Rockwood seeks end to Sensenbrenner’s 16-term career

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

The 2008 elections provided the best openings in recent years for Democratic challengers in potential swing districts. Voters nationwide turned out in force for Barack Obama in an election that was largely a referendum on former Republican President George W. Bush. Democrats picked up a number of seats that year that usually go red.

That also was the year that right-wing U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican who’s represented Wisconsin since 1979, ran without any Democratic opponent. Democrat Chris Rockwood wants to make sure that never happens again.

Rockwood has launched a long-shot challenge against the entrenched incumbent. “I’m running because he’s been in office half his life — 35 years — and we need an alternative to re-electing him 17 times,” Rockwood says.

Rockwood also believes he could represent the middle-class citizens of the district better than Sensenbrenner, once a somewhat moderate legislator who has since bowed to the extremist agenda that’s taken over his party’s base. Last year, Sensenbrenner made headlines for lashing out at Obama’s executive order directing flags at federal buildings to be lowered when Nelson Mandela died.

“It’s an uphill battle,” acknowledges Rockwood. The Republican-gerrymandered district encompasses parts of Wauwatosa, West Allis and Greenfield, as well as parts of Jefferson and Washington counties and a large swath of Waukesha County, one of the nation’s reddest jurisdictions.

An electrical engineer who worked for some time in California’s famed Silicon Valley, including a three-year stint at Apple, Rockwood says he’s strongly pro-labor. Both his father and grandfather were union workers. One of his primary objectives in Congress, he says, will be to help repeal Section 14(b) of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which allows states to pass so-called “Right to Work” laws. Such laws ban unions from collecting fees from workers, even when the unions negotiate beneficial wages and work conditions on their behalf. 

Rockwood and others expect Wisconsin’s GOP-led Legislature to pass a Right to Work bill during the next session. They also expect Scott Walker, if he’s re-elected, to sign it.

Because Rockwood is such a dark horse in the race against Sensenbrenner, he feels able to speak freely rather than hedge his bets by running his views through pollsters, consultants and focus groups before touting them. A conversation with Rockwood is refreshingly down to earth. He’s a die-hard progressive in the mold of the state’s leaders a century ago.

“I’ve got nothing to lose by being strongly progressive, because that’s what I am,” he says. “I’m a lifetime progressive. And my progressiveness is not confined to social issues. I’m also for raising the minimum wage, and I think $10.10 an hour is just a starting point.”

Rockwood supports marriage equality and believes that government has no right to force women to bear children against their will, both views that put him at odds with Sensenbrenner and the state’s Republican majority. He also would expand Medicare to everyone in the nation.

Rockwood is especially disappointed about the denial of climate change embraced by Sensenbrenner and other GOP elected officials who receive large contributions from fossil fuel barons.

“(Climate change) is not only a threat to the environment but to our nation’s security, the world economy and to civilization,” he says, “and we need to acknowledge the magnitude of this threat. My opponent refuses to do so.”

Rockwood, who lives in Wauwatosa, says Sensenbrenner is mostly ignoring his challenge. He failed to show up at a candidate’s forum earlier this month.

Without much funding to speak of, Rockwood and his volunteers are conducting a door-to-door campaign. They’re hitting the streets six days a week, speaking with voters not only about Rockwood but also about Democrat Mary Burke.

On the Web

To learn more about Chris Rockwood’s campaign, go to

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