresses strong skepticism of budget plans that involve eliminating state workers or cutting their hours. "The goal should be no furloughs, but next what we need is furlough reform," he says, again suggesting the state take a look at the way Dane County approached the same issue.
"The way we did furloughs at the county level was we negotiated with every union...it was a lot more humane," he says.
Rhetorically, Hulsey can sound like a Republican candidate at times, emphasizing his business experience and criticizing the state for its confusing bureaucracy, which he says creates an environment that is unfriendly to small businesses. "I would like to reform the Commerce Department," he says. "It's a maze of regulations and forms...I want one website with everything you need to start a small business."
He also says the state corrections system needs reform, especially with regards to drug and alcohol offenses. Becoming visibly emotional, Hulsey discusses the problem of alcoholism in his own family, and points out that replacing pure prison time with treatment for addicts is at least five times more cost-effective. He also says increasing use of interlock devices in cars for OWI offenders was good policy at the state level.
On several issues, he specifically criticized opponent Dianne Hesselbein. To illustrate her shifting positions on transportation, he brandished a piece of election literature from her campaign two years ago, in which she stated support for a county-wide vote on establishing a Regional Transit Authority. Hulsey says he was disappointed when Hesselbein ultimately voted against the RTA. "I think it's important to keep our promises," he says. He also says Hesselbein's recent support for the county's purchase of the Ice Age Trail is a flip-flop from her position against the buy last year.
Finally, he suggested that Hesselbein's concerns about the Sheriff Department's background checks on undocumented arrestees could prevent law enforcement from keeping the most dangerous criminals off of the streets. "It takes a serious crime to earn a background check," he says, pointing to statistics that show that only slightly more than 1 percent of Dane County inmates were subject to the process.
Hulsey is concerned that Scott Walker's election could threaten the future of high-speed rail in Wisconsin, and says that trains are crucial for Madison, as it is "the only Midwestern capital city without train service."
As for lakes, "they are what distinguish us from Lincoln, Nebraska," says Hulsey. To protect them from run-off, the state needs to enforce laws against developers and mega-farms. "Even builders have complained to me about this," he says. Building manure processors, which remove the phosphorus (one of the main causes of algae in lakes) from the tons of cow dung created everyday, and create energy, is part of the plan Hulsey supports.
Analysis: The race has changed dramatically since I last talked to Hulsey at the end of May. While some at the time assumed he would be the front-runner, Hesselbein has gained an enormous amount of support, and in my unscientific estimation, should be considered the front-runner now. She recently received the endorsement of the AFT, which has many, many members in the district, some of whom are already knocking on doors for her. The endorsements from high-level figures like Falk may not translate into that type of activism for Hulsey.
Rhetorically, Hulsey's most effective line of attack against Hesselbein is probably the RTA. Although some progressives on the board actually appreciated the pragmatic vote she took, which allowed her to run for re-election unopposed and help other progressive candidates, such a calculation will be hard to explain to voters.