(First published in the February 6, 2020 issue of City Pages)
Democrat and Republican voters both have a primary Feb. 18 to choose their candidate in the special election for the House seat held for nearly a decade by Sean Duffy.
The special election primary race for the 7th Congressional District is technically an open race because the seat is currently vacant. But one of the candidates is being treated almost as an incumbent.
That would be, on the Republican side, Wisconsin State Senator Tom Tiffany, 62 of Minocqua. According to campaign finance reports on the Federal Elections Commission website, he started his campaign in October with $250,000. That amount covers the period between July 1 through September of this year. No other candidate of either party had reported a single dollar in that period.
Facing him is Jason Church, 30 of Hudson, a U.S. Army veteran trained in the Airborne and Army Ranger schools, who lost his legs in an improvised-bomb explosion in Afghanistan. Church worked as a military staffer for U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, but otherwise doesn’t have elected experience. But Church has been busy building a coalition in Congress and building support in the state.
On the Democrat side is Wausau School Board President Tricia Zunker, 39 of Wausau, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation who serves as a Ho-Chunk Associate Justice and teaches university law classes online. She’s built a Facebook following of 3,600 followers, on which she posts photos and videos from all over the state, including in places she says no Congressional candidate has bothered to go before. Those meetings include groups such as Native American, Hispanic and Hmong groups and organizations.
That the Democratic Party is fully behind Zunker isn’t something her opponent, Lawrence Dale, 71 of Eagle River, shies away from. Calling himself a “Bernie-crat,” the Vietnam War veteran and businessman is vocal about being an underdog. He so far has been running much of his campaign himself. His Facebook page has 36 followers. Lawrence has run for the seat before, as a Green Party candidate, and his platform lines up with those as well.
Dale and Zunker both seem to look past each other and compare themselves against Tiffany, who they presume will be the nominee. With Tiffany, who has served in both state houses, the assumption is his experience will carry him forward to the main event showdown of the May 12 election. And with Zunker, it’s the enormous reach of her campaign, the savvy of her social media strategy, that is expected to lead her through to the May partisan battle.
But as anyone paying attention since 2016 knows, election predictions are tricky. And all parties are putting out the word about their campaigns in the sprawling 7th Congressional District, which reaches as far west as Hudson, south of Marathon County into parts of Adams, Jackson and Monroe counties, and covers pretty much the entire north including Ashland and Bayfield counties, and northeastern counties such as Florence, Forest and Langlade.
Though Democrat Dave Obey held the seat for decades, the district lines were redrawn in 2010 by the Republican-led state legislature, and Republican Sean Duffy easily won the gerrymandered “new” district ever since (Obey retired and did not run in 2010). Duffy last fall announced he was resigning for family reasons, setting up a district up for grabs.
There are four pivot counties in the district — meaning counties that went for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016. And there were 11 counties with mixed results in both presidential elections.
Democrat Lawrence Dale: Businessman in Eagle River, has run for this seat before as a Green Party candidate
If the two candidates have a difference, it’s in how they look at their opponents. In an interview with City Pages, Dale by way of comparison says he is Bernie Sanders, while Zunker is Joe Biden. Dale calls Zunker the Democrat’s establishment candidate, whereas Dale says several times in his interview with City Pages that he is no zealot for any party.
Zunker, who has met with people all over the district and says she has reached groups normally overlooked during campaigns, thinks that’s an odd comparison since one of her first endorsements was from the Democratic party’s progressive caucus. Otherwise Zunker declines to say too much about Dale, instead choosing to focus on policy, and her ability to take on Sen. Tiffany, who she presumes to be the likely Republican nominee.
A comparison of the two candidate’s websites reveals a pretty similar platform, though Dale tells City Pages that his campaign could be considered a referendum on the issues facing small farmers, from CAFOS (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) to milk price manipulation. Indeed, the top two issues on his campaign page relate to farming issues, and he laments that local media is ignoring the loss of small farms, especially dairy, as well as the pollution from manure from large CAFOs. (I stopped Dale at this point in order to explain to him that City Pages has written multiple stories about those issues, and well before a December story ran in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Dale likes to point to.)
The loss of dairy farms is also important to Zunker, whose grandfather ran a dairy farm. So is the environment and affordable health care, which she’s heard the most about on her campaign trail. Zunker is supportive of expanding Medicare for those who need it. She says one of the things she’s heard from people around the district is that many people like their current plans and would like to keep them. Expanding Medicare for those who need it, and paying for it through closing corporate tax loopholes, is a key of her platform.
Dale supports that too. Both see health care as a right. Both support legalizing marijuana, getting corporate money out of elections (Zunker told City Pages she refuses to accept corporate PAC (Political Action Committee) money, and repeated that at a recent forum for business leaders in Wausau.)
Dale compares himself to Franklin Roosevelt. He’s says Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are New Deal Democrats, and paints himself in a similar light. He supports free education, from college down to preschool. He rants against former Gov. Scott Walker, who he says contributed to the milk crisis by instituting policies that helped large dairies grow even larger, contributing to the current oversupply.
