If Jeff Plale wishes to win re-election in his district, he probably considers the less media coverage the better. Lately, news about Plale has centered primarily on the Milwaukee Democrat's ties to conservative interests and shoddy record on issues dear to liberals, who happen to be a relatively important constituency in his solidly Democratic district.
In addition to the usual allegations that Plale stalled the Clean Energy Jobs Act to appease anti-environmental corporate interests, a story by Daniel Bice in the Journal-Sentinel highlighted Plale's link to a conservative group run by disgraced former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen (R-Waukesha). Apparently Jensen works for the American Federation for Children, which is actively working to re-elect Plale, who supports "School Choice."
I talked to Plale's primary opponent, Chris Larson, today about the race.
"Jeff Plale has fallen out of touch with his constituents," Larson said when explaining his decision to run. The Milwaukee supervisor considers Plale's record far to the right of the left-leaning constituency, and believes the incumbent has sacrificed the interests of the people he represents in exchange for support from corporate interests.
"Most people would rather have their representatives get the majority of their contributions from inside the district they represent," said Larson, who has pledged to raise over 50 percent of his campaign cash from the South MIlwaukee district, which he contrasts with the large donations from representatives of big companies all over the state and country who are funding Plale's campaign.
Nevertheless, Larson is getting his share of out-of-district support as well. For starters, Rep. Spencer Black contributed $1000. And rumors are that Gov. Doyle is mobilizing support for Larson, at least partially in response to Plale's destruction of the Clean Energy Jobs Act. Like Black, Doyle was hoping to make the bill an important part of his legacy.
Larson considers Plale's treatment of the Clean Energy bill as one of the actions "that broke the camel's back." Plale, as chair of the Senate Utilities Committee, and an original sponsor of the bill, was supposed to be one of the key actors moving the bill through the Senate. However, as the legislative session neared its end, Plale cited concerns about the bill's cost, and refused to bring it to a vote in his committee, effectively killing it.
"It took it to a level of cartoonish evil," Larson said about Plale's maneuvers.
Larson continued: "To add insult to injury, he introduced legislation that lists burning garbage as a renewable energy source." As Larson explained, that means that if people choose to receive their electricity from renewable sources, as some utilities offer, they may actually be getting it from trash burning, which is not renewable.
In addition, Larson holds Plale responsible for the lack of a regional transit authority in Milwaukee, which supporters of public transportation were pushing the legislature to approve last year. The way he puts it, Plale "shrugged off" much-needed funds for the Milwaukee bus system when he was the acting chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. However, Plale says an RTA is his first priority for the next session.
On the issue of education, Larson emphasizes the need to reform the school funding formula which he believes is unfair to Milwaukee schools. But that is only one part of the "20 battle war" on education, he says. In addition, he says advocates of school choice have changed the mission of their policy to shift attention away from lackluster results after two decades.
"At first people said 'we're going to have increased competition and the public schools will also have higher standards.' But then, they changed the goal posts, and then they said 'well, it's cheaper.' Never mind the lower graduation rates, or the rising rates of adult illiteracy."
If elected, Larson would like to serve on the Transportation and Energy Committees to push environmental and transit policy. Plale has chaired both of those committees at some point.
Larson emphasizes that he is a moderate, not a left winger. "A lot of people are painting this campaign as the Don Quixote of the left, but we're getting a lot of support from moderates. Even some groups who endorsed Plale before are taking a second look." Larson is referencing a series of union endorsements he received, including a nurses union, the SEIU and the American Federation of Teachers.
Larson was busted for shoplifting in 2000 when he was a 19-year-old freshman at UW-Milwaukee. An opponent in a previous race for County Board brought it up, however, the Plale campaign has not touched it yet.
Frankly, I'm surprised NARAL has not gotten more involved in the race yet. Plale is known to be a pro-life Democrat and has been endorsed by Wisconsin Right to Life in past elections. In addition, despite my musings about an endorsement from Doyle, people in the district have told me that even in a Democratic primary, Doyle's support is toxic in the area. Apparently there are many voters who vote straight Dem but happen to love Scott Walker, their County Executive.