Primary colors

(First published in the August 2, 2018 issue of City Pages)

Voters will sift through an explosion of state, federal and local candidates in the Aug. 14 primary election


Both Republican and Democratic voters have multiple candidates to consider in the Tuesday, Aug. 14 primary. The winners of these political party primary races then move on to the November election.

Primary contests run the gamut of governmental levels: Several viable candidates are vying for the Democratic nomination for Wisconsin governor; two high-profile Republicans are battling for the U.S. Senate seat; two Democrats are fighting for a chance at the 7th Congressional District seat; and there are local primary races in Marathon County for the 86th Assembly and Clerk of Courts.

This week’s coverage looks at the candidates in three local primaries and the state Treasurer position.

Republican primary for 86th Assembly: Mosinee’s mayor challenges incumbent lawmaker


Brent Jacobson

Mosinee Mayor Brent Jacobson had never entertained the idea of running for a state office. He hadn’t even really planned to run for mayor. “Running for mayor wasn’t a step in some bigger plan,” Jacobson says.

But it turn out that way as Jacobson, 34, challenges incumbent state Rep. John Spiros, 57 of Marshfield, for the Republican nomination for the 86th State Assembly District. Spiros is seeking his fourth term in office but to get to the November General Election will first have to fend off Jacobson. Despite both of them being Republicans, they have some very divergent point of views.

Both Jacobson and Spiros have experience in municipal government; Jacobson was elected mayor of Mosinee in April of 2015, and Spiros served on the Marshfield City Council for eight years before running for state office in 2012. But they disagree on local property tax levy limits. Jacobson says he’s seen the impact those limits impose on communities, and that the small amount of tax savings for residents are offset by the fee increases that municipalities implement to make up the difference. He points to Marathon County’s vehicle registration fee as a good example.


John Spiros

Spiros brushes that comment off, saying that municipalities can simply tighten their belts and figure out how to operate more efficiently. Furthermore, municipalities can ask their residents via referendum to increase those levy limits if they really need to, Spiros says.

Another major point of disagreement between the two is the multi-billion dollar deal with the electronics manufacturer Foxconn, made by Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP-led legislature. Jacobson, who is a lawyer outside of his role as part-time mayor of Mosinee, says the taxpayer-subsidized development deal won’t break even for 25 years, far too long of a payout for such a sizable investment in a single company. That sets a dangerous precedent and violates what Jacobson says should be a principle of fiscal conservatism: allowing the free market to work and government not picking winners and losers in the marketplace. And, Jacobson says, there were a too many “mays” and not enough “shalls” in the contract with Foxconn, giving them too much leeway to live up to their part of the bargain.

Spiros doesn’t agree with that assessment. He points to the multiplying effect the Foxconn manufacturing facility has had already. For example, businesses in central Wisconsin such as County Materials and Merrill Steel have seen work come their way as part of the Foxconn deal. The LED display factory is supposed to create 13,000 jobs that will offer competitive pay and invest $9 billion in Wisconsin in infrastructure. Spiros says the deal was structured so that Foxconn won’t get a cent without first completing the work they say they’re going to. “The reason I supported the bill is that it is set up to protect us,” Spiros says.

One other stark difference between Jacobson and Spiros is their divergent views on taxes — that becomes most clear in how they would have handled transportation spending. Spiros’ plan was to divert $460 million in revenue from the general fund to supplement already designated transportation-specific tax revenues.

Jacobson believes that a better way to address the long-beleaguered state transportation budget is to raise the gas tax by five cents. That would ultimately cost taxpayers less, because the state wouldn’t have to borrow to cover the diverted money, Jacobson says.

Jacobson also challenges what he calls political ploys such as the sales tax holiday (Aug. 1-5, when certain items such as clothing, computers and school supplies are not charged 5% state and local sales tax).

“That cost the state $50 million in one weekend,” Jacobson says.

Rather than gimmicks, Jacobson would prefer a simplified system with a flat income tax rate, set up in a way to ensure that those who already pay lower taxes wouldn’t see an increase. The 3% tax rate otherwise would apply to everyone equally. It’s worked wonderfully in other states that have tried it, such as North Carolina, Jacobson says. The state would pay for it by getting rid of other tax cuts such as the sales tax holiday.

Spiros took it a step further, saying he would be open to eliminating the state income tax all together. When asked if that would be paid for by increasing sales tax (such as Washington state, which has high sales tax but no income tax), Spiros said that wasn’t likely in the cards; Wisconsin’s sales tax is low compared to other states and he’d like it to stay that way.

The winner of the primary will take on Democrat Nancy Stencil in November.