Dale also takes shots at Tom Tiffany for his introduction of a mining bill in 2014 that Dale says would have destroyed the environment and crippled tourism in the state. (Tiffany in a recent forum for business leaders mentioned the more recent metallic mining bill as an example of instituting local control, despite the heavy-handedness that the state levied on counties in creating ordinances.)
Even current Gov. Tony Evers doesn’t escape Dale’s scorn. He criticizes Evers for designating taxpayer dollars for cleanup of manure pollution from CAFOs, something he says those businesses should be paying for themselves.
His criticism of Zunker: “All I hear is that she talks about herself,” Dale tells City Pages. Dale says he is issue oriented, and is focused on doing what it takes to beat Tiffany.
But part of building a campaign is telling your story, and Zunker has plenty to tell. Coming from what she called “humble” beginnings, her mother was a union worker and her dad a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation. The first in her family to graduate college — a triple major and certificate from UW-Madison while working two jobs — Zunker ultimately graduated with a law degree from UCLA (she chose that school because of its emphasis on Native American law). Zunker says she wants to use her education and experience to help others.
Democrat Tricia Zunker: President of the Wausau School Board, and Associate Justice of the Ho-Chunk Nation and law school instructor.
Zunker says her campaign resonates with voters because she isn’t the typical candidate. She is Native American and a single mother. She would be the first woman to represent the 7th District, would double the number of single mothers in Congress (to two), and would be only the third Native American woman in Congress (the first two were elected in 2018).
It’s important for underrepresented people to see themselves represented, Zunker says. “You don’t realize how bad it feels to not be represented until you see the other side, to finally be represented,” Zunker says, recounting seeing Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland sworn into Congressional office in 2018. It’s also been a key to her campaign. Zunker has gone to many areas of the district where people have told her other candidates haven’t gone before. She believes she is reaching voters who otherwise haven’t voted, and that would be a key to winning not only the primary but the main election in May.
Zunker has been no stranger to the statewide stage. Two causes she put forth garnered statewide attention. One, a resolution aimed at curbing the use of Native American mascots, received the support of many school boards around the state but fell short of the votes needed to pass the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. The other, aimed at stopping shaming practices of children with delinquent school lunch accounts, passed the WASB overwhelmingly.
Zunker announced her candidacy at the Dells of Eau Claire county park east of Wausau, an important place for her growing up and a move meant to signal her commitment to environmental issues.
Dale announced his campaign at the state capitol building, puzzling some observers because it’s far outside the district. Dale says his campaign manager thought it would get more media coverage.
Some have questioned whether Dale actually lives in the district — Dale used a P.O. Box out of Eagle River on his initial campaign filing. Dale tells City Pages that he indeed lives in Eagle River, and a residence is listed to him in online records.
Republican Tom Tiffany: Currently serves as state senator. Has been a small business owner, also served in the state Assembly, and local boards in Oneida County.
The Democratic candidates might be looking past Jason Church, but there’s no doubt he’s a serious candidate. Both Tiffany and Church have a strong social media presence.
So far, Tiffany has racked up 27 endorsements, including former governors Tommy Thompson and Scott Walker, a number of county sheriffs including Marathon County Sheriff Scott Parks and Lincoln County Sheriff Ken Schneider.
Many of Church’s endorsements are from legislators outside of Wisconsin, such as U.S. Rep and former Navy SEAL Dan Crenshaw, who gained some national recognition recently for appearing on the Joe Rogan Experience Podcast. Church also gained the support of Mosinee Mayor Brent Jacobson, who ran for state assembly two years ago and is currently running for Marathon County Board.
Tiffany’s central message is one of experience, and financial prudence. Tiffany is proud of his part in reducing the state deficit with his time in office, which coincided with then Gov. Walkers’ time in office.
Both candidates have publicly stated their support for President Donald Trump, and Church has said he has been with Trump since the beginning.
Tiffany also supports the SWAMP Act, a bill that eliminates the requirements that a federal agency needs to be located in Washington D.C. Something like a Department of Agriculture, for example, would be more sensibly located somewhere where farmland is located. Tiffany points to his involvement in moving the state’s department of Forestry headquarters from Madison to the northwoods as a good example of that.
Eliminating the federal deficit is also a priority. Tiffany points to his time in office seeing a $3.6 billion deficit in Wisconsin eliminated to what can happen at the federal level, given the right oversight and time. “It’ll take time to do it,” Tiffany tells City Pages in an interview. “It took time in Wisconsin too.”
Republican Jason Church: Retired Army captain. Lives in Hudson, most recently worked on the staff of U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.
When I ask Church about why the Wisconsin-based endorsements were overwhelmingly in Tiffany’s favor, Church says he expects career politicians to support the establishment and career politician. And that’s why Church chose to run. Though his military service ended after losing his legs in Afghanistan, the desire to serve still burned within him, Church tells City Pages.
And that service — at least in terms of serving on Congress — won’t be a lifelong one, Church says. If elected, he says he plans to only serve for eight years (four, two-year terms). Career politicians are the big problem in Washington, Church says, and leaves politicians more focused on winning re-election rather than focusing on fixing policy.
In a recent forum, Church railed against politicians on the “radical left” such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Iihan Omar, saying even a watered down version of the Green New Deal would cripple the economy. “If implemented, it would be destructive,” Church told a group of business leaders in Wausau Tuesday.