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Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2008

The Race for the North Shore

The Darling-Wasserman state Senate duel

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COULD ONE OF THE MOST VISIBLE MILWAUKEE-AREA LAWMAKERS BE VOTED OUT OF OFFICE ON NOV. 4? Republican Alberta Darling has represented the North Shore suburbs in the state Senate since 1992, where she had a hand in the state’s budget priorities, education policy and social safety net issues.

But Democrats say it’s time for a change, and have made the Eighth Senate District one of their top takeover targets on Election Day.

Darling is getting a serious challenge from OB/Gyn Sheldon Wasserman, a Democrat who is giving up the Assembly seat he’s held since 1994 to run for the state Senate.

What’s generated headlines and a slew of press releases is a silly string of accusations about allegedly broken tax pledges, boasts about golf swings and the numbers of doors knocked on by each candidate. But those gotcha talking points belie the importance of the race for both parties.

In reality, the outcome of the race for the Eighth Senate District could determine which political party controls the state Senate and its agenda for the next four years—how the state will control spending and taxes, protect homeowners and vulnerable workers, reform health care and shore up our infrastructure.

To win the seat, both candidates are raising unprecedented amounts of funds, and observers expect records to be broken, perhaps by both Darling and Wasserman.

Silly stuff aside, it’s a deadly serious race. Mordecai Lee, professor of governmental affairs at UW-Milwaukee, said that in a typical election year Darling would be the odds-on favorite in this slightly majority Republican district.

But Wasserman, an energetic and organized campaigner, could be helped along by Barack Obama’s coattails in the metropolitan area, as well as an increasing number of Democratic residents in the district.

Lee, who lives in the district but is not contributing to or involved with either candidate, said that this is such a “weird year” in terms of current events, voter turnout and voter sentiment that either candidate could win.

Darling’s Record

Darling brings a respectable resume to the race. A former teacher, she was one of a handful of moderate Republican women who were elected during the 1980s and 1990s, and she voted as a moderate during the Tommy Thompson era. A pro-choice Republican, Darling became an advocate for children and education.

Flash-forward to 2008, and she has a string of more conservative, partisan votes on her record: supporting concealed carry, even in health care facilities; voting to place a same-sex marriage ban on the 2006 ballot; supporting some stem cell research, but then voting for a bill that was written so broadly that all stem cell research could have been banned in Wisconsin; co-sponsoring the conservative-backed Wisconsin Taxpayer Protection Act; advocating for voter ID; and a turnabout on reproductive rights that resulted in a “qualified endorsement” from Wisconsin Right to Life.

That endorsement is controversial. Darling had once served on the board of Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, but that group is now supporting Wasserman for his “consistent stand” on women’s health issues, said Chris Taylor, the group’s public policy director. Wisconsin Right to Life didn’t return a call seeking comment for this article.

In September, Darling went to bat for presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, when she called a press conference to criticize Obama’s “lipstick on a pig” statement about McCain’s concept of change, which Darling said was targeted to “our Sarah”—Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin—who Darling says now owns the word “lipstick.”

Those party-line stands have paid off. Once a cochair and still a member of the Joint Finance Committee, which helps to determine the state budget, Darling is running as a candidate who’s interested in holding the line on taxes and spending, just like her fellow conservatives.

Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker said Darling’s partisanship was apparent when she, along with the rest of her party, opposed the Democrats’ HOPE plan, which would have reduced property taxes by about $569 for the average homeowner. “I thought that was a signal that the Republicans were going to side with the big-business guys and not their friends and neighbors,” Decker said.

Darling’s campaign did not make her available for comment for this article, and the Republican Party of Wisconsin did not return multiple calls seeking comment. Darling’s campaign manager, John Hogan, e-mailed Darling’s positions on the major issues facing the state, such as expanding the economy via tax incentives and breaking down regulatory and capital investment barriers, and her plans to reform health care.

Wasserman’s Challenge

Darling’s Democratic opponent, Wasserman, has already unseated one incumbent Republican, when he beat state Rep. Polly Beal in 1994, an otherwise terrible year for Democrats.

