No one has not run for more offices more times than U.S. Rep. Ron Kind. It seems that every few years the popular La Crosse Democrat is rumored to be serious about running for Wisconsin governor or the U.S. Senate. Kind routinely allows and even encourages the speculation, only to yank away his candidacy like Lucy pulling away the football.
When Kind, yet again, removed his name from speculation about a run for Wisconsin governor last week, he opened up a field that was already suffering from agoraphobia.
There’s a long list of current and former Democratic officeholders said to be mulling a run. They include former state Sen. Tim Cullen of Janesville, Jefferson County District Attorney Susan Happ, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout of Alma and state Rep. Dana Wachs of Eau Claire. And Milwaukee entrepreneur Andy Gronik, who has never held public office, is considering getting in as well.
Because I believe that a wide-open, contested primary is good for both democracy and the Democrats, let me toss in another name: former state Rep. Spencer Black of Madison.
Full disclosure, I worked for Black in the early 1990s, we were political allies when we both held office, and we’ve remained friends. But I also know some of the other potential candidates and like them as well, especially Parisi. I have no particular reason to want to push Black into the race, except for the fun of seeing more candidates mix it up.
And, in contrast to the prevailing view of party professionals, I think that a well-fought primary does nothing but good for the ultimate nominee. It lets them test messages while they get sharper on the stump, it can inoculate them to criticisms later on, it gives them name recognition and time to build an organization, and it provides the momentum of having won a contested election going into the general.
I met Black for a beer recently just to catch up. (Recovering from an illness, he had coffee, black of course.) I brought up the prospect of a run because I had heard others around Madison mention his name. He confirmed that a lot of people are asking him to run, but that he is enjoying retirement with his wife, Pam, and that he hopes another electable progressive steps up. He would rather help a good candidate than be a candidate himself.
But he did leave open the door the way people who have been successful in politics do, saying that he, “hasn’t ruled it out.” That means he’s at least giving it some thought.
In my view, it wouldn’t hurt the Democrats to have lots of choices, Black among them. It could be more difficult for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for an electable general election candidate to get through the Democratic primary. That’s because the Democratic base has become increasingly orthodox liberal while the overall electorate remains moderate. But Black might be able to inspire progressives while appealing to the blue-collar voters that the Dems desperately need back in their column.
During his long tenure in the Assembly he always made an attempt to bridge the gap between issues popular in his liberal west-side district and things that would resonate with voters outside of Dane County. For example, he took on conservation causes like expanding the state Stewardship Fund, which is used in part to expand public hunting lands heavily used by folks who can’t afford their own acreage. (Black is an avid deer hunter). He also fought rip-offs by cable television companies and worked to strengthen campaign finance and ethics laws.
He won a lot more of those battles than he lost, but probably the most tragic of his losses was his attempt, rejected by the then-majority Democratic caucus, to turn redistricting over to a nonpartisan commission. Shortly after that the Republicans won overwhelming victories, grabbed back the majority and imposed the most severe gerrymander anywhere in the country. He may have failed to convince his fellow legislators, but Democratic primary voters would likely reward him for his prescience.
Then there’s the issue of money. Black still has his campaign account open, and he has a larger balance than any of his potential primary challengers, though Gronik could probably self-fund some of his campaign. Just as useful as the cash is the way he accumulated it: through lots and lots of small donations. He was Bernie Sanders before Sanders became a phenomenon, and, of course, Sanders won the presidential primary here.
But that model has yet to be proven in a Wisconsin governor’s race. So the question is, could a guy like Black, who is unpopular if not hated by just about every special corporate interest you can name, raise enough money fast enough to overcome the inevitable character assassination that will rain down on anybody who emerges from the primary?
And, maybe more importantly, why would somebody who spends his days riding his bike, hiking, skiing, reading, writing, spending time with his wife, visiting with his professor-track son and volunteering on the Sierra Club’s national board want to take on all the humiliations and attacks that come with running for governor?
The odds are he won’t. But, then again, he did say that he “hasn’t ruled it out.”