A few weeks ago I asked the readers of Blogging Blue what questions they’d ask the candidates vying to replace Democratic Party of Wisconsin chair Mike Tate if they had the opportunity, and the questions you all came up with where whittled down from several dozen to ten.
Each of the candidates for DPW Chair – Jeff Smith, Joe Wineke, and Jason Rae – were sent the questions at the same time via email, and each has sent back their responses to the questions. I’ll be sharing the answers each candidate gave in the order I received their responses, so today we start with former Democratic State Rep. Jeff Smith.
The questions sent to Mr. Smith are highlighted in bold, with his responses immediately following the questions. Mr. Smith’s responses were not edited or altered in any way.
1. What is your plan for rebuilding the Democratic Party of Wisconsin?
This is a very broad question. The question should be this: What is your plan for shifting the emphases of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin? I think you will have a good indication after reading through the rest of these answers.
2. What would the DPW’s messaging look like if you are elected state party chair?
Our messaging must begin by reminding ourselves that we are the progressive liberal party. Most of our messaging is written into our platform adopted by our progressive members at convention. Why do we ignore what our own members are telling us? For instance, it did not take a genius to notice that many ballots across the state had questions about raising the minimum wage and accepting the Medicaid expansion dollars; placed on ballots by progressives on county boards. Everywhere these initiatives were on the ballot they received positive results, some by more than 70%. We should have been embracing those questions and messaged accordingly. No doubt, we should use focus group testing, but we ought to be listening and really hearing what local activists tell us. I also hear so often progressives puzzling over why so many poor and disenfranchised members of our society are voting for conservative Republicans when we know they are being hurt by those Repubs. We need to HEAR what they are telling us. This sector of citizens don’t have much to hang onto. They don’t have money or possessions but what they think they do have is “Moral Superiority” and every time we make statements that sound like we believe anyone is stupid to vote “against their own best interest” we are proving to them that we are elitist and don’t understand them. They don’t get that from the bible thumping, constitutional liars on the other side. We need to start with that understanding before we can even think that we will have any chance to communicate and message to those potential voters.
3. What are the three issues that Dems should focus their message on?
The decimation of public education must be first and foremost. I have been trying to get the attention of voters to what conservatives are doing to our schools for about 15 years. I could never quite get through to voters as they didn’t either believe me or they didn’t understand. But in 2014, for the first time, voters told me (before I could even bring it up) that their greatest concern is the funding of their schools. It is finally hitting home and we need to embrace this if we are going to save the most important element to the future of our state. See how I messaged about how the Repubs are putting our schools at risk here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lkRT3Y5jaaw (on a side note; my opponent’s career two man band is called the Memories)
The Republicans currently in office are liars. How about that for a message? Of course we need to back that up and it can start with how they budget. They lied when they said they had a deficit in 2011 which they then used to pass Act 10. Walker lied (and every legislator on that side are tied to him) when he claimed to prioritize job creation while the corruption that is the WEDC is wasting and giving away tax dollars to pay back favors. Check out how I messaged about balancing the budget last fall: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LW7iPlEYOGo and here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQ13MWz2hic or about their job plan here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a4vKKPCnaFI
Republicans cannot govern with the best interest of Wisconsin in mind. They are so enamored with the concept of getting government out of the way that they write legislation that is destroying Wisconsin inside and out. For instance, would any clear thinking American think you should write into a bill that the agency in charge of protecting our environment CANNOT CONSIDER THE IMPACT A HIGH CAPACITY WELL WOULD HAVE ON SURROUNDING WELLS? How many Wisconsinites think that local government should be ignored and weakened so all decisions about their town, neighborhood and well-being is made in Madison? It is clear that we should be hitting local control and environmental destruction hard. Here is how I messaged last fall about an important environmental issue in western Wisconsin. Enjoy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQpaqWwhPmQ
4. What would you do to ensure that a quality candidate run in every race regardless if the race is considered winnable or not?
This is a question that may not have a good solution. I’ve been on both sides of this. First of all, in 2003 I made the decision to step up and run for the legislature (I was fed up). The powers that be in Madison didn’t believe a small business owner and little known town chair fit their idea of the ideal candidate to run against a well-funded and entrenched Republican so they went out and recruited their own “ideal” candidate. I won that primary by 12 points and eventually defeated that well-funded entrenched Republican also. My friend Kathleen Vinehout has a similar story of self-discovery and not relying on those “experts” to find and groom the “perfect” candidate and we both won from the same place in 2006 on our own. The moral of the story is that the best (motivated) candidate is the self-recruited candidate. But, with that said, I have been the most active recruiter in western Wisconsin ever since partly because I am certain I have a better feel for who is electable there opposed to outsiders following some formula on paper. Unfortunately there isn’t a lot of enthusiasm to run these days in gerrymandered districts and there just is no guarantee that a “quality” candidate is always going to show up. But, if I were to interpret the question to mean what I think it means, I think it is imperative that when someone who has the drive, people skills, progressive values, local support, willingness to listen, ability to learn and raise money they should be respected and supported. Yes, raising money is important so bills can be paid. I want to make that part clear, though when I first won I spent just over $30,000 to beat an incumbent who had $150,000 in the bank, there will always be bills to pay but we can be smarter with less when needed. But smarter sometimes means putting resources where they will be most productive and so we have to strike a reasonable balance. After all, we tend to preach often that candidates should expect to have to run twice before unseating an incumbent (as was the case with me) yet we alienate and leave our candidates so disillusioned they would never consider another run so we are always starting from scratch every cycle.
