Tom Palzewicz seems the perfect candidate to ride a Democratic wave in the 2018 midterm elections.
A businessman with a degree in accounting, Palzewicz owns a small business that coaches other businesses to help them grow. Motivational speaking, leadership and team development are among the skills that have made him a success.
Of course, they’re essential skills for politicians as well.
Palzewicz is also a veteran, having served on a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine. To top it off, he’s telegenic and has an assured but relatable style.
But this seemingly ideal candidate faces an uphill battle, even if 2018 turns out to be a wave year. Palzewicz is running in the state’s 5th District, which is Wisconsin’s reddest. It encompasses Jefferson and Washington counties, along with portions of Dodge, Walworth and Waukesha. The district also includes Milwaukee’s population-rich and solidly Republican northern and western suburbs.
Adding to his challenge is the lengthy tenure of the incumbent Palzewicz faces at the polls — F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., who has held the seat for 40 years. He’s the only congressman ever known by two generations of district voters.
The 5th District has been so red — and Sensenbrenner’s electoral strength so great — that there have been years when Democrats didn’t even bother to field a candidate against him.
But college-educated women in Republican suburbs nationally are trending strongly toward Democrats in this election cycle due to their disappointment with Donald Trump. And Waukesha Democrats believe they are gaining ground.
Palzewicz has been outspent during his campaign, but he's danced circles around Sensenbrenner in terms of getting out in the community and meeting with voters face to face.
Sensenbrenner’s long tenure cuts both ways. In an election year that’s predicted to draw a large number of women and younger voters, the 74-year-old curmudgeon has all the appeal of a rusty compass: He almost always moves in the direction set by Republican leadership, even the current, unraveling one. The most newsworthy thing that Sensenbrenner’s done in recent years was ridiculing the size of former first lady Michelle Obama’s behind.
“People do get tired of the same-old,” says George Gillis, director of political affairs for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. “We’ve got a population now that’s antsy for actual change. They’re seeing stuff that doesn’t actually help them in their everyday lives. People see the ultra-rich getting richer and richer. In Wisconsin, people see massive giveaways to (companies) like Foxconn and Kimberly-Clark.”
In addition, Sensenbrenner embodies the rich-get-richer reality that so many now reject. Like Donald Trump, he earned his wealth the old-fashioned way — he inherited it. His family money came from Kimberly-Clark, where his grandfather invented Kotex. Ironically, his ratings from women's groups range from zero to 40, with the notable exception of anti-choice groups.
Though Sensenbrenner has held political office since the age of 25, he has a net worth of over $18 million — and growing.
In addition, Sensenbrenner is fiercely allied with social conservatism — a deal-breaker for many millennials and others. He has an ‘A’ ranking from the NRA. Anti-choice groups have consistently awarded him top marks, while environmental, wildlife, anti-poverty and equal rights groups have consistently awarded him very low ratings — often zeros.
Path to victory
Sensenbrenner has represented Wisconsin's 5th Congressional District since 1979. His hobby is stamp collecting.
Do Sensenbrenner’s negatives — and the mood of the electorate — create a path to victory for an appealing outsider like Palzewicz? Although the odds are strongly against him, in the event of a massive backlash against Donald Trump — one that includes enablers such as Sensenbrenner — it’s possible. Palzewicz says he’s campaigning to win and he’s giving the race all that he’s got.
Palzewicz believes shifting demographics in parts of the 5th District have raised his prospects for victory. Younger families are moving in, and they’re interested in the quality of public schools, something they accuse Republicans of neglecting. About 20 percent of students in the Waukesha School District are minorities who are not likely to feel any affinity with today’s Republican Party.
There’s also a growing number of moderates in the region, Palzewicz says. In his canvassing, he’s heard repeatedly that voters are disgusted with Washington’s focus on partisanship while neglecting the people they’re hired to represent.
“It’s so frustrating for civic-minded people,” Palzewicz says. “They want to see people getting things done.”
By organizing more than 100 volunteers, opening offices and going door to door to talk about Democratic values, Palzewicz says he’s setting things up for change.
“Sensenbrenner isn’t going to have an infrastructure comparable to ours in the race, because he’s never had a strong opponent,” Palzewicz says.
Win or lose, he says, he’s building an energized Democratic organization in territory that the party has abandoned. That organization will help U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s re-election race, as well as efforts to prevent Scott Walker’s re-election.
Fighting ‘neglect and lack of will’
Palzewicz insists the nation has what it takes to raise the quality of life for all Americans.
“It’s almost as if we’re the richest country in the world acting as if we were the poorest country in the world,” he says. The U.S. has the money to invest in education, infrastructure and resources that would enable small businesses to succeed, Palzewicz says, but our leaders refuse to spend it. It’s neglect and lack of will, not the absence of financial resources, which are standing in the way of success for middle and working-class people, he says.
What’s different about him, Palzewicz says, is that he knows from direct experience what’s needed to grow Wisconsin’s economy. It’s not paying corporations to move to the state, but rather investing the same money in the people who live here. As a Democrat who’s accustomed to working with Republicans, he believes that he’s in a unique position to make that happen.
“Since 2004, I’ve run my own successful small business,” Palzewicz says. “I’ve helped create thousands of good-paying jobs, including more than 500 in 2016 alone.”
Now he wants to take the knowledge he’s acquired to Washington, so he can help to do the same thing on a larger scale.