After the disastrous results of the 2014 election here in Wisconsin, many Democrats here in Wisconsin have called for Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chairman Mike Tate to step down from his position. Many (including yours truly) have criticized Tate for what’s seen as a lack of success in helping Democrats across Wisconsin win elections, and as a result a number of individuals have begun preparing to challenge Tate when his term as DPW Chair is up. It’s been speculated Tate may not seek reelection when his current term is up, but there’s no doubt that whether Tate seeks another term or not there will be no shortage of candidates vying to replace him.
One such candidate is former Democratic State Rep. Jeff Smith of Eau Claire (pictured, left), who told me during a recent conversation that he’s “pretty far down the road” towards formally announcing his candidacy and that he expects to make a decision shortly after the holidays. Smith noted that while other individuals have expressed interest in vying to become the next DPW Chair, he believes his abilities and experience make him the most well-prepared of anyone considering a run for DPW Chair.
When prompted to talk about what he felt separated him from other possible contenders for DPW Chair, Smith cited his experience having been on a ballot six times. Smith noted that while he didn’t win every election in which he was a candidate, he took pride in having run very competitive campaigns that in many cases exceeded expectations. He noted he got more votes in his races than the Democratic candidates at the top of the ticket in 2008, 2012, and 2014, and he added he won an Assembly Race in 2006 when he wasn’t expected to win.
Smith also cited his strong roots in a largely rural part of the state as something that would benefit the party, given the difficulty the Democratic Party has had in bringing rural voters who largely support Democratic Party issues into the fold. “Voters like the issues that Democrats support,” Smith noted, “but they still vote Republican,” adding that the Democratic Party of Wisconsin needs to figure out how to engage and educate those voters to bring them back into the Democratic Party “tent.” Smith added that it’s his belief the Democratic Party has focused on winning votes in urban centers for too long, and he noted that in his experience staff were often sent by the Democratic Party to work in the Party’s Eau Claire office with orders to only send volunteers or do phone banking in the city of Eau Claire while largely ignoring the rural areas surrounding the city.
“The Party can’t continue to win by engaging urban voters only,” Smith told me, adding that the Democratic Party can win rural voters back by listening to them. “All people want is someone to listen to them,” Smith said, noting that the results of referendums in which Wisconsinites opposed corporate personhood and the idea that money equals speech, supported the state accepting federal Medicaid funds for BadgerCare, and supported an increase in the minimum wage show that Democrats are on the right side of the issues but simply lack the right message to convince voters to vote for the Democrats who will address those issues. As an example Smith cited the fact that many rural voters care deeply about preserving their community schools, as many small rural communities are faced with the prospect of losing their community schools due to education funding cuts. “Many people are concerned about losing their community schools, yet they continue to vote for the very Republicans who cut education funding,” Smith said.
If elected DPW Chair, Smith said he’d make it a priority to engage county parties and empower them to be more proactive and make more of a difference in their communities. Smith said he wanted to see county parties doing more to recruit local volunteers who can both relate to local voters and who will have more credibility with those voters while doing outreach.
As I noted earlier, Jeff Smith expects to make a final decision on whether or not he’ll run for DPW Chair by the end of this year, and no matter what he decides to do it promises to be a crowded field come time to choose the next DPW Chair.