5. What is a Progressive? Are you one? Tell us exactly how you have walked the talk. Be honest if you’re not.
I AM A PROUD PROGRESSIVE DEMOCRAT! And I want all our citizens who want to protect their school, protect our beautiful hills and waterways, believe in public funding of campaigns, want to protect the right of all women to choose their own reproductive path, save family farming, feel safe from irresponsible gun ownership, believe in social justice and health care for all to stand up and proudly declare they are also proud Democrats. My platform when I ran for office (and won) started with campaign finance reform. It was always the first thing I talked about with voters at their door and I never found anyone who was opposed to public funding of campaigns when it was explained to them. When in office I chaired the Election and Campaign Finance Reform Committee and proceeded to hold hearings on Redistricting Reform, Issue Ad Disclosure and other important election issues (unfortunately our leaders were not on the same page with me on these issues at that time) I then wrote the most comprehensive and progressive election law reform in the nation ( find it here: http://www.wisdc.org/voter_protection_2009.html ) but came up short at the end of session in 2010 as we had a handful of conservative minded Democrats who refused to vote for it without voter ID attached. I refused to accept such a regressive compromise. We are paying for those missed opportunities now. Also, I authored and pushed into law Act 90 which is better known as Puppy Mill Law. After a decade of failure I came along after promising to get it done and made it happen. That bill demonstrated many of my best assets which are determination, creative problem solving, public relations and consensus building (it passed unanimously). And when the legislature was being inundated by lobbying against any attempts to clamp down on Payday Lending the leadership asked me to join with Donna Seidel and bring the main parties together and write the bill that I believe was the best Payday Industry regulations in the nation. I have the ability to pull people together to get the best results for the greater good. Of course, the Repubs have reversed our good work since then.
6. How will you manage your role between the Assembly & Senate caucuses and the County Chairs Association?
As I have said, one of my strengths is consensus building and problem solving. I know I have the people skills along with my own experience in campaigns to be an asset to the ADCC and the SSDCC. The County Chairs Assoc. needs to be more involved and given a greater role as an advisory board for the chair. Maybe the best answer for this question and how to get things done is through building trust. We are all in this together. Yet the great missing link between all these entities is trust. The party hierarchy doesn’t trust the county chairs or membership. The SSDCC and ADCC don’t trust anyone outside their hired guns approach. Just think about this for a moment. Paid consultants get paid if we win or lose while our county officers and members get involved because they feel passionate enough to put forth the effort with only the best interests in mind. Who should we trust? I put my faith in the County officers and members any day. They have the most to lose. So my vision for the DPW is empowering our county parties though financial and advisory support available throughout each year, not just a few months leading up to an election. Lay the groundwork for the ADCC and SSDCC for when they are ready to invest effort in an election year the volunteer base and top notch candidates are ready to go. We also must be on the same page when it comes to messaging and engaging voters. Finally, the DPW must really understand that the way to victory in Wisconsin is through strengthening our base in rural Wisconsin, entrusting all progressive voices so they work with us not against us and votes trickle up the ballot not down. With that type of attitude the legislative caucuses and the county parties will find a much better working relationship between them as well as the DPW.
7. What will you do to change/modernize our image to something appealing to people that are not active members?
Have I already said that I want as our goal for all progressive thinking citizens to proudly declare that they are Democrats? But that won’t happen if they don’t feel like they are being heard or represented. For that to happen elected Democrats and party leaders need to talk and act like the progressives they are elected by. It’s not so difficult to know what those expectations are as long as we give more priority to the platform drafted and adopted by our members. So often I lament the fact that voters seem unable to tell the difference between Democrats and Republicans but it is even more concerning when I hear progressives claim there is no difference. If we are not able to distinguish ourselves then we cannot expect those voters to show up for us. I am sure I don’t have to tell you that the campaign consultants have tended to push candidates to the right to attract conservative voters when we really ought to be worried about why we aren’t attracting what we like to refer to as our base. Voters want distinct choices, not different flavors of the same message. We should also be thinking forward and get ahead with how we use electronic media to reach our next generation of voters. Too much emphasis is placed on radio and TV when we might get much more out of other avenues. And I’m not talking only about candidate campaigns. It has bothered me for a long time that the party, as well as our allies, are so silent for 18 months and then throw all their resources at trying to win elections. Let’s win over voters by helping them recognize the differences between Democrats and Republicans throughout the 2 year period between elections. And while we are at it, another purpose for fulltime organizers out in the field would be to reach voters who are not engaged or otherwise disenchanted with politics. This should be done by canvasing, lit drops, organized events or other more creative ways.
