It wasn’t until the end of Wednesday night’s Democratic gubernatorial forum at the Madison Public Library that someone took a swing at the candidate who has led in all of the polls.
Former party chairman Matt Flynn in his closing statement called State Superintendent Tony Evers “Republican lite” and criticized him for describing Gov. Scott Walker’s most recent budget as “pro-kid.” Evers, given a chance to respond, called Flynn’s attack “an outrageous comment” to which Flynn replied that Walker would “eat you for lunch.”
Otherwise the mostly congenial 90-minute forum gave the packed audience a condensed version of the case the Democratic gubernatorial candidates have been making for more than a year as to why they should be the nominee.
Other than Evers and Flynn, political activist Mike McCabe, corporate lawyer Josh Pade, former Rep. Kelda Roys, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin and Sen. Kathleen Vinehout participated in the event.
State firefighter union president Mahlon Mitchell was traveling back from a convention in Seattle on Wednesday and wasn’t able to attend the debate, his campaign spokeswoman said. Earlier in the day, the Republican Party of Wisconsin called on Mitchell to account for a 2015 U.S. Department of Labor audit that found his union violated record-keeping and financial disclosure requirements.
Journalists from Madison liberal-leaning news outlets WORT 89.9 FM, Isthmus and The Progressive magazine peppered the candidates with questions on a variety of topics, including several “lightning round” questions in which candidates had to raise their hands if they agreed with a statement or provide short answers.
They all said they supported legalizing recreational marijuana, background checks on gun sales and repealing the state’s right-to-work law.
All but McCabe and Pade said they would raise the minimum wage to $15 within four years, with McCabe saying he would do it within five years and Pade saying it should be adjusted for inflation and Madison and Milwaukee should be able to set their own wage.
Pade also said he is the only candidate who supports extending Walker’s tuition freeze for UW-Madison. McCabe, the only candidate who won’t pledge to support the nominee, said a loyalty pledge could alienate the voters the party needs to attract to beat Walker.
When the group was asked who thought they alone could defeat Walker, Roys didn’t raise her hand and noted that Vinehout and Soglin didn’t raise their hands either. Evers, Flynn and McCabe did.
“We understand that all of us are on the same team — we have to collaborate,” Roys said. “I think I’m the strongest candidate to beat Scott Walker because I’ve been energizing progressive voters all across the state. … We can win if we get the real swing voters in Wisconsin, which are suburban Milwaukee women.”
Evers made a different demographic argument for why he should be the nominee.
“I’ve won three statewide races. I won with 70 percent of the vote. I’ve never lost a county in northern Wisconsin or central Wisconsin,” Evers said. “That is an important part of this race and beating Scott Walker.”
Asked who they would support if they weren’t on the ballot, Evers and McCabe said Vinehout, Flynn and Roys said Soglin, Pade said Roys, Vinehout said Evers, and Soglin said he would write in himself.
Soglin offered some of the sharpest zingers aimed at Walker. Asked how he would “undo the damage Walker has done to public education,” Soglin said, “We understand the purpose of education is not a career and a technical job, the purpose of an education is to teach young people how to think, which scares the hell out of Scott Walker.”
Vinehout said in her closing remarks that many of the candidates were using slogans, but “in order to make a difference … we need to turn those slogans into policies.”
Flynn, asked how he would cancel the Foxconn contract, said he would file a lawsuit based on the contract violating the state’s constitutional prohibition on tax laws benefiting a single taxpayer. Soglin said he would instead cut off the $3 billion in state taxpayer funding and force the company to sue the state.
Several undecided attendees said after the debate that they remained uncertain whom to vote for on Tuesday.
“There’s just so many candidates and so many good people that it’s making it very hard for me to settle on one,” said Mary Gandolfo, 66, a retired teacher from Madison, who listed five people she’s still considering.
John Boguski, 29, a graduate student at UW-Madison, similarly had narrowed down his list to two candidates, but also spoke highly of a third candidate after watching the forum.
“A lot of candidates meet the threshold, but none of them are the candidate,” Boguski said.
State Republican Party spokesman Alec Zimmerman said in a statement, “Tonight showed that these candidates are still locked in a dangerous race to the left that would only hurt Wisconsin families.”
The candidates are also scheduled to meet Thursday at a forum sponsored by the Democratic Party of Dane County at the Madison Concourse Hotel. The event, which starts at 7 p.m., is free and open to the public. Democratic Party members will be allowed to participate in a straw poll at the event with results announced at the end.