In a campaign ad for the 2nd Congressional District, Kelda Helen Roys stares into the camera and declares herself an independent with moral conviction. And then she adds, in a clear jab at her chief opponent, Mark Pocan: "Here's the kind of experience I don't have. I don't cave in when things get tough. And I don't make backroom deals. In Congress, you'll know where I stand."
In one of his ads, Pocan takes a less combative, more folksy approach in talking about his own experience. The ad shows him supervising employees at his sign shop and speaking before the state Assembly, all eyes focused on him. He too highlights conviction and progressive values: "It's simple. Stand up for what you believe and work until you get it done. That's what I'll do in Congress."
Considered two of the most liberal members of the Wisconsin Assembly, Pocan and Roys stake out only subtle differences on most issues. Perhaps as a result, they're each fighting to be seen as the "genuine" progressive in the race to replace liberal U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, who has served since 1999.
Baldwin is stepping down to run for the U.S. Senate. Two lesser-known candidates - Matt Silverman and Dennis Hall (see sidebar) - are also vying for the Democratic nomination in the Aug. 14 primary, which will almost certainly give the victor the seat. (Perennial candidate Chad Lee faces no opposition in the Republican primary, but the district slants overwhelmingly Democratic.)
In any other sort of political fight, Roys and Pocan would likely be standing side by side, comrades in arms. They're both socially liberal, supporting women's rights and marriage equality (Pocan, like Baldwin, is openly gay). Both were loud critics of Gov. Scott Walker's move to curtail union rights, and both supported the recall. Both also skipped Walker's recent beer and brat summit at the governor's mansion.
As Roys explains, "A primary is a race between friends. We're running against each other, but we've worked on many things together over the years as well."
But, in their fight for the progressive mantle, the race has taken nasty turns. There have been spats over clean campaigning, corporate contributions and tax cuts for the rich. Pocan supporters have even accused Roys of trying to pass herself off as gay at last summer's gay pride rally at the Capitol. Clearly, claiming the title of the district's number-one liberal won't be easy.
A reformed bomb thrower
Born and raised in Kenosha, the 47-year-old Pocan has more legislative experience than Roys, who just turned 33. He was first elected to the Assembly in 1998, taking over Baldwin's old seat when she went to Washington. For most of his tenure he represented the isthmus, along with parts of near east and near west Madison. The controversial 2011 redistricting shifted his district to the west side of the city.
Pocan points to his long legislative career as his top selling point: "You need to send your most experienced and accomplished people to Washington to take the fight to the belly of the beast."
He owns a sign-making shop, Budget Signs & Specialties, on the city's south side. He and his longtime partner, Phil Frank, were married in Canada in 2006 - a marriage that is not recognized in the United States.
Pocan says he wants to run for Congress because he enjoys what he does and would like to do it on a national level. "I love doing the legislative work. I think I'm good at it," he says. "I love helping to figure out how to pass a bill."
This wasn't always his style, he confesses. "When I first got elected, I was a serious bomb thrower." He was quick on the draw with a press release to attack political opponents. But after serving on the state's Joint Finance Committee, he got to know his Republican opponents better and started to like many of them.
"I learned that just going on the attack may feel good, but it doesn't accomplish much," he says. "You have to maintain relationships with Republicans because I've learned there's a shifting pendulum of who is in charge."
Today, Pocan styles himself "more of a work horse than a show horse." He says he's mastered the art of working behind the scenes to get legislation passed - something he sees as an asset but Roys has criticized. Pocan is clearly more favored by the Democratic Party establishment, with a string of endorsements from labor unions, two former governors and five Madison mayors, including current Mayor Paul Soglin (who ran unsuccessfully for the seat in 1996).
Some of his successes, Pocan says, include passage of the Compassionate Care for Rape Victims Act, which ensures that hospitals provide emergency contraception to rape victims; helping to pass SeniorCare, the state's prescription drug program for the elderly; and the American Jobs Act, which prohibits using state money to contract for services abroad. He also says he helped bring in more than $2 billion in revenue to Wisconsin by raising taxes on the top 1% income earners and increasing capital gains taxes.
Although he wishes that Democrats had been able to do more when they were in the majority - and Pocan was one of the party's leaders - he says they did achieve many small victories and "these all matter."
'More than an average Democrat'
First elected to the Assembly in 2008, Roys says she is the bolder candidate, more likely to challenge the establishment way of doing things in Washington. Born in Marshfield, Roys was head of NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin prior to serving in the Assembly.
In 2008, she was elected to the 81st District, taking over a seat that had been held for almost 30 years by David Travis. Her district represented north Madison and northern communities in Dane County, until 2011's redistricting shifted its borders. She is married to Dan Reed and is stepmom to his two daughters. Of Roys, Pocan says, "She's a smart, capable person with a strong future ahead of her."
The rising-star persona has led some to compare Roys to Baldwin. Like Baldwin, Roys has quickly climbed the political ladder. Baldwin was elected to the state Assembly at 30 and won a competitive primary for Congress at age 36 in 1998. At the time, some thought Baldwin was too young and needed to wait her turn.
Roys clearly loves the comparison. "Voters in this district realize we have an opportunity to elect someone who is more than an average Democrat," she says. "I will fight for progressive ideals and stand up for what is right every single time."
She says she didn't think much about running for political office until she actually did it. In her time in the Assembly, Roys says she has taken principled stands even if they weren't popular. In January, she offered a resolution to remove state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman for hearing cases by a law firm that gave him free legal help.
"I was appalled not just as a legislator but as an attorney. We have an obligation to remove him. A lot of Democrats were not comfortable with that," she says, in part because Walker would have just appointed another conservative. But she adds: "I'd take an ethical conservative judge who follows the law over an unethical judge of any stripe."
