When Spencer Black first ran for the state's 77th Assembly District seat in 1984, he slugged it out in a primary with eight other candidates. Black won and went on to become a political institution, crusading for environmental and labor causes for 26 years.
Five Democrats are vying to succeed Black in the Sept. 14 primary: Dianne Hesselbein and Brett Hulsey, both current members of the Dane County Board of Supervisors; John Imes, executive director of Wisconsin Environmental Initiative and owner of the Arbor House bed-and-breakfast; attorney Fred Wade; and Doug Zwank, former Middleton mayor.
The advantage of a wide field, Black says, is you don't need that many votes to win.
"I'd be surprised if whoever wins gets even close to 50% of the vote. I got 21%, and I won comfortably."
Calling the race is no cinch. All the candidates have a chance of winning, though Black and others see Hesselbein and Hulsey as the front-runners. "They seem to have the most vigorous campaigns," says Black, who has not endorsed anyone. "But Assembly races are hard to predict, so I wouldn't count out Imes or Wade."
The 77th District includes part of downtown Madison and continues west, including the UW-Madison campus, Shorewood Hills and part of Middleton. It is composed of both middle-class and wealthy neighborhoods and is solidly Democratic, much more so than when Black first ran. The winner of the Democratic primary will face Green Party candidate Ben Manski, who last week scored a major endorsement from Madison Teachers Inc.; Republican Dave Redick; and Constitution Party candidate David Olson in the Nov. 2 general election.
"I have a lot of respect for Ben, and he's a friend of mine, but I think the reality is it'd be a real surprise if that race is not won by the Democrat," Black says. "The conservative candidates are not going to do terribly well."
In other words, the stakes are high for the Democratic primary. Whoever wins it could potentially hold the seat for decades and, within a few years, push his or her agenda in the Capitol.
The competition has been particularly heated between Hulsey and Hesselbein. When Hesselbein announced the County Board was buying land for the Ice Age Trail two weeks ago (see report), Hulsey criticized her for not supporting the purchase earlier and accused her of flip-flopping. Others have taken aim at Hulsey, attacking his environmental record (see Madison.gov, 6/18/2010). Hulsey and Hesselbein have split the Democratic powerbrokers, with County Executive Kathleen Falk endorsing Hulsey and County Board chairman Scott McDonell backing Hesselbein.
Fifteen county supervisors; seven council members; Steve Hiniker, executive director 1000 Friends of Wisconsin; and AFT-Wisconsin have all endorsed Hesselbein. On his website, Hulsey boasts of endorsements from Caryl Terrell, former state director of the Sierra Club; the Building and Construction Trades Council of South Central Wisconsin; and Madison Common Council president Mark Clear. And going for a folksy appeal, he has an endorsement from his neighbor, an elderly woman, who writes: "Brett checks on me when it snows to make sure my driveway is clear. I am supporting Brett because he looks out for his neighbors and really knows how to shovel, which should come in handy at the Legislature."
Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton; Democratic politician Ed Garvey; Elizabeth Burmaster, former state Superintendent of Public Instruction; and former Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager have endorsed Wade, giving his campaign a boost. Imes has a big-name endorser in former Assembly Speaker Tom Loftus.
But with so many people making endorsements, do any of them - aside from maybe Black's - really mean anything? "They're helpful, but they're not determinative," Black says. He won't rule out making an endorsement himself but thinks "it's unlikely."
Since Black spent much of his political career championing environmental causes, it's no surprise that most of the candidates have trumpeted their green cred.
Hulsey says on his website that he's running "to provide clean jobs, green energy, support our schools and UW, clean up our lakes, and provide better transportation." Imes positions himself within Wisconsin's environmental heritage and says, "We need to move beyond the same old tired debate over 'economic growth' versus environmental protection."
Hesselbein writes, "Growing up in Madison, I learned to swim in our lakes and enjoyed exploring and learning about our environment. It is important our children and grandchildren have those same opportunities, and they depend on our commitment to restore and improve the environment they shall inherit."
Wade is committed to "clean air, clean water, reduced use of fossil fuels and sustainable development."
Only Zwank eschews the environment as an issue. Instead, he emphasizes growing the economy, balancing the budget and shrinking government. "Since as far back as 2002 our state leaders have known that there is a serious shortfall in the state budget," he writes on his website. "This is not a Democratic problem. It is not a Republican problem. It is our problem, the taxpayers of Wisconsin and most likely our children's and grandchildren's problem."
Imes also stresses economic development, particularly for small businesses, writing that he "will support efforts to strengthen and expand the number of high-quality jobs in industries and small businesses that help define regions throughout the state."
Wade and Hesselbein have both made education a priority, calling for an end to state revenue caps for school funding. Wade writes: "As a citizen, I recognize that our schools provide the foundation for our state economy, by creating a workforce that will be capable of attracting and retaining jobs in a competitive world economy."
Black says his successor will have no shortage of tough issues to grapple with, including fixing school funding and dealing with a changing economy. But he thinks the Democratic candidates are up to the task.
"I've been pleased [with the campaign]," he says. "I was hoping there'd be a vigorous effort and my constituents would have a robust choice."
51, Dane County Board of Supervisors, 12 years; owner of Better Environmental Solutions
68, Lawyer and former attorney for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission