It was an undertaking SCFL never faced before: 44 endorsed candidates primarily running for School Board and County Board seats, spread out through five counties. Due to the Republican presidential primary, there was a real potential for a huge Tea Party turnout. Labor had to respond to the challenge.
And we did. Union members and community activists volunteered to staff phone banks, conduct literature drops, canvass neighborhoods and get out the vote. As a result, 24 SCFL-endorsed candidates won on April 3, some in very conservative areas.
Organized labor not only volunteered and got active, but a number of union members ran for office.
University professor, public defender and AFT-W Local 4822 member Ellen Berz is one of those union members who believes in serving the public and the greater good. Berz beat Walker appointee Roger Allen with 55 percent of the vote to become Dane County Circuit Court Judge, Branch 11. It was the first time in more than 20 years that a sitting judge was defeated.
Hot School Board Races
The Madison School Board races were in the spotlight. Although Madison Prep, charter schools and the achievement gap were in the forefront of the debates, it was imperative for the public to know what frontline workers thought about what’s best for our schoolchildren.
Voters went with our labor-endorsed candidate Arlene Silveira by a nearly 2 to 1 margin. Her experience, wisdom and commitment to all students, parents and workers will be a voice of reason on a potentially divided school board. Firefighter Michael Flores, out of IAFF Local 311, brought a unique and important perspective to the Madison School Board race. Unfortunately, he was outspent 6 to 1, and was unable to garner enough votes to win.
Other school board races in Dane County had similar results. AFSCME Local 1 President Leah Lipska received over 1,300 votes for Mount Horeb’s school board, but that was not enough. On the other hand, union household member John McCulley won a 3-way race for Verona school board. Jeff Ramin beat a 15-year incumbent by almost 500 votes for a seat on the Oregon school board. Jeff stated that the greatest challenges to his district are results of Act 10, reduced funding and low teacher morale. Although Dan Kraus lost as a write-in for another Oregon school board seat, he still managed to pick up over 1,000 votes.
The most notable success story was in the election for the Dane County Board, where 13 out of 15 SCFL-endorsed candidates won. Progressives picked up 5 seats, knocking out 3 conservative incumbents, thereby creating a 28 to 9 super majority, so that conservatives can no longer block budget proposals.
Heidi Wegleitner, UAW Local 2320 member and SCFL delegate, won in Dane County’s 2nd District with over 80 percent of the vote. Heidi is a longtime advocate for affordable housing, a representative for workers at Legal Action of Wisconsin, and has served on a number of committees and neighborhood associations. She will be a strong, progressive voice for working people and those who have been left without a voice.
Another new, progressive Dane County Board member is Leland Pan, who will be representing the student District 5. Leland is a member of the Campus Solidarity Committee and the Student Labor Action Coalition, and he has worked with the TAA, AFSCME Locals 2412 and 171, and a number of other campus groups. He understands the importance of union activism and worker empowerment.
Beyond the Isthmus
Anti-worker politicos can no longer claim that progressive thoughts and deeds are confined to the Isthmus. Sun Prairie, DeForest, Waunakee, Verona and Fitchburg all flipped to the labor-endorsed candidates, and convincingly so. Patrick Downing of Mount Horeb, Patrick Miles of McFarland and newcomer Chad T. Chenowith of Stoughton all won with labor support.
And school teacher and union member Nick Zweifel won a seat on the Sun Prairie Board with 57 percent of the vote. AFGE union member and VA Hospital nurse Erika Hotchkiss beat a longtime incumbent in Verona. Both of these candidates ran on platforms promoting workers’ rights.
The April election surprise was Jenni Dye, who won with 55 percent in the 33rd District in Fitchburg. This was a seat that was more favorable to the longtime incumbent Jack Martz due to redistricting. Jenni used social media to gather volunteers while still knocking on doors the old fashioned way and won in a very difficult district.
Two other tough districts resulted in losses. Roe Parker lost in Oregon and Susan Bailey on the west side of Madison.
Jeff Pertl, on Madison’s east side, soundly beat incumbent Don Imhoff while Waunakee’s Tim Kiefer squeaked by with a 52-vote margin in Waunakee’s 25th District.
Every Vote Does Count
Nowhere was the axiom “Every single vote matters” more evident than in Columbia and Sauk Counties. By the slimmest of margins, retired Ironworker Paula Cooper, of Local 383, lost her bid for Columbia County Board’s 11th District seat by a single vote. On the flip side, retired letter carrier John Dietz won the Sauk County 6th District by a single vote. John Miller, another NALC and APWU retiree, won Sauk County’s 16th District by 38 votes. Scott von Asten won handily in the 15th District.
Elsewhere in Columbia County, AFT member Kathie Palmer lost by less than 100 votes in the 2nd District, while union member and teacher Sue Bradley won the 14th District by a mere 23 votes. Mark Slegar won the 15th District convincingly. In the end, 5 out of 7 SCFL-endorsed candidates won in Columbia and Sauk Counties, with one of the losses up for a recount.
But these successes were not repeated everywhere. There is still a lot of work to do in Dodge and Jefferson Counties. Mary Bobholz squeaked out a narrow win in Dodge County’s 3rd District. The SCFL helped here with volunteers and technology to get out the vote. Yet, SCFL-endorsed candidates Robert Smith, Eugene Wurtz, and Tom Schmidt Sr. all lost their respective races in Dodge County.
In Jefferson County, the lone win was Jennifer Hanneman in the 18th District. SCFL-endorsed candidates did not fare well in the other eight county board races. Kirk Lund lost by 12 votes in the 14th District, proving yet again that every vote matters. The labor-endorsed school board candidates in Fort Atkinson and Watertown lost, even though the Watertown school board referendum passed.
School district referenda were a bright spot across the state on April 3. Out of 37 referenda on the ballot, 22 passed. From Beloit to Hudson, Oshkosh to Fall River, voters supported spending more for school infrastructure, technology, maintaining educational programs, and paying the cost of operating expenses. This outcome can only be seen as a refutation of Governor Scott Walker’s attacks on public education.
The spring elections were a challenge. But a number of union members stepped up and ran for local offices and spoke out for progressive issues in their communities. Labor helped organize volunteers and supported campaigns to elect good candidates to local school boards and county boards throughout south central Wisconsin. And we helped to get school referenda passed across the state. Organized labor made a difference.