At first there were two. Two Dane County Board supervisors; two frontrunners.
Brett Hulsey was an anticipated candidate with a lot of political experience and a great deal of establishment support, including the likes of Kathleen Falk, Mark Clear and other influential Democrats. Dianne Hesselbein's campaign has very much been a response to Hulsey, and her candidacy has been fueled by the support support of competing establishment figures, such as County Board President Scott McDonell and those close to him on the board.
Recently Fred Wade has emerged as a viable candidate. The endorsement he won from former Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager has raised eyebrows and reshaped the dynamics of the race.
And then there is John Imes. The founder of an environmentally-friendly hotel and the executive director of Wisconsin Environmental Initiatives, Imes has not had any elective experience and likely lacks the support among political activists here that all other three candidates benefit from. He recognizes his underdog status and says he has heard people call him the "dark horse candidate."
In an interview with Imes this afternoon, the 40-something (who needs precision?) Shorewood father of four explained his policy priorities and his vision for the 77th district's future representation in the Assembly.
Imes has been campaigning hard in the six weeks since he declared his candidacy. He claims to have contacted 5,000 likely voters through direct mail and knocking on doors.
Imes central message is that government currently lacks the competence and cooperation necessary to implement meaningful policy. He cited the downfall of the Clean Energy Jobs Act as an example of gridlock in government putting the state at a competitive disadvantage economically and environmentally. He says he was inspired by the cooperative relationship between business and government on a policy trip to Germany several months ago.
"We got the goods in Wisconsin. We got research and development through the UW, we have a good work ethic and we have the natural resources. When we couldn't get it [Clean Energy bill] done, it sends a message to progressive and green businesses that Wisconsin is not ready for prime time."
Although Imes derides the GOP as the "party of no," he also touts his ability to work with the other party and emphasizes his belief that he can be both progressive and pro-business. He points to the implementation of "Smart Growth" ten years ago as an example of good policy that has come out of bipartisanship in Wisconsin.
"You had the 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, the Realtors Association, the Builders Association, the Democratic Assembly, a Republican Senate and a Republican governor who sat down and figured it out. Since then 95 percent of the communities have submitted their plans for orderly growth."
Imes is concerned about the state's structural deficit, and says a different approach to budgeting is needed to reform the state's accounts. He cites zero-based budgeting is one of the potential solutions, a long with reviewing the number of highly paid executive positions. However, cuts must be made with the plight of public workers in mind.
"I think people in the trenches, in state government, know where the savings are....We can't put the onus on front-line workers."
While he cited the skyrocketing costs of corrections in the state as something that needs review, he admitted that he did not have proposals about what should be done to curb the price tag of prisons. He suggested perhaps reviewing sentencing for non-violent drug offenders.
Energy and environment are clearly the two areas in which Imes' proposals are most developed. Specifically, Imes points to "Feebates" as one of the best ways to encourage higher environmental performance in the private sector. Under such a system, an expectation of a certain amount of energy reduction per year would be set he suggested 2 percent and companies who fail to achieve that result would pay a fee to make up for the difference between their performance and the benchmark. That fee would either fund rebates for the companies who did reduce energy output, or go towards investment in "clean electrons," as he called it.
He said the GOP's goal seems to be intent on "turning back the clock." For instance, he ridiculed the gubernatorial candidates for advocating repeal of the smoking ban that went into effect two weeks ago.
"They seriously want to consider repealing the smoking ban. That's about the stupidest idea possible. All the states around us have smoking bans and here they want Wisconsin to be the ashtray of the Midwest. Businesses want consistency."
In addition, Imes cited the GOP's position against combined reporting and high-speed rail as evidence that the party is working against common-sense policy in favor of defeating anything the Democrats propose.
When asked if he supported Fred Wade's crusade against the current gubernatorial veto, Imes said he supported the concept but was unsure if it was resonating with the public.
Like many Democrats, Imes expresses serious concerns over campaign finance law in the state and country. He believes in a stronger system of public financing for elections, which would mandate a minimum amount of fundraising from candidates to qualify for matching public funds.