Wasserman calls himself a “fiscal conservative” and a “social liberal or libertarian.” Wasserman has taken “no tax” pledges and wants to reduce the size of government. He’s attempted to reduce the number of counties from 72 to 18 or less, eliminate the “ceremonial” office of lieutenant governor and downsize the state Legislature by turning it into a unicameral, nonpartisan body.

Wasserman does not support his fellow Democrats’ universal health care plan dubbed Healthy Wisconsin. Instead, he favors more incremental steps such as expanding Family Care and increasing the reimbursement rates for dentists who provide care for Medicaid recipients. He argued that sweeping health care reform should come at the federal level, and that no state has been able to provide universal health care in a fiscally sound way.

Wasserman also wants to exempt prescription medication from the state’s minimum markup law, which he says would drastically reduce the cost of generic medication—for example, he said, prescription birth control could be purchased for $9 a month, instead of $30. “Here’s where we could save money for people and make a difference,” Wasserman said in an interview.

Wasserman also charged that Darling hasn’t represented the interests of the district, instead preferring to support her party’s more right-wing initiatives. “Her main interest is in keeping the Republican leadership happy,” Wasserman said.

For example, Wasserman said Darling’s advocacy for the school choice program is not relevant to the largely suburban Eighth District, since the program only affects city of Milwaukee residents.

Wasserman said the entire school funding formula has to be examined, in part because it unfairly penalizes wealthier suburban school districts such as those in Shorewood, Whitefish Bay and Mequon, especially when they want to expand. In these communities, a rich local property tax base is used to offset little funding from the state.

“Not everyone in the district lives in Lake Shore Drive mansions,” Wasserman said. “People work two or three jobs just so they can pay their mortgage and their kids can get a great education. They’re not superwealthy, but they’re penalized as if they are.”

Fund-raising and Spending

But none of those policy issues may matter, Mordecai Lee said, because the final weeks of the campaign will be dominated by campaign ads funded either by the candidates themselves or outside interest groups.

“I’m expecting a barrage of television ads like Milwaukee has never seen before for a state Senate race,” Lee said. “I’m guessing that those ads might pull up into the top 10 of the hit parade issues that today we’re not talking about. In other words, some independent spending group will come in and raise an issue that nobody’s talking about right now and, suddenly, because they have saturation ads, everybody’s going to be talking about it.”

Lee and the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign’s Mike McCabe agreed that outside interest groups—such as the conservative Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), the teachers’ or labor unions, or the conservative front group All Children Matter—have yet to make their presence known in the race. “What remains to be seen is which interest groups will decide to jump in and decide the outcome of this race and how much they’ll spend,” McCabe said. “We’re kind of waiting for that shoe to drop.”

Not that the candidates need much help. Both are raising a tremendous amount of money. Wasserman raised more than $174,000 between January and July of 2008, and had $335,000 on hand at the end of July. Darling raised more than $106,000 between January and July of 2008, and had more than $270,000 on hand at the end of July.

McCabe noted that, in 2007, Darling was the legislator who raised the most money from outside her district—$95,000 of the $239,186 she raised last year, or 40%. His figures show that in 2007 Wasserman raised a higher percentage of funds from outside his district—$33,901, or 56% of the $60,634 he raised last year.

Lee said the final numbers will be unprecedented and will result in wallto-wall television ads right before the election. “I think people’s jaws are going to drop by how much spending there is, both by the two campaigns and the independent spending groups,” Lee said. “It surely is going to be over $2 million or $2.5 million. It’s going to be astounding.”

Lee said this, too, may be impacted by the presidential race. “I think a lot depends on John McCain,” he said. “If McCain decides that Wisconsin is just like Michigan and that he just can’t win Wisconsin, that it’s not a good investment, if he pulls his television ads, it’ll open up many more buying opportunities for this campaign.”

Lee said he isn’t surprised by the candidates’ fund-raising abilities, since the district contains many likely contributors, both candidates have personal family incomes that other candidates don’t often have and the closeness of the race makes fund-raising a priority.

“Factor all of that in, along with the weird politics of this year, and the sky’s the limit,” he said.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.

Illustration by Kym Balthazar