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Democrats reorganizing for 2017 and beyond

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Wisconsin Democrats elect Martha Laning as new party chair

At its annual meeting in early June, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin elected Martha Laning to succeed Mike Tate as party chair. 

State Rep. David Bowen, who ran for the position of Laning’s vice chair, also was elected. “We’re already a team,” Laning said.

Laning is a former state Senate candidate who lives in Sheboygan, where she’s been visibly active in local political and civic projects. She faced four other candidates in what became a bruising and sometimes ugly campaign.

One of her competitors, former state Rep. Jeff Smith, dropped out of the race on June 4 and threw his support behind Laning after it was revealed that he’d offered her a high-level party position if she threw her support to him. The backlash over that seemed to be a turning point.

The party’s leadership appeared to be lined up behind Democratic National Committee member Jason Rae, who is the director of the Wisconsin LGBT Chamber of Commerce.

Rae took a lot of heat during the campaign for his job with Nation Consulting, a Milwaukee-based political consulting firm that represents candidates all over the political spectrum. Rae, however, only worked for Democratic and progressive candidates.

Rae served as the board chair of Fair Wisconsin, the state’s LGBT advocacy group. Katie Belanger, who worked with him when she was the group’s executive director, threw her support behind Laning.

Other candidates included former state lawmaker Stephen Smith and former state party chairman Joe Wineke. 

Laning received 721 votes. Rae received 428 followed by Wineke with 191, Steve Smith with six and Jeff Smith with three votes.

Tate held the party’s chairmanship for nine years, but announced he would not seek another term several months ago, after state Democrats suffered major losses at the polls both in 2010 and 2012. 

At the convention, Jeff Smith nominated Laning and was seconded by state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout. 

“We have the best chance in our lifetime to make a real difference in this state,” Vinehout told the delegates. “We have the opportunity to elect an intelligent, tenacious woman.”

Laning gave a forceful speech, interrupted by cheers, which apparently prompted some delegates to switch their votes to her. She spoke about how the state’s progressive values helped create a level playing field that enabled her father to rise from poverty to success. She vowed to elect “proud, progressive Democrats” and to promote “values-driven messaging.”

Democrats in Wisconsin often are criticized for their fear of taking strong stands that might put off independent voters.

“Wisconsin has a rich tradition of being behind … progressive values and today we are seeing that slip away,” Laning told the enthusiastic crowd. “Our values of opportunity for all, responsiveness to others, fairness and fair play are but a distant memory, and we need to stand up for them.” 

Following the election, the new leaders went directly into a two-hour administrative meeting.

Laning promised she and Bowen would bring together diverse people from around the state and empower the party’s grassroots.

“I am here to bring our party in a new direction,” she said.