Image courtesy Penebaker for Congress

Image courtesy Penebaker for Congress

For those of you who may not know, Khary Penebaker, a successful local businessman, father, husband, and activist is challenging Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner this year in Wisconsin’s 5thth Congressional district, which covers all of Washington and Jefferson counties, some of Waukesha and Dodge counties, and portions of Milwaukee and Walworth counties, has been a reliably red district, with Sensenbrenner winning reelection with at least 62% of the vote.

Shortly before Hillary Clinton became the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, I had a chance to speak with Khary Penebaker to get his thoughts on why he was running against Rep. Sensenbrenner, how he hoped to win, and what were the issues he wanted to focus on during the campaign.

Asked why he chose to run against an entrenched and presumably safe incumbent like Republican Jim Sensenbrenner, Penebaker noted he has been an advocate for gun violence prevention for years adding that in his role as an advocate he’d have to ask politicians to do the right thing, and that too often those politicians would say one thing in private they’d say one thing and in public do another. Penebaker added he reached a point where he wanted to be part of the solution, and he asked himself how much more he was willing to do to solve the problem. Penebaker told me he knew he could run for Congress to deal with the issues of gun control and gun violence, adding he felt Rep. Sensenbrenner wasn’t representing the district and had zero interest in doing anything on the issue of gun violence. Penebaker told me he wanted to either change the law or change Congress, and that he realized the only way to change the law given the relative inaction of Congress on gun issues was to change Congress itself.

After explaining why he chose to run for Congress, I asked Penebaker to explain how he felt he could win against Rep. Sensenbrenner when other Democrats have have tried and failed to prevail for decades. Penebaker told me he sees 2016 as being a unique year in which both Republicans and Democrats are united in their anger towards the national Republican Party, and he noted Republican primary voters in Wisconsin voted overwhelmingly against Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, especially in the 5th Congressional district. “People are sick and tired of the way things are going,” Penebaker told me, adding he believes there hasn’t been a better time than now to run against an establishment incumbent Republican like Jim Sensenbrenner. “Many Republicans are just as fed up as Democrats are, and so 2016 is a unique time to run,” Penebaker added.

To bolster his case about dissatisfaction among Republicans and Democrats towards the current group of elected officials, Penebaker cited college affordability as an issue voters from both parties care about and have seen little action from current elected officials to address. Penebaker noted many Republicans and Democrats are united in their desire to make sure their children can not only go to college but also can afford to pay off their student loan debt at the end of their time in college. Penebaker stated he believed Rep. Sensenbrenner is not acting in the best interest of the voters of the 5th Congressional district – whether Democratic or Republican – when it comes to addressing the issue of college affordability and so he believes it’s time for Sensenbrenner to be voted out of office.

Asked to describe the main issues his campaign will be focusing on, Penebaker noted the three main planks in his campaign’s platform are public safety, education, and jobs & the economy. In regards to public safety, Penebaker noted that given his background in advocacy for sensible gun control legislation, if elected he would work to see universal background checks become a reality for anyone seeking to purchase a firearm. Penebaker noted universal background checks are supported by ninety percent of the American people, including more than 80 percent of Republicans and more than 70 percent of gun owners. Along with universal background checks, Penebaker added he would work to ensure individuals on the federal no-fly list would be prevented from being able to purchase firearms as a common-sense way to reduce the likelihood of terrorist attacks/mass shootings.

As the discussion turned towards education, Penebaker again reiterated his strong belief that a college education should be affordable for anyone who wants to attend college. “As the parent of a child looking at attending college, I’m not okay with the possibility of my child having to deal with the burden of hundreds of thousands in student loan debt,” Penebaker told me, adding that without the ability to see into the future to know who will win the presidential election his plan would start by attacking interest rates that student loan borrowers are paying. Penebaker’s plan would allow current student loan borrowers to refinance to lower rates, and he noted student loan borrowers pay higher interest rates than banks and they should be able to pay lower rates to make loans more affordable.

Penebaker added that his plan would also allow new students to borrow at reduced interest rates, but he was quick to note that different presidential candidates have different plans on college affordability, so it’s kind of hard to get more specific than that without knowing which Democrat will win the presidency.

