The 5th State Senate district in Milwaukee’s western suburbs is a picture in contrasts – blue collar West Allis; high income Brookfield; economically reinvigorated West Milwaukee; politically diverse Wauwatosa. The senate seat is currently held by moderate Jim Sullivan, while its representatives include conservative Republican Leah Vukmir and moderate Dems Tony Staskunas and David Cullen.
Vukmir is giving up her Assembly seat to challenge Sullivan for Senate and this race has focused a bright light on the contrasts of this election season in a district which had sent both Tom Barrett and Scott Walker to Madison. Vukmir and Sullivan came together for a debate a Wauwatosa West High School, facing a journalist panel consisting of myself and WUWM Lake Effect’s Mitch Teich.
Vukmir opened the forum with her campaign theme, “Wisconsin is on the wrong track.” She said the voters in the 5th district want change and they want government out of their way. Sullivan said he has been involved in the 5th for many years, first as a Wauwatosa alderperson and then as State Senator and he would continue to follow the advice his mother gave him – two ears and one mouth – “to listen and pay attention to my constituents.”
Q: What is your position on the state minimum mark-up law and should prescriptions be exempt from this law?
Sullivan supports the law in general and refers to Vukmir’s attempts to repeal it as the “Wal-Mart Protection Act.” He said the law preserves free, open markets and stops big box stores and other retailers from coming into a community with loss leaders that have decimated Main Street.
“I will oppose repealing this law,” Sullivan said. “We no longer have Drews (a variety store that was located in the Village of Wauwatosa for years) but we still have Swan’s Pharmacy. This law saves hometown jobs.”
Vukmir was a co-sponsor of the bill to repeal the minimum mark-up, calling it an archaic law that is unfair to consumers.
“We want a competitive marketplace and action to protect mom and pop stores,” Vukmir said. “This law effects constituents’ pocketbooks. It allows businesses to collude. By repealing it, it will help people save money and that is what’s important.”
Q: What will you do to create jobs in the 5th district and the state?
“Government doesn’t create jobs, it stands in the way of job creation,” Vukmir said in response. “We are a business unfriendly environment. We need to repeal job killing taxes such as combined reporting. We need to streamline regulations that are a disaster to our businesses and families.”
Sullivan said job creation in the 5th depends on two things – the reconstruction of the Zoo Interchange and the development of the UWM Innovation Research Park on the county grounds.
“The research park is a $240 million investment which will create 2,500 jobs,” Sullivan said. “We need to make that happen and I have been working on this since I was with the city and we approved the land use plans.”
He added that Gov. Doyle’s unwillingness to budget for the reconstruction of the Zoo was one of the reasons he voted against the current state budget.
“We need to get this done. We depend on it to move goods and workers. The longer we wait, the more expensive it becomes.”
Q: What is your transportation policy, other than your position on the high speed train?
Sullivan, who said he is in favor building the high-speed train here instead of sending the $810 million elsewhere, reiterated his support for reconstruction of the Zoo Interchange. He also supports the development of a regional transit authority in Southeastern Wisconsin to develop bus and rail transport, as long as there is a dedicated funding source for it and property tax relief is included.
“We need to move our largest city off of property tax support for its transit,” Sullivan said.
Vukmir was predictably against the train, referring to it as the “car-speed train.”
“We don’t need it or want it,” she said. “We shouldn’t be discussing it when we have record unemployment and a lack of jobs.”
She also disagreed with Sullivan on the need for an RTA in the region. “He is out of touch with the residents of the 5th district,” she said. “We have enough problems with elected boards raising our taxes. Why would we want an unelected board with taxing authority? We don’t want it.”
She agreed the Zoo Interchange needs to become a transportation priority, but blamed Sullivan along with Doyle and Tom Barrett of turning the Interchange discussion into a political football of dedicated lanes and environmental questions. ”We need this for economic development and money should go to this, not to trains.”
Q: How do we solve the inequities in funding of our public schools and how do we improve education statewide?
Vukmir would like to see increased per pupil funding to improve the quality of education, not increases in teacher wages and benefits. She warned people that changing the school funding formula would take taxpayer dollars away from schools in the 5th district, a property-rich area, and redirect it to other districts. “They will take our school dollars and give them to someone else.”
She is also a supporter of choice and charter schools and would like the limits on Milwaukee School Choice lifted to open up more opportunities to students and parents.
“”We need to look at proven methods of teaching and encourage that,” she said. “It is not always about funding. Its about parental involvement, teaching methods, creativity and choice.”
Sullivan believes Wisconsin schools are doing a lot of good things and things that need changing, but before anything can happen, we need to stop the us v. them mentality.
“Education needs to be a we proposition,” Sullivan said. “It is the only way we will be able to compete.”
He chastised Vukmir for voting against the state providing 2/3 funding for schools and her desire to privatize education, which erodes the path to success and democracy.
“Education is a path to the middle class. The SAGE program, 4K, parent involvement and school breakfast programs help students move ahead and succeed.”
Q: What does the state of Wisconsin do well?
One would think this question would evoke a bright response about hard work and family values, but Vukmir went right for her central message. “We do taxes well. We tax people.”
“This is not a positive, so isn’t it obvious why the people want to see change?”
She explained we have a great state, but it too expensive to live here. She said her promise to cut taxes and cut spending will improve the state and take it out of the top ten for tax burden across the nation.
Sullivan was shocked by Vukmir’ lack of positive words for the state. “She is not a cheerleader for this state,” he said.
He went on to point out that the state’s tax burden has fallen in recent years, moving from third or fourth highest in the nation to the low teens in some polls. He also expressed pride in the innovative spirit in Wisconsin, highlighting stem cell research advances being made at UW-Madison and the potential of the UWM Research Park.
The Vukmir/Sullivan race has been singled out as a bellwether for the entire state. Sullivan continues to run on his 4-year Senate record and his moderate tone and bi-partisan ethic as he closes in on the Nov. 2 election.
“Do you want a moderate with a record of tightening up drunk driving penalties, seeking health care cost transparency and stopping predatory pay day loan companies, or do you want a hard line, extreme ideologue?” Sullivan asked in his closing remarks. “If you want someone who will listen to this district, I am seeking your vote.”
Vukmir said Sullivan’s description of her as extreme was true. “I am extremely concerned about this state and we need to make extreme changes,” she said. “The 5th is a conservative district, not moderate and elections revolve around who you trust. Who do you trust to stand up to government? Who do you trust to work for the people? That is me and I asking for your vote.”