While campaigning last Friday, Henry Sanders Jr. made it a point to stop at houses with Rep. David Travis yard signs. At the first house he visited, on Madison's north side, he asked the owner when he'd last seen Travis.
"It's been awhile," the man admitted.
At the next house, which also had a Travis sign, Sanders asked the same question. The older woman in a wheelchair who lived there smiled and said, "I got a Blue Book from him!"
"When was that?" Sanders persisted.
Years ago, the woman replied.
And that, says Sanders, is why he's running against Travis in the Sept. 12 primary for state Assembly. "I'm never going to say he's a bad guy," says Sanders, 32. "Or that he doesn't vote the right way. But at some point, Dave stopped fighting. He's done a lot of good things in the past, but I'm talking about the future."
The two Democrats are vying to represent the 81st District, which extends from Madison's north side to Mazomanie and Black Earth. There is no Republican challenger. Travis has held the seat since 1978, but Sanders says the 28-year incumbent is no longer engaged.
"He should be going to planning council meetings. He should be holding listening sessions," says Sanders, who has promised to do those things if elected. "How do you represent people if you don't stay in contact with them?"
Travis, 57, says he's still connected.
"I've been to many thousands of meetings in my day," he says, adding that he attended a "mayor's breakfast" in Middleton with other elected officials last weekend. "That's all I do is go to meetings."
And he's offended by Sanders' assertion that he hasn't done much as a legislator lately, citing his role in passing a new law to curb methamphetamine use. "I don't jump up and down yelling, ‘Me! Me!'" he says. "I'm just trying to get my work done."
Unfortunately, the race between Travis and Sanders is dominated by politics, not issues. Travis accuses Sanders of leaning Republican, noting that the former executive vice president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce is supported by local GOPers, including County Supv. Vern Wendt. He suggests Sanders is avoiding issues "because he doesn't want to alienate that Republican base he's been cultivating."
Sanders, asked to identify the biggest issue facing his district, says it's Travis' lack of involvement. He says he's spoken to some low-income district residents who don't even realize they're eligible for BadgerCare. "These are things a representative should do."
Once the political jabs are out of the way and the candidates, as a last resort, discuss actual issues, it turns out that they agree on most things.
Both say the state needs to extend SeniorCare, Wisconsin's prescription drug plan for low-income seniors, which is set to expire next June. Both agree that education needs more funding, and that campaign finance reform is necessary. And both name health care as a critical problem, although neither seems to have a clear solution.
"I don't know if there's a magic answer," says Sanders. Says Travis, "There are a lot of health-care proposals out there, but they don't even get a hearing in this Legislature."
So when it comes down to it, what distinguishes the two candidates? Sanders says he'll bring more energy to the district, while the incumbent emphasizes his record. "If you're going in for heart surgery," asks Travis, "do you want someone with experience, or someone who just got out of medical school?"