State Rep. Sandy Pasch decided to run for public office several years ago while listening to a public radio report about what was happening at the Capitol. The big topics on the legislative agenda of the day were enacting a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and deciding whether to call the Christmas tree at the Capitol a “holiday tree.”
Pasch, a psychiatric nurse concerned about education, healthcare and the environment, said she was enraged that lawmakers in Madison were focusing on divisive, mean-spirited and irrelevant issues when she saw so many problems around her that needed to be addressed.
As the mother of a gay teen, she was particularly disturbed that elected officials sought to limit her family’s freedom. “This was my son that they were talking about,” she said. “They were taking away his rights. That was a moment for me.”
Pasch, a Democrat from Whitefish Bay, won election to the Assembly in 2008 and re-election in November 2010. Now she’s jumping into one of the highest-profile state races in the country, challenging right-wing Republican state Sen. Alberta Darling in a recall election in the 8th Senate District. The election is expected to be held on July 12.
“People approached me about entering the race, and the more I thought about it the more I realized we’ve got to save Wisconsin,” Pasch said. “That sounds so melodramatic, but I really feel like Wisconsin is headed down a dangerous road, the road of the extreme right-wing agenda.”
Since January, Pasch said she and her fellow Democrats in Madison have watched as Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP majority has stripped away worker’s rights, slashed funding for education and healthcare, eliminated environmental and consumer protections, and hobbled the ability of local governments to serve their citizens. At the same time, they’ve cut corporate taxes and engaged in a political power grab unlike anything the state has ever seen.
“We’ve got to get control of at least one of the houses and stop this nonsense,” Pasch said. “All our values are being threatened. Everything that makes us great is being undermined. Take education. How do you grow the state and grow jobs when you decimate the public school system? Meanwhile, (Republicans are) blaming the most vulnerable people in the state for our financial problems. We’re talking about people with disabilities and seniors. The family care system that allows people our parents’ age to stay in their homes with assistance is even under attack.”
The 8th Senate District, which includes the affluent communities of River Hills, Fox Point, Mequon, Whitefish Bay and Shorewood, boasts some of the state’s best public schools. In fact, that’s what draws many families to the area.
“The key message in this race is education,” Pasch said. “Alberta Darling is gutting public education. It’s a quality issue in this district.”
Another issue that’s likely to emerge near the top of voter concerns in the 8th District is municipal services. The Republican budget, supported by Darling, slashes shared revenue for local communities and, at the same time, puts strict limits on what local governments can do to raise revenue. Although Walker stressed that his ban on collective bargaining by government workers would lower the cost of local government, he exempted police and fire workers from the ban – and their services represent the lion’s share of local expenses.
Pasch said the result of this budget is that residents in many areas will have to pay for services that local governments once provided. With property taxes already high in many 8th District communities, that scenario is not going over well with local officials, Pasch said.
“What I’ve been hearing from village managers and village trustees is that (residents) will either have to pay fees or receive fewer services,” Pasch said. “And fees aren’t deductible from federal taxes. (Officials are) very disheartened. They feel (Republicans) are taking away local control and telling them how much they can spend on local services and not allowing them to raise revenue. We elect local officials to manage our local communities, not Scott Walker or Alberta Darling.”
When Darling, who was once on the board of Planned Parenthood, won her first election to the Assembly in 1990, she positioned herself as a moderate. But as religious extremists and Tea Party radicals commandeered the state’s Republican Party, Darling has followed their orders and now “marches hand in hand with the right-wing rhetoric,” Pasch said.
Darling’s voting record backs up Pasch’s assertion. She’s received zero ratings from Fair Wisconsin and the ACLU of Wisconsin, while at the other end of the spectrum she’s received perfect scores from right-wing groups such as Wisconsin Right to Life, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and Americans for Prosperity, a front group for the billionaire Koch brothers’ corporate-right agenda.
“She’s pretty extreme now,” Pasch said.
Despite widespread voter anger over Walker’s agenda, Pasch faces an uphill battle. Wealthy corporate players like the Koch brothers are expected to spend whatever it takes to keep this seat. And Darling is a good campaigner. In 2008, which was a watershed year for Democrats, she still managed to beat Rep. Sheldon Wasserman by a slim margin.
Political observers expect this to be a close race, which means that a strong LGBT voter turnout for Pasch could make a critical difference.