She also criticizes Pocan for voting in favor of two of Gov. Walker's tax cuts for the wealthy - 2011 Assembly bills 3 and 4 - which Roys says she held firm against. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's fact-checking arm, Politifact, has rated this claim "half true" for leaving out important details and not mentioning that she had supported similar measures in previous years.
Pocan says he voted for about $2 million in tax cuts that Roys voted against; he says they helped small businesses.
Pocan bristles at Roys' criticism. "When you look back on my record, I have actual accomplishments. It's a pretty strong record."
Roys' campaign chairman, Rick Coelho, sees it differently. In a press release on the cuts, he says: "When it really mattered, and Walker was larding up the budget with further corporate tax giveaways to justify his education cuts, Mark Pocan caved, and failed to stand up to him. Kelda said 'no' to Scott Walker's giveaway, and Mark didn't. Those are the facts."
The money jungle
It seemed like an innocuous sort of pledge that politicians are always making. In April, Pocan asked his opponents to sign a promise to run a "clean campaign." The pledge read: "I will not mention the name of my opponents in any paid communications in a negative way by my campaign committee unless I am attacked by name."
"This campaign is about bringing progressive leadership to Washington in challenging times," Pocan said at the time he circulated the pledge. "That's what voters deserve to hear about, not attacks. Let's show the nation how congressional campaigns should be run - on the issues and merits."
But Roys didn't bite. The request, she said, was hypocritical because a truly clean campaign would be free of corporate PAC donations, which Pocan has accepted. PACs, or political action committees, are independent groups that bundle money from a variety of sources - corporations, unions and nonprofits - to donate to candidates, make their own ads and promote an agenda.
Unlike direct donations to candidates, there is no limit on how much entities can give to PACs, due to the Supreme Court's recent decision in Citizens United. As such, they provide corporations, unions and the wealthy a powerful way to influence political campaigns.
"I'm troubled by the system," Roys says, explaining her refusal to accept corporate PAC money. "I know a lot of people think the way you get to Congress is you play the game. But if you are playing that game, it's very difficult to then change that game. In this district, you don't need corporate money to win."
Roys has accepted $12,850 from non-corporate PAC donations, including the Credit Union Legislative Action Council. Pocan has accepted just over $240,000 in PAC donations, including several union PACs, the Miller Coors PAC, the National Beer Wholesalers Association, and the Wisconsin Energy PAC. (Baldwin also accepts corporate PAC money.)
Gay and lesbian rights groups, like the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, have donated to Pocan; while women's groups, including the Women Under Forty PAC, Emily's List and the Women's Action for New Directions, have given to Roys.
Pocan argues that it's more honest to take PAC money than refuse it but still accept money from donors who work as lobbyists and corporate executives. "To say you'll take all of this but not corporate PAC money is disingenuous."
Campaign filings show that Roys has in fact accepted money from lobbyists, including Charles Brain of Capitol Hill Strategies. The blog MAL Contends called her out for accepting donations from corporate donors.
Both Roys and Pocan say that money's corrupting influence in politics is something they'll fight to change. Both support a constitutional amendment to declare that corporations aren't individuals and that, contrary to the Citizens United ruling, money doesn't equal speech. "That's not free speech, that's really expensive speech," says Pocan.
They also say that isn't the only way to change the system. It's vital, they say, to reelect President Barack Obama in order to ensure liberals are appointed to the Supreme Court, in hopes of overturning the Citizens United decision.
"Citizens United was a lawless and abhorrent decision," says Roys. "You could have one or two retirees on the Supreme Court and change the makeup."
And both candidates support a system of public financing for elections. Pocan and Roys voted in favor of a public financing law for the state's Supreme Court in 2009.
If there's one thing the recall election showed, it's that progressive ideals are not an easy sell, even in Wisconsin. How effective can a progressive congressperson from Madison be in Washington?
Both Roys and Pocan say they can make a strong case for Madison values on the national stage.
"In my view, progressive ideals are American ideals," says Roys. "I want every kid in the country to have the same opportunity I did as a white, middle-class kid. You need fairness and accountability…. You have to do the right thing when we have power. When the Democrats get elected and don't stand up for people, people lose faith."
Pocan also argues that progressives can have a great influence on national issues. He points to President Obama's recent support for gay marriage. "That may not have happened if it had not been for the progressive caucus," he says, adding he hopes to be an active member of that group, as Baldwin has been.
He also says that progressives, in befriending conservatives, can "convince the Republicans they don't have to be carried around by the minority of their party."
Four of the last six people to hold the 2nd Congressional District seat have been Republicans. But Barry Burden, a political science professor at UW-Madison, says that changing demographics of the district and redistricting have made it dependably liberal.
"Dane County has become more reliably blue," he says. "When Baldwin first won that seat in '98, it was considered a seat that could go either way."
Of Wisconsin's eight congressional seats, only the second and the fourth, Gwen Moore's seat in Milwaukee, are reliably Democratic, he says. Currently, Wisconsin Republicans hold a 5-to-3 edge over Democrats in the U.S. House.
Baldwin has at times been influential in Washington, and she can point to legislation - such as the Affordable Care Act - that she has her fingerprints on, Burden says. How effective will her successor be?
"It really depends on who the majority is in Washington," Burden says.
"When the Democrats were in charge," he adds, "Baldwin had more influence."
Republicans now have a solid majority in the House, which means it will be at least a few years before Democrats are in power again.
That means that Pocan, Roys or any other Dem who succeeds Baldwin will have limited power, at least in the short term.
"When you're in the minority," says Burden, "especially in the House, you're really a second-class citizen."