Rita Wittwer: Disappointing lessons from the Democratic primary in the 17th Senate District

This opinion piece is worth a read for anyone who’s interested in how the political class that makes up the leadership of Democratic Party in Wisconsin seems to believe they know better than the voters when it comes to picking and choosing their preferred candidates.

Disappointing lessons from the Democratic primary in the 17th Senate District

By Rita Wittwer

The column below reflects the views of the author, and these opinions are neither endorsed nor supported by WisOpinion.com.

I decided to write this because I think it only right that the voters have enough information to make an informed decision on November 4th when and if you vote for a candidate running for the 17th state Senate District. My husband, Ernie Wittwer, was a candidate for that seat. As you may know, he won the primary election by two votes, won the vote certification by seven votes and lost the primary through a recount.

Aside from the unbelievable number of crazy incidents in the election process, the absolutely stupid way we handle absentee ballots, the inconsistency and less-than-advisory rulings by the Government Accountability Board and the missing 110 ballots in Green County, the Senate Democratic leadership also played a leading and inappropriate role in the election outcome.

At the end of October 2013, Ernie announced his candidacy. From his resume, you would have thought he’d be the perfect candidate: lived in rural Wisconsin most of his life, 25 years of legislative and management experience, two master’s degrees and an incredible grasp of the issues facing Wisconsin and our district. But, by the end of December, having raised a little under $10,000 and getting virtually no help from the Senate staff — though they would disagree — the writing was on the wall. It was time for the Senate leadership to take control. And, that he did. He came up with a primary opponent by convincing the guy running for the Assembly in the 51st District (against Dick Cates, who he couldn’t beat this time, and Maureen May-Grimm, who he didn’t beat two years before) that he should run in the 17th Senate race. That makes sense, doesn’t it?

This guy certainly had all the experience that a Senate candidate for a very rural district should possess. He had a PO Box and rented a room in the district for a little over three years. He was mentored by and worked a bit over a year for a U.S. senator who barely remembers him. He was a law clerk of questionable merit for a Republican judge. He has a law degree but has never practiced law. Aside from his university years, he lived his life in urban Waukesha, graduating from a private high school.

This was the beginning of the disenfranchisement of the voters in the 17th Senate District. In and of itself, a primary is not necessarily a bad thing. However, the Senate leader didn’t like leaving anything to chance — or should I say to the voters. He decided that he should endorse his chosen one and at the Democratic convention purposely failed to mention Ernie as the other candidate. That didn’t exactly go over well with our supporters and they made their feelings known to “his leadership.” Not that their views mattered. They were completely ignored.

When AFSCME and WEAC held a combined endorsement interview, guess who was going to get their endorsements? Ernie. Again, that wasn’t what the power hungry had in mind. With political influence and strong-arming, the endorsement went to the chosen one. The strength of the WEAC phone bank, from many parts of the state, in the days and weekend before election Tuesday and the amount of influence that the leadership used, hurt our campaign. There is no doubt about that. We are also fairly certain that the outcome, had it been left to the voters, would have been very different. But, I quibble.

Losing an election is unbelievably painful. Losing an election because of political manipulation is even worse. To add insult to injury, we found out a few days ago that the list of supporters that we fought so hard to get was given to the chosen one without our permission. How special is that? Because our website was created under the Senate umbrella and because we loaded the names of anyone with an email address into our website for ease in communicating, the Senate hierarchy believes that they own our names and have the right to use them as they see fit.

In other words, if I use your bucket to store my apples, my apples become your apples. Isn’t that clever and a completely new way of looking at proprietary rights relative to data storage? Our people have already received emails from the chosen one. Please accept our apologies and unsubscribe if you wish.

This barely covers the surface of ineptness, bad judgment and political manipulation of the election process in the 17th and may be a book someday, if we have the stomach for it. For now, this is enough for you to digest.

If you think my ranting is sour grapes, you’d be absolutely correct. Not only am I sour, I’m also angry and disgusted with Wisconsin politics. If this is democracy in 2014, I don’t want any part of it. I’m not sure why anyone else would, either. Sadly, I don’t have a clue how to change it because that’s why Ernie ran for the Senate in the first place and we saw how well that worked out.

It’s no wonder that it’s difficult to get good people to run for office, regardless of whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican. It’s all about money and power. Intelligence, honesty and integrity don’t count.

As Rita Wittwer noted in her opinion piece, some may attribute her statements to “sour grapes” from the wife of a losing candidate, but despite her personal feelings regarding the race, that doesn’t negate the fact that there’s a lot of truth in what she wrote.


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21 thoughts on “Rita Wittwer: Disappointing lessons from the Democratic primary in the 17th Senate District

  1. This is what we get from all levels of Democratic Party leadership in Wisconsin (State level, C.D. Chair level, and ESPECIALLY County Party level).
    Screw them all.
    I’m done.

  2. Yeah, this stinks on many levels. But “being done” and staying home are luxuries we cannot afford to indulge in this political climate. Every vote that stays home is a vote for Scott Walker. He and Vos and Fitzgerald are counting on that.

    1. Heidi- I get that we need to keep people excited to go to the polls, but your attitude is awful. Rita Wittwer’s going to vote for Mary Burke, but she’s underlining a key problem at the DPW- caring more about money than message. Far too many candidates seem to be made viable based on fund-raising ability vs being able to excite voters into supporting them with a populist message that the majority of Wisconsinites support and will vote for.

      This is why I don’t give to the DCCC, and instead give directly to candidates worthy of support like Mark Harris and Kelly Westlund, because the same mentality pervades in DC (if anything, it is worse).

      I agree that we go all out to end the Era of Fitzwalkerstan this Fall, and elect Dems across the board. But Mike Tate and the DPW hierarchy better understand that their jobs are on the line, because of backroom dealings like Rita Wittwer describes.

      1. Thank you, Jake. You are absolutely correct. Not only will I vote for Mary, but I’ve donated to her campaign. However, my disgust is with the Senate Minority leader, not necessarily with DPW, although I do think culpable because they remained silent while this was going on. My position in the 17th is that, while I detest the ideology of Howard Marklein, voting for Ernie’s opponent would be like voting for Larson. I simply refuse to elect any more Democrats that believe “the end justifies the means.” This simply has to stop or the Democratic Party is no better than the Republicans. I will bet that if Marklein wins I will be blamed. However, the only thing that I will take responsibility for is that our opponent may lose some votes. Not beating Marklein should fall squarely on Larson’s shoulders.

        1. Rita, thanks so much for sharing your perspective and experience. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to be so open and honest about what happened to Ernie throughout the course of his campaign.

          1. Thank you, Zach. The county parties have been so marginalized over so many years and the conduct of the Senate leadership so arrogant that my anger has overcome any reluctance to share what happened. In truth, we knew a great deal about our opponent and chose not to make it public and we underestimated the extent that the leadership would go to make sure Ernie didn’t win. Obviously, the primary is over, but unless we get this to stop, the next candidate who may not have a big money Rolodex, but has the intelligence and the desire to serve the citizens will run up against the same political wall. I feel like our country and our state is going to hell in a hand basket. If this does anything to energize people to demand changes, it is well worth the effort.

            1. Yeah, it’s the “we know best” attitude among the political class here in Wisconsin that bothers me the most, as if those of us who have real jobs and don’t work in politics for a living don’t understand how things work and or/what makes a good candidate.

              Like you wrote – it’s arrogance, and it’s the reason Democrats won’t regain control of the State Senate after November.

              1. You make a really good point. Lots of talent on the sidelines (in the private sector, serving as public employees) but not approached because the focus is on building the donor pools and recruiting for traditional volunteer tasks – in other words, they ask for time and money but not ideas. The DPW should think about how they could utilize the intellectual capital of Democratic voters. Heaven knows the other side almost totally lacks in it so it could be turned into a real competitive advantage.

                1. “Utilize the intellectual capital of Democratic voters.” Well, maybe they should promote candidates that do just that with a great message, and offer to help them instead of caring more about candidates who are good at “pick[ing] your next opportunity and start networking and building your fundraising strategy now?”

                  Get the problem, Em? If you back candidates based on their ideas instead of their bankroll, you’ll be more likely to “utilize their intellectual capital.” Just saying.

                  There are lots of us with real jobs that would like to do more, but don’t have the ability to make it a career. Maybe you could help a few of us out instead of relying on us to do the footwork that only people with a lot of time and money on their hands have the ability to do.

                  1. Therein lies the rub. How do we motivate people to get involved in campaigns or be a candidate and then how do we find candidates, that have to work for a living, who are able to commit the amount of time needed to run a campaign. As I’ve learned, it takes an unbelievable amount of time to run a campaign, but with enough experienced help, it can be done. We just need to figure out how to do this because there are way too many quality individuals that are being bypassed under our current system.

                  2. I were running things I’d prefer a charismatic but underfunded candidate over the well-funded but repellant candidate. After all, money can be raised easily with a great message and candidate, but money can’t necessarily buy enough votes to overcome a terrible candidate.