Democratic primary for 7th Congressional District: Two political newcomers hope to challenge Sean Duffy


Margaret Engebretson

Early in the 2018 election cycle, a number of interesting Democratic candidates emerged in the bid to take on Republican incumbent Sean Duffy for the Seventh Congressional District. But when the filing deadline for the primary came, only two candidates remained to appear on the ballot— attorney and U.S. Navy veteran Margaret Engebretson, and physician Brian Ewert. (Bob Look of Wausau didn’t turn in enough signatures to make it on the August primary ballot, but says he is still running an active write-in campaign. Bon Iver band manager Kyle Frenette announced a run early this year but dropped out before nomination papers were due.)

Both Ewert and Engebretson cite health care as a top priority and it’s also an issue on which they diverge. Ewert says it was the issue that launched him into the race. A kidney specialist for more than 25 years, Ewert says when Congress took up dismantling the Affordable Health Care act he saw the very real possibility that patients he was treating would lose their health insurance. He decided something had to change. “We need to make sure the Affordable Care Act remains strong,” says Ewert, who has worked as a physician with Marshfield Clinic since 1993, and also served as Clinic President and CEO. “But it didn’t solve all the problems… We still have people uninsured or under-insured.”


Brian Ewert

Engebretson agrees with that assessment but wants to go further than Ewert in addressing health care. Ewert wants to expand Medicare as a public option on the Affordable Care Act exchange. Engebretson, a US Navy veteran, former corrections officer, railroad worker and attorney, would like to see a single-payer, Medicare for all system. Engebretson argues that this would be more fiscally prudent, because it eliminates administration costs associated with the insurance industry and built into health care costs. Universal coverage also would control the cost of care and pharmaceuticals by creating a monopsony (a single buyer) and setting a comprehensive fee schedule that’s much easier to understand than the current complicated insurance system.

The Aug. 14 primary race is between these two candidates, but the real battle will come in November against GOP incumbent Sean Duffy.

Engebretson says the three issues on which she most disagrees with Duffy are consumer protection, Duffy’s vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and his opposition to family planning and women’s reproductive rights.

For Ewert, Duffy’s vote to repeal the ACA was his number one bone to pick with Duffy; second was Duffy not signing a letter signed by 107 other members of Congress questioning President Donald Trump’s tariff changes, Ewert says those sudden changes in international trade are hurting Wisconsin businesses. Ewert also thinks Duffy should have done more to help college graduates tackle student loan debt. Ewert says he wants to explore a program that would allow free tuition at community colleges to help cut down the costs of school.

Immigration is another hot button topic on which the two candidates disagree, at least in the details. Neither of them support President Trump’s handling of immigration, including the family separation policy in which immigrants and asylum seekers were separated from their children. But while Engebretson supports a full path to citizenship, Ewert says he supports only going as far as a path to legal status. Engebretson says full citizenship is the only logical choice; Ewert says that wouldn’t be fair to the immigrants in America who took the legal path to gain citizenship, and the years of hard work and study to go through the visa system. Engebretson says creating a lower class of Americans who aren’t full citizens harkens back the experience of African Americans and Native Americans, a scary prospect, she says. “It flies in the face of a liberal democracy like ours,” Engebretson says.

Other things on Ewert’s plate, should he ultimately be elected? Ewert attacked Trump’s tax cuts, which he says significantly added to the federal government’s deficit; he’d like to focus on the environment by embracing the Paris Climate Accords, de-incentivizing fossil fuel use and promoting sustainable energy; and reforming the tax system so that it’s more favorable to the average American.

Engebretson says Trump wasn’t wrong to identify trade imbalances as an issue, as she says they’re designed to favor multi-national corporations and not the average citizen; but she disagrees with Trump’s approach to how he handled that trade imbalance whole-heartedly. “The middle class has been chipped away at, and nickel and dimed,” Engebretson says. Engebretson says she wants to fight against deregulation, which led to the financial crisis of 2008; and would work to strengthen labor movements again.

The winner between the two will take on Sean Duffy in November. Duffy does not have a primary challenger.

Republican primary for Marathon County Clerk of Courts: Incumbent versus a fellow courthouse specialist


Shirley Lang

It’s unusual for the county clerk of court’s office to have a challenger; a primary challenger is almost unheard of. But that’s happening in Marathon County, as incumbent Clerk of Courts Shirley Lang faces fellow Republican challenger Benjamin Seidler.

Lang, 63 of the town of Cassel, was elected to the position in 2015. Seidler, 31 of the village of Maine, is familiar with the Clerk of Courts job through his role as an intake specialist at the district attorney’s office, also located with the county courthouse. And after leadership training through the county, Seidler says he felt like this was the time in his career to enter the public sphere.

