When County Board Supervisor Dave de Felice gave his opening remarks at the 48th Assembly District Neighborhood Candidate Forum, he provided an apt summary for what was to come from the night's discussion.
"There's no difference between the candidates on major issues," he said.
De Felice went on to explain what sets him apart from the five others running for the Assembly seat vacated by Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, but try as the candidates might to declare their individuality, the loudest message was a continuation from a previous forum: the next representative of the 48th District has every intention of fighting the Republican establishment.
The candidates agreed that the east side's diversity and focus on neighborhoods make it a sustainable community with great potential for economic development.
Chris Taylor, director of public policy for Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, said about $200 million will be taken out of the local economy as a result of the latest budget cuts. She advocated a fair, more just taxation system to help local teachers, public workers and others who are struggling.
Andy Heidt, president of AFSCME Local 1871 and ombudsman for the Dane County Department of Human Services, said Gov. Scott Walker's budget has placed a lot of community members' dreams under duress. He proposed the development of a state bank and a Vermont-style single payer healthcare system as part of the remedy.
Heidt returned to his state bank proposal several times throughout the forum, in answer to questions about the state's role in education and how to foster economic development on the east side.
When the candidates were asked how they would balance the state budget, Bethany Ordaz, legislative aide to state Rep. Jocasta Zamarripa (D-Milwaukee), made it clear that her priorities are education and healthcare.
"Everyone needs to pay their fair share, including corporations," Ordaz said.
Taylor agreed that public education is the future of the state, adding that she finds it "completely disingenuous" to hear the governor talk about tightening belts when the people of the working class are the only ones doing so.
"Don't cut the absolute essential services that the most vulnerable people in society need," Taylor said, suggesting instead that she would close corporate tax loopholes, increase the income tax on the wealthiest families, and increase efforts to collect taxes that are owed.
Heidt disagreed slightly: "'Tax the rich' is easy to say, harder to do," he said, adding that other ways need to be found to capture revenue.
One such way, suggested by Vicky Selkowe, chief of staff to state Rep. Cory Mason (D-Racine), would be to improve staffing at the Department of Revenue to reduce the size of Wisconsin's tax gap. The number she wanted everyone to remember at the end of the night was $1.2 billion -- the difference between what is owed and what is collected in Wisconsin taxes.
Fred Arnold, a former economics instructor at MATC, said the state's recovery is a function of the national economy. He was the only candidate to discuss the role of collective bargaining in the public education system.
"Without collective bargaining, our policy is going to be imposed by administrators from the top and won't serve the students," Arnold said.
Most candidates seemed to agree that a combination of local control and statewide standards would be the best approach to public education.
Taylor criticized current standards and said, "Teaching for the test is no way to learn." Heidt added that schools should be "leading kids into a passion for lifelong learning."
"Our public schools had challenges ... long before Scott Walker got elected," Selkowe said, pushing for "meaningful school funding reform."
De Felice agreed that there were preexisting issues, and proposed realigning the tax structure to eliminate the disparity among districts in education quality.
Ordaz carried a theme of "solid investments" from the education question to one about encouraging economic development in the east side -- advocating "solid investments in kids and teachers" as well as in transit. "Small business is the heart of the community," she said, adding that we should support small businesses and public workers.
"In another life, I would expect the Chamber of Commerce to take care of economic development, not throw money at Republicans," de Felice said when it was his turn to answer.
Arnold touted the Stoughton Road Revitalization Project, on which he served as chairperson, as an answer to economic development several times throughout the evening.
Taylor said the east side should take advantage of its strong manufacturing base, the researchers available at the University of Wisconsin and the training available at local technical schools to create clean energy jobs and further explore stem cell research.
In one of very few remarks directed at the field of candidates, Selkowe said, "I'm the only candidate who's worked on these issues at the local level and the state level."
Selkowe had a bulleted list of ways she would communicate with constituents, including regular office hours and meeting with local groups. Arnold and de Felice also said they would visit with neighborhood associations.
De Felice, Selkowe and Taylor were the only candidates who specifically mentioned using social media as a means of communication with constituents.
"If you ever want to put the fear of God into your teenagers, learn how to tweet," de Felice said.
Ordaz promised to be completely accessible to anyone who wanted to talk to her, adding, "I may change my vote on some things, but I will never change my values."
Heidt stressed the importance of listening, and said he wants to "use this seat as a way to promote the cutting edge of progressive legislation." Twice, Heidt said he wants Democrats to "claw our way back into the majority" to reverse Walker's policies.
Earlier in the evening, Selkowe said her experience would allow her to "hit the ground running" at the Capitol. de Felice, however, said he would be the only candidate "who won't need an operator's manual on the first day of work."
Selkowe, Arnold and Taylor all touted their experience working with government in their closing remarks, while Ordaz highlighted her work ethic.
De Felice took a musical approach, reaching for a guitar to sing a rendition of Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down."
Heidt -- the only candidate to speak in terms of "when" he is elected, not "if" -- questioned the effectiveness of the other candidates' experience. "We need to bring in a new paradigm from the outside," he said.