Our discussion next turned to job opportunity, and Penebaker expressed his opinion that too many politicians, including Republicans, pay lip service to the issue of job opportunity but don’t really do anything about it. Penebaker told me his plan for job creation starts with a small business tax incentive that would allow convicted felons the opportunity to rebuild their lives by starting small businesses and investing back into their communities. He added that too many released convicts revert back to old behaviors in order to survive. “There needs to be more job opportunities in order to break the cycle of recidivism,” Penebaker said, adding, “We need to take steps to break that cycle and allow them to reintegrate as positive members of society.” Noting that job training programs aren’t enough without job opportunities, Penebaker asked, “Once they get out, now what?” Penebaker noted his company hires individuals with records because they believe in second chances, and he expressed his opinion there should be a mechanism in place to encourage for-profit companies to want to hire individuals with convictions. Penebaker said that providing for-profit companies with an incentive to hire individuals with criminal records could serve as a means of making money while also helping reduce recidivism, which would in turn start the process of rebuilding communities torn apart by family members in prison.

Asked how his campaign is progressing, Penebaker said the campaign is “going good,” noting his campaign out-raised Rep.Sensenbrenner during the last quarter. However, Penebaker was quick to admit Rep. Sensenbrenner’s campaign can turn on the spigot from big money donors at any time, so he still has work to do to counter the likely influx of money into Rep. Sensenbrenner’s campaign. Penebaker did note he has really only contacted his inner circle yet, adding his campaign has been tapping into connections made through his advocacy work and that he hasn’t really even widened out his fundraising efforts outside of the district. Penebaker noted the last Democratic challenger to Rep. Sensenbrenner raised fourteen or fifteen thousand dollars in campaign contributions in the entire election cycle, while Penebaker’s campaign raised almost double that amount in a few months. Penebaker added a lot of work has been done to build his campaign’s infrastructure, with his campaign having an all-professional paid staff as opposed to the all-volunteer staff of the 2014 Democratic candidate. Penebaker told me that as he has engaged voters about his campaign, they are resonating with the fact that he’s someone who’s passionate about the issues and isn’t afraid to take on a Republican heavyweight like Jim Sensenbrenner.

“He’s had plenty of time to change but he’s done nothing, and that’s simply unacceptable,” Penebaker said of Sensenbrenner, adding that he believes voters are sick of government being stuck in the mud and not moving in the right direction. Penebaker told me, “I don’t want to turn this into a career; I want to fix some things and pass it off to the next person who wants to affect some change and do good things for the issue they care about,” adding, “This shouldn’t be a government run by the same people trying to do the same things year after year.”

As our conversation drew to a close Penebaker said he believes the 5the Congressional district – and the nation as a whole – needs candidates who are willing to stand up for what they believe in and stand strong against the kind of negativity that has become so prevalent with the rise of Donald Trump as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

If you’d like to learn more about Khary Penebaker or how you can help his campaign, you can visit his campaign website or check out his campaign’s Facebook page.

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2 Responses to Khary Penebaker: the man who thinks he can beat Jim Sensenbrenner

  1. Joe Kallas says:

    Penebaker needs a concise message that anyone can agree with and vote for. Not sure what that is at this point. What most people look for is party affiliation. Most people in the district vote Republican so he has to give them a rock solid reason why voting Republican is bad. I am not seeing it. If Penebaker runs a traditional campaign he will end up with 40% of the vote like candidates before him. So far it seems like that is what he intends to do. Wish he would switch it up and take it to Jimbo. Then he could oust him. Good luck!

  2. Waukesha Blue says:

    I wish Penebaker the best of luck and pledge my support. I take minor issue with how to keep guns out of the hands of people on the no fly list without violating their protected rights, one of which is to be spared from racial profiling. However, if he’s worth his salt he will suggest other means. I agree with Mr. Kallas and “Wish he would switch it up and take it to Jimbo.” I have tens if not twenty replies from Congressman Sensenbrenner that show his weak and non-defendable positions to letters I have written questionng his position on such things as gun regulation. Sensenbrenner uses the standard Republican double talk to avoid directly addressing or answering my letters. If called out publicly and cornered on the issues he would reveal what now even many Republicans/conservatives are tired of… A failure to represent his constituency in a continuing effort to protect the interests of corporate America. Say goodnight Jimbo!

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