                  3. Tilting candidate selection away from the wealthy and connected towards non-rich Progressives probably doesn’t work out in terms of actual wins unless non-rich candidates can access practical advice and help in building plans to fundraise, develop clear, cohesive messaging, media relations, organizational structure, etc. (I’m speaking of actual help, not training). A state-wide volunteer pool drawn from all sorts of jobs and professions could level the playing field. Saying all you need is a candidate with great ideas is like saying all that’s needed for a business to succeed is a good product/service, or more famously build it and they will come.

      2. Hi,Jake,

        Actually, I agree with you on all points, particularly regarding the DPW. So you really don’t know squat about my “attitude.” Insert smile face here.

  3. Dear Rita,

    Obviously it is painful to lose an election, and especially painful when there is manipulation. I recommend Mike McCabe’s new book, Blue Jeans in High Places. I do hope our paths cross again before too long. I have so enjoyed talking to you at the dinner after the Grassroots Festival and again at BobFest. Hope you are finding things to enjoy this fall.

  4. Ms. Wittwer, very sorry for the bad experience.

    IMHO, if Gov. Walker is elected, he’s going to try and give the pension money from state workers in Wisconsin to Wall Street.

    “Gov. Christie Shifted Pension Cash to Wall Street, Costing New Jersey Taxpayers $3.8 Billion”


    Gov. Walker’s already shown interest in working with billionaire David Einhorn and his Dad, Steve.

    I’m afraid Ms. Burke has similar intentions, but just isn’t quite as focused.

    Choice and GLBT rights are two other issues that imho make Ms. Burke the better candidate.

    IMHO, the more local the election, the more weight each individual vote carries.

  5. Sorry for your experience. It’s anguishing to pour yourself into an endeavor when it doesn’t work out. For now. Doesn’t mean that next time you won’t succeed. So why not pick your next opportunity and start networking and building your fundraising strategy now? Or if it’s the fundraising that you’re having trouble getting past, take the next 6 months to learn it. Seems like you and Ernie have too much desire to serve and drive change to give up.

    1. We’re not giving up, but four years from now Ernie will be 71. We need to refocus so that those four years are not wasted on getting elected. We need to find a younger, intelligent, principled individual who isn’t interested in being a politician (as we currently view them) but rather a public servant (how we’d like to view politicians). While money is very important to a campaign, we must remove it as the number one candidate priority. We keep finding candidates that have the money Rolodex and an attitude of entitlement, but lack any knowledge of what life is like for the middle and lower class. Their compassion comes more from a benevolent perspective than from an empowering perspective and their campaign rhetoric can be delivered by a chimp.

      We’re hoping to hook up with Mike McCabe because his new focus, as detailed in his book, Blue Jeans in High Places, dovetails very nicely with the changes we’d like to see in politics. AND, obviously, from all the supportive comments that have been posted, there are many who feel that same as I do. I think that the only way we can really be effective is to join forces and become a united voice.

      1. Followed Ernie on Sly and elsewhere, I’m not in your district, but sincerely appreciate your honest and heart-felt commentary. Gave up on the DPW when locally all 2012 resources were surrendered to OFA to local candidate devastation politically. Then OFA refused to share data, knowledge and political science with the State Democratic and County affiliates. Didn’t need those boots on the ground anymore.

        Anyone interested in reading about co-opting of environmental movement energy to dissipate it into nothingness, just ask and I’ll post a couple of reads. Corporate profits sponsoring green non-profits and getting young folks into painting posters for a week instead of striking or other meaningful civil disobedience. Profits for corporate sponsored green “non-profits,” no real enviro action realized beyond pissing in the wind.

      2. Good luck to you. I’m afraid like NQ, President Obama’s OFA turned off another generation. I don’t think they asked for much and they understood what he was up against. Prosecute the banks, public option, not putting chained CPI on the table, ending the deep state, not moving into Iraq 3, various appointments – just one would have sufficed. But nothing. So you have your work cut out for you. Bernie Sanders spoke to Thomas Frank in Salon about starting a movement. He hopefully starts a new party.

        1. I understand completely about OFA. The same thing happened to our candidates in Richland County and because of it they didn’t do well. Left many of us quite unhappy with the “move in, take control” attitude of some of the OFA staff

          1. Posted comment from a couple years ago. http://my.firedoglake.com/wendydavis/2012/06/18/ive-been-vanjonesed-and-democratted-progressivecaucussed-and-neolibrulfatcatted-till-im-blind/

            I’ve always voted with some knowledge of the candidate I choose. Obomba never.

            And speaking of frauds, out-takes on the climate fakes, jog down the sidebar titles and enjoy some fresh perspective on the decades charade. A good start:


            All the best,

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