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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. 

Vinehout decides not to run for governor, leaving Burke the only announced Democrat

State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout says she won’t seek the Democratic nomination for governor.

In a statement issued this morning, Vinehout said an injury from a car accident last month would prevent her from undertaking a vigorous grassroots campaign.

Vinehout broke a bone in her upper right arm — an injury that requires time for recovery and rehabilitation.

Vinehout, of Alma, had been exploring a possible run until the car accident. Her decision leaves former Trek Bicycle Corp. executive Mary Burke as the only likely Democrat to challenge Republican Gov. Scott Walker in November.

“Although she has made the decision not to pursue a run for governor at this time, Kathleen Vinehout remains a vital force in this Party and this movement,” said Democratic Party of Wisconsin chair Mike Tate. “Senator Vinehout’s travels around the state have helped to build the Party, engage the grassroots, and guide the conversation about how we can restore Wisconsin’s proud progressive legacy and return our government to the people. Her advocacy for important issues added much to the debate we will have in our state this year and the energy and excitement she brought will contribute to the election of a Democratic Governor in November.”

Democratic Party officials have been widely perceived as backing Burke, although the party has remained neutral officially.

Harris won’t run for governor in Wisconsin

Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris says he will not run for Wisconsin governor in 2014.

Harris issued a statement on Aug. 30, saying:

“I have concluded that while I have insights and ideas regarding the governance of Wisconsin, that I will not enter the race for governor. Entry into the race as an underfunded candidate may not be helpful to bring the policy extremes of the current administration to an end. I plan to continue speaking out about policy errors such as voter suppression schemes, the expansion of school vouchers into even the strongest school districts of this state and the failure to accept federal funds for Medicaid expansion.

“I leave the field of potential candidates for the Democratic Party nomination for governor knowing that two very qualified potential candidates remain. Kathleen Vinehout, a PHD with experience as a college professor, dairy farmer and state Senator and Mary Burke, a Harvard MBA with considerable experience as a business executive, commerce secretary and philanthropist.”

Harris concluded, “I reserve the right to enter this race at a future date if these potential candidates do not actually enter the race.”