8. How do you plan to bridge the gap between local candidate recruitment efforts and the legislative caucuses?
I will reiterate that recruitment is best done locally with local knowledge. But, at the same time, there must be some trust and respect between the caucuses and local volunteers. That would mean open and honest dialogue about what local volunteers and the caucus believes are the best qualities and expectations from all parties involved (the caucus, the local volunteers and the candidate). It is my experience that when I include others in how and why things happen my chances of success are exponentially greater. Back to that pesky word, trust. Our volunteers and county leaders should not be treated like they are children or can’t be trusted with vital information. There are no secrets, nor is it rocket science; though some consultants want us to think so. Once we have established confidence in each other we can work together in an adult and open manner. It also may be worth noting that the caucuses are typically managed by elected members who, themselves, are elected in districts that are uncontested or very favorable to them. So, in that scenario, they lean more than they might otherwise on paid consultants rather than their own instincts and experience. I am particularly pleased that Senator Shilling will be more involved now for that reason.
9. Demographics alone won’t win elections, so which populations do you think the Dems can improve with for future years, and how can you win those voters over?
Reaching young voters and gaining their confidence and trust is vital. A scary red flag in recent years has been the conservative movement on campuses. We need to make every effort to support our College Democrats and their efforts to grow membership while being active in local politics. Helping the under 30 population to be thoughtful, progressive and concerned voters will pay off for years to come no matter where they settle down. There is no reason why we should write off the agricultural population any more then we should write off hunters and fishers. Farmers, more than many others, are reliant on help to secure health insurance for their family. Republicans aren’t helping themselves by threatening to take away their health insurance or through refusing to accept the Medicaid expansion. We should be taking an aggressive stance on that issue and not let them off the hook. The Republicans are doing more damage to wildlife in Wisconsin through their draconian measures weakening the DNR, promoting sand mining, allowing poisons to be released into the air and water and more. Again, we should be aggressively courting the hook and bullet crowd for all the right reasons. I don’t think there is any demographic we can’t appeal to, actually. We just have to be willing and work at it year ‘round and not wait until the 6 month election season.
10. What are your life experiences including formal education, past and current employment, service or religious affiliations, persons, and events which you believe have contributed to make you the person you are today and in what way?
Out of high school my father needed me to join his business which I eventually bought from him. I took my small window cleaning business from the two man operation it had always been and eventually managed 22 employees at any one time. I did this through what I now realize are people skills and instincts that have served me well as I’ve grown as a business owner, husband, father and community leader. While my own children were working their way through our public school system I became more and more aware of the struggles caused by a broken funding system. I became intimately involved in our school district where I lead an effort to pass a 40 million dollar referendum after 2 previous failures by others. Around the same time my neighbors turned to me to lead their effort to overturn a zoning that would have changed the landscape of our town in a negative and dramatic way. This is still the only time in the history of Eau Claire County that a rezoning was reversed through petition that forced a second vote. From there I turned to politics in the form of becoming the Brunswick Town Chair. I also founded the Eau Claire School District Parent Advisory Committee which I chaired until I made the decision it was necessary for me to run for the legislature. My legislative career has been referred to in previous answers so I won’t bore you with rehashing it here. What I think is important to note is that after losing a heartbreaking election in 2010 (by just 74 votes) I didn’t pack it in and go away. I have continued to fight the extreme politics that have taken over our government. Even after they gerrymandered my district to take most of the democrats out of it, I ran hard to take it back. I received more votes in my district then either Obama or Baldwin in 2012 but still came up short. Then I chose to keep up the fight by working as the Regional Political Director for the DPW in northern Wisconsin. We had great successes through the Spring Forward program in 2014 that I helped write and implement and I am extremely proud of that but disappointed that the DPW does not have staff on the ground this year to continue that great work. Through all my life experience that includes business background, community activism and political success I am confident that I am fully prepared for this new challenge better than anyone else I can think of. I’ve lived it. I am not just cute phrases and rhetoric, you will find that I am genuinely honest to the core with the great work ethic expected from great leaders. I have never asked anyone working for me to do something I am unwilling to do myself and most often that I have not already done myself. I can raise money. In my first term as a legislator I raised over $120,000 for my defense of my Assembly seat. In my last campaign as a challenger I raised over $61,000 through 3 letters sent to my supporters and that covered our budget. The challenge of fundraising is something I am up to like any other challenge I have ever faced and conquered. Now we must conquer the challenge of saving our Wisconsin. Forward!