Although there are higher profile races on the ballot in Wisconsin this year, it’s the contest for a state Senate seat in Wauwatosa that could have the greatest impact on the state’s LGBT residents.
State Rep. Leah Vukmir, a Tea Party activist, is challenging moderate Democrat Jim Sullivan in the 5th Senate District in November. Vukmir’s victory would set the stage for Republicans to regain control of the Legislature, according to political analysts, putting socially conservative lawmakers at the helm of the state’s legislative agenda.
Both parties have identified Sullivan as the No. 1 legislative target in 2010, and his race with Vukmir is expected to draw big bucks from coffers on both sides of the aisle.
The darling of talk radio host Charlie Sykes, Vukmir has routinely taken positions reflecting his radical-right agenda. She opposed the “Compassionate Care for Rape Victims Act” and was one of only 14 Assembly members to vote against funding to eliminate the state’s DNA crime lab backlog. The latter vote put her to the right of ultra-conservative Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen.
Most recently, she voted against a law to curb the predatory practices of payday lenders. Sullivan authored the Senate version of the bill.
Vukmir’s legislative record helped earn her a place on Milwaukee Magazine’s list of the state’s 10 worst legislators last year. The political group One Wisconsin Now has branded her “Wisconsin’s Michelle Bachmann-in-training.”
Vukmir also has been outspoken about her fundamentalist Christian vision for Wisconsin. Several months ago, the homepage of her campaign website featured numerous biblical quotations, but they’ve since been removed.
Vukmir declined WiG’s request for an interview.
For Sullivan, a supporter of LGBT equality, running against Vukmir is in many ways a replay of his 2006 race, when he narrowly defeated far-right incumbent Tom Reynolds. Also a religious fundamentalist, Reynolds was so obsessed with anti-gay fervor that he tried recruiting a gay Senate page into an ex-gay ministry.
“For whatever reason, that was a big part of (Reynold’s) world view,” Sullivan says. “To me, it was him indulging in his idiosyncrasies. This is a position of public trust, and you’re supposed to represent all of your constituents. Leah’s clearly coming from the same place. She’s somebody who’s decided she can make her way in politics by hewing to a hard-right ideological line.”
The LGBT community’s support was vital to Sullivan’s victory, and it will be again, says Dennis Kohler of HRL-PAC. In addition to endorsing Sullivan, the group is staging a May 17 fundraiser for him.
“We want to maintain a pro-equality state senate, and Jim Sullivan is a good candidate who’s very supportive of pro-equality legislation,” Kohler says. “His is a key race in maintaining our pro-equality majority. I’m hoping LGBT individuals and our allies will support this race any way they can.”
Sullivan says he’s relying on the community’s support in what is shaping up to be another tough race. “I hope the leadership that I’ve provided over the past four years has warranted that support,” he says.
He adds, “When Democrats are in charge, a lot of legislation that’s hurtful to the LGBT community never sees the light of day.”
Sullivan voted against the budget that contained Gov. Jim Doyle’s provision to create a domestic-partner registry in Wisconsin, but only because it gutted funding for a regional transit system and delayed reconstruction of the Zoo Interchange, he says. He believes the subsequent closure of the interchange’s Highway 45 bridge due to excessive damage vindicated his concerns.
Despite his vote on the budget, Sullivan says same-sex couples have a “fundamental right” to the same legal benefits and responsibilities as heterosexual couples.
Sullivan worries that Tea Party radicals such as Vukmir have marginalized moderate Republicans and intimidated Democrats into inaction. As a result, he says, the Legislature failed to pass a bill promoting clean energy jobs at a time when Wisconsin should be working to cultivate renewable energy sources.
In addition to the new payday lending law, Sullivan was behind legislation mandating transparency in health care costs, strengthening penalties for drunk driving and cutting taxes on retirement accounts. He was named Legislator of the Year by the Wisconsin Professional Police Association.