Seidler in his role as intake specialists is responsible for gathering criminal complaints and other police information to make sure they’re prepared and filed appropriately. His job already interacts with the clerk of courts office on regular basis and he would study everyone’s job and make sure Clerk of Courts staff is cross-trained to be able to answer questions from those who walk into that office. He touts good communication skills and experience working with multiple law enforcement agencies, along with social services and the corporation counsel. Seidler says he was tasked with the conversion of the court records in the DA’s office from paper to paperless, and is currently overseeing that.


Benjamin Seidler

Lang, who is seeking her second term in office, says one of the big issues that will soon face her office is the state’s newly raised court appointed attorney fees from $70 per hour to $100. That will ding the Clerk of Courts’ office budget since those are paid by the county (public defenders for criminal cases are paid by the state). Dealing with this new impact on the Clerk of Courts budget will require someone with experience, Lang says.

Lang touts her handling of the Kristopher Torgerson murder trial, which included the logistics of bringing in out-of-county jurors over a long trial period, as one of the more significant challenges she successfully managed. Like the DA’s office, Lang says her goal was to get the Clerk of Court’s office completely electronic, and they’re pretty close, Lang says. “I think the office is running smoothly,” Lang says. “We have a great staff; they’re top notch, and good at what they do.”

No Democrat candidate will be on the November ballot, so the winner of the August primary is likely assured to go into the position.

Heated state Treasurer race

Suddenly there’s unusual interest in this elected office

The Office of the State Treasurer has only one employee—the treasurer—who works in a basement office in the Capitol. The office has lost so many responsibilities over 30 years that the current treasurer, Republican Matt Adamczyk, worked to abolish it and is running for the Assembly. In April, however, voters overwhelmingly refused to amend the state Constitution to abolish the job.

It’s surprising that such an inconsequential job, which pays about $70,000 a year, has attracted so much energy, campaign spending and drama. Three Democrats and two Republicans want the job. The winners of the Aug. 14 primary will face off in the Nov. 6 general election, when Constitution Party candidate Andrew Zuelkewill also be on the ballot.

The Democrats

Sarah Godlewski, an energetic financial adviser who moved to Madison from Eau Claire, calls herself a “financial expert.” She and former Republican State Treasurer Jack Voight led a campaign to keep the office.

Godlewski has been impressing Democrats during her very active campaign visits around the state. According to campaign-finance records, Godlewski and her husband loaned her campaign $150,000. And she has run an upbeat TV ad—something that never happens in the race for state treasurer.

“In Wisconsin, we saved this office to doublecheck the Legislature and make sure companies like Foxconn hold up their end of the bargain,” Godlewski says in the ad.

Republicans have controlled state spending since 2011, and Republican Gov. Scott Walker got the Legislature to potentially give Foxconn up to $2.9 billion in tax breaks and incentives, if it invests $10 billion and hires up to 13,000 workers.

If she can’t get some of the old functions returned, Godlewski said she would use the office as a “bully pulpit” to call attention to practices that cheat consumers.

Cynthia Kaump, of Madison, is a former top aide in the Treasurer’s Office and former TV journalist. She summarizes her accomplishments in the office this way:

“Kaump built a series of new revenue-generating and community-facing programs while the office set state and national records for the performance of those programs. Many involved better financially positioning children and women of color in Wisconsin.”

Kaump also wants managing unclaimed property, and the state’s Edvest program, returned to the office. If elected, she also vows to lead a program teaching children financial literacy.

Dawn Marie Sass, of Belleville, wants her old job back; she was state treasurer from 2007 until 2010, when she lost a bid for re-election. Sass’s pitch: I’m the only one running who has done the job, and done it well.

The Republicans

Travis Hartwig, of Oak Creek, said he lost his job because he refused to end his campaign. In June, Hartwig told reporters he had a $62,500-a-year job as a mutual fund administrator for U.S. Bank until he was told to end his campaign or be fired. Hartwig said bank executives had conflict-of-interest fears, which were unfounded, if he was treasurer.

Hartwig also champions his Pro-Life Wisconsin endorsement on his campaign website: “I promise to stand by organizations like Pro-Life Wisconsin and protect each and every innocent human life, in every way that I can. We need elected leaders in all levels of government that are dedicated to protecting the sanctity of life.”

Never mind that the state treasurer plays no role in women’s health policy. It’s also ironic that Hartwig voted to abolish the office he is seeking.

Jill Millies, of Big Bend, is also making her first bid for state elected office. She has managed floral shops.

If elected, Millies said she would ask legislative leaders to have her office perform audits, now done by the Legislative Audit Bureau. To conduct audits, Millies would either have to hire office staffers or consultants.

Millies also promised to sell land owned or managed by the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands. The treasurer is one of thee part-time commissioners.

“I will vote to reduce the 77,000 acres of land [the Board] currently owns and manages,” Millies said on her campaign website. “I see no reason why private individuals and business can’t own and manage this land just as well.”