Progressives take on conservatives in Dane County Board races

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

Progressives are closely watching three Dane County Board races in which political newcomers are challenging right-wing incumbents.

Conservatives control only 14 seats on the board, while progressives hold 23. But despite their minority status, conservatives have succeeded at mustering the 10 votes necessary to block borrowing initiatives that have jeopardized the county’s ability to make road improvements, purchase vehicles and 911 equipment, manage land conservation projects and operate other vital programs and services.

“They’ve been able to procedural tricks to hold up funding for very important projects,” says Dane County Democratic Party chair Michael Basford. “Just like on the U.S. Senate, a small minority on the county board can grind things to a halt.”

Democrats believe the anti-Republican backlash against Gov. Scott Walker will help them eliminate the board’s 10-vote conservative bloc on April 3. Basford says that during his 25 years of involvement in county politics, “I’ve never seen this amount of excitement and interest among activists on our side.”

But Republicans will be drawn to the polls on April 3 to vote in a contentious presidential primary, while Democrats have no high-profile races on the ticket to generate turnout. Basford acknowledges the challenge this presents for Democrats. But he says the caliber of progressive candidates who’ve been inspired to run for the board this year is exceptional.

The county, which voted overwhelmingly Democratic in the 2008 presidential election and the 2010 U.S. Senate race, also has a new electoral map that favors Democrats, Basford adds.

Among this year’s Demcoratic challengers is out candidate Susan Bailey, an IT project manager who’s taking on Ronn Ferrell in District 15. Ferrell voted against domestic partner benefits for Dane County workers, against collective bargaining rights, against a voter’s rights resolution and in favor of a measure to eliminate county funding for Planned Parenthood.

Bailey describes Ferrell as “an aberration” in a district that has voted consistently Democratic in recent years in presidential and U.S. Senate races. She accuses Ferrell of winning – in 2010 by a margin of only 43 votes –by misrepresenting his record and hiding behind the façade of a moderate.

“He’s a very genial man, and when he goes out and talks to people, he tells them how moderate and independent he is,” Bailey says. “But when you look at his vote straight down the line, he’s strictly … Tea Party.”

“I want to see the district represented fairly,” Bailey says. “I’m a constituent of his, and I don’t feel like I’ve been represented. I don’t feel like he’s listened or paid attention to me. … Ronn’s values just don’t match the values of the people in this district.”

Ferrell is supported by the Republican Women of Dane County.

If Bailey wins, she will become one of only three out gay members of the 37-member Dane County board, joining openly gay supervisors Kyle Richman and Chuck Erickson. Madison, the county seat, ranks seventh among the nation’s mid-size cities in the number of same-sex couples per 1,000 households, according to the 2010 census.

In District 17, which includes the east side of Madison, equality ally Jeff Pertl hopes to unseat Don Imhoff, who’s also backed by the Republican Woman of Dane County. Imhoff beat a progressive incumbent in 2010. Since joining the board, he’s voted to delete county board funding for Planned Parenthood and opposed a board resolution to file a “friend of the court” brief on behalf of the state’s domestic partner registry law. He also voted “no” on a resolution to extend county contracts with union workers in order to keep their collective bargaining rights intact before Gov. Scott Walker’s controversial union-busting bill took effect.

“Don is part of a conservative gang of 10 that’s been hawkish on budget issues,” Pertl says. “He’s played politics with the debt. The debt really isn’t our biggest challenge. We spend about 3.5 percent of the county budget servicing the debt. By contrast, Walker’s budget spends five.

“This one-trick pony around debt, debt, debt is something they use to scare people. But you can be super progressive and still be really smart about the budget and use it to serve more people.”

Pertl has a master’s degree in public policy from the University of California – Berkeley. He works as a policy advisor on education issues and serves as federal funds trustee for Tony Evers, the state’s superintendent of public instruction.

Pertl managed out U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin’s 2006 congressional campaign.

Emhoff is a real estate appraiser who had no political or public policy experience prior to his election to the county board.

The third race that’s being closely watched by progressives is in District 32, which includes Verona, where progressive Erika Hotchkiss is challenging conservative Mike Willett.

Willett, who has the most right-wing voting record of the three supervisors, opposed Dane County domestic partner benefits and was the lead sponsor of the board’s resolution to eliminate county funding for Planned Parenthood. He has opposed resolutions to support both voter’s rights and union rights.

Hotchkiss is a small business owner and a mental health nurse at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Madison.

“These races are three of our best opportunities,” Basford says. “I think these new candidates are bringing that energy to the energy to their campaigns that give their districts a chance to elect people who more reflect their values.”