The first step in that direction takes place at the Aug. 14 primary, where voters will decide who challenges Republican Joe Knilans, the incumbent in the 44th District, which represents nearly all of Janesville in the State Assembly.
The four primary challengers made their case Tuesday during a forum at the Janesville Senior Center sponsored by the League of Women Voters and Forward Janesville.
The Democrats in the race are Deb Kolste, Sam Liebert, Kevin Murray and Yuri Rashkin.
Kolste is a former member of the Janesville School Board. Liebert and Rashkin served on the city council and Murray is finishing his term on the school board.
The seat was comfortably in Democratic hands when Mike Sheridan was elected in 2004 to the state Assembly. The former United Auto Workers president rose through the ranks to Assembly speaker, but got caught up in a scandal where he dated a lobbyist for the payday loan industry at the same time that the Legislature was considering regulations on the industry.
Say what you want about party loyalties in Janesville, that didn’t sit well with voters.
That opened the door for Knilans, who won election two years ago. Knilans has been loyal to Gov. Scott Walker and Walker’s approach to solving the state’s budget woes.
Walker’s signature budget repair bill, known as Act 10, affected nearly all public employees and shifted half of their retirement contributions to employees and all but eliminated collective bargaining.
The bill sparked weeks of protests and ultimately a recall election where the majority of voters decided to keep Walker in Madison.
Walker’s rallying cry has been, “Wisconsin is open for business,” however on Tuesday evening, the Democratic candidates emphasized that Wisconsin is open for workers, too.
Differences between the candidates’ positions were subtle, and all were unified in their opposition to Act 10.
Each, however, would take a slightly different approach to restoring some of the provisions that the bill eliminated.
Murray, a former firefighter and longtime union member, said that his opposition to Act 10 comes primarily from the elimination of collective bargaining.
“To take collective bargaining away from us — something that has been in our history for 50 years, something that works for both sides, something that protected family wages, working conditions and benefits — is saddening,” Murray said.
Liebert pointed out the dangers of removing workers from the bargaining table. He said he would like to restore collective bargaining to “level the playing field to talk about things like workplace safety and having independent arbitrators.” Eliminating those really has hurt the state, he said.
Although not everyone is in the public sector, Liebert said, these people help keep other people’s wages up.
Kolste said there are many pieces of legislation passed by the Legislature that she opposes. “I didn’t like voter ID,” she said. “I didn’t like taking the meat out of equal pay for equal work, but I think it’s the budget that will consume most of our time.”
Kolste said she believes it has a different set of priorities that she would have. Act 10 diminished education, diminished health care and it didn’t create jobs.
“We need a budget that goes back to our old Wisconsin values,” she said.
Rashkin said his time on the Janesville City Council taught him a respect for the proper way to get things done. That’s something he said he didn’t see in the passage of Act 10.
“We need to have respect for the process. There are certain steps that need to be taken, there are certain ways that bills become a law. It was done in a way that was underhanded and disrespectful,” he said.
The message from each of the candidates is one that will appeal to many traditional Democratic voters in the city.
But in the end, voter turnout will play a big key. All four have held elected office and the name recognition that comes with it.
Their positions are similar going into the primary, but when the general election comes around, expect those differences to be stark.
Editor’s note: Dan Plutchak is an associate editor for CSI Media, publisher of the Janesville Messenger, Walworth County Sunday and the Stateline News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Facebook.com/DanPlutchak or on Twitter @danplutchak