School Voucher Money Pours Into South Side Election to Replace Honadel
Democrat Coppola will face voucher activist Rodriguez on Nov. 19
The resignations gave Gov. Scott Walker the opportunity, some have speculated, to set the races in the middle of the holiday shopping season, likely an attempt to drive down the numbers at the polls so that only the most die-hard voters will turn out.
Two political newcomers—Democrat Elizabeth Coppola and Republican Jessie Rodriguez—will face off on the Nov. 19 ballot in a special election to replace Honadel in District 21, which encompasses South Milwaukee, Oak Creek and a small slice of Franklin.
One Democrat—Greendale Village President John Hermes—and four Republicans are running to replace Stone in District 82, which includes Greendale, the rest of Franklin, and portions of Greenfield and Milwaukee. The primary will be held on Nov. 19; the general election between Hermes and the Republican candidate will be held on Dec. 17.
Democrats see a golden opportunity to flip both the Honadel and Stone seats. Local Republicans are chilled at the state GOP meddling, telling fellow conservatives at Oak Creek gatherings how the Madison intruders “blew our best chances by trying to be kingmakers.”
The state GOP fumbled District 21 in August when locally chosen Oak Creek Mayor Steve Scaffidi, a member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, withdrew his bid for state representative after meeting with such GOP bosses as Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington). Inside sources say Vos assured his support if Scaffidi toed the Walker line in Madison, a story Vos would not respond to. Scaffidi only says the leadership offered “suggestions” before he announced “second thoughts” about handling both jobs.
Scaffidi’s withdrawal unleashed a GOP donnybrook of primary extremists pulling away from local issues to tout their own. Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee), the area’s senator, jokingly labeled them “five fingers on the same extremely right hand.”
Voucher Groups Spend Big
In District 21, Coppola entered the race without a challenge from her fellow Democrats. She is a lifelong Wisconsinite and past Alverno College student president, now employed in public outreach by United Way. State Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) calls Coppola “a natural empathizer” who “loves the district’s get-it-done attitude.”
Emerge Wisconsin taught Coppola in 2011 how to be an effective candidate. But the big take-away from the training, she said in interviews, was “listening—let the community know what I’m really like and hear what’s on their minds. My main agenda is more state money for public schools and more family supporting jobs.”
In contrast, Rodriguez won her nomination in a hotly contested Republican primary on Oct. 22, thanks to the backing of voucher supporters from outside the district. Rodriguez is an outreach coordinator for Hispanics for School Choice, where her husband, conservative Journal Sentinel blogger Aaron Rodriguez, is secretary, and her brother-in-law, Zeus, head of the voucher-supported St. Anthony School, is president.
State Republicans encouraged her candidacy because it would insulate the party from criticism that it excludes women and people of color—and because she could bring in national voucher money.
The Scott Jensen-connected national voucher front group, American Federation for Children (AFC), poured some $45,647 into Rodriguez’s primary win, and it is rumored that they are poised to spend much more in unreportable issue-advocacy ads. The math suggests AFC paid more than $30 for every primary vote Rodriguez got.
In addition, the Jobs First Political Action Fund, a conservative Jensen-connected group that promotes Scott Walker’s phantasmal job numbers from a mail drop in Brookfield, pumped $24,000 into media buys against Coppola. And in November they added $18,000 more. That was just when curious fake emails erupted using Coppola’s name without permission, inviting her supporters to set up false bank accounts to “handle” mythical out-of-state donations (a scam that has been reported to prosecutors).
But will school vouchers win over voters in the south shore suburbs?
Rodriguez tells the media that “school choice” is the main issue she hears at the doors. “Not in my neighborhood,” laughed a conservative Oak Creek parent who spoke to the Shepherd. “We love our public schools and I know they also do in South Milwaukee.”
At the doors, voters were more likely to talk about real issues, not manufactured ones: commerce, jobs, better transit and comity in public affairs, particularly in the aftermath of the Sikh temple killings. Also a lingering big issue in both districts was the 16-day federal government shutdown, universally blamed on the GOP.
“That went further than clarifying what they want in an elected leader,” said Coppola. “It cleared up who they don’t want.”