Monday, December 9, 2013

Hermes rides local desire for sensible middle in Madison legislature

The perfect test tube for a strategy that may roll out in many Wisconsin state elections in 2014:  Emphasize local desires. Downplay the partisan gridlock.

 By Dominique Paul Noth

John Hermes facing Dec. 17 election to Assembly.
During extensive chats in the shops and neighborhoods of Franklin and Greendale after Thanksgiving, residents active in both parties agreed: This time the Democrats have the best known, more energetic and proven candidate for State Assembly District 82.

So much so that two Republican headhunters even sheepishly confessed they had tried to recruit John Hermes for the GOP ticket, until they learned about the Democratic ties and principles of the Greendale village president.  Now he’s even been endorsed by the local Republicans’ original choice in next door AD21, Steve Scaffidi, the Oak Creek mayor who withdrew when pressured to toe the Madison majority line. 

But since the race occurs Dec. 17 the right-wing believes it has the edge. The special Tuesday election is a week before Christmas. A regular Assembly race in a presidential year – such as November 2012 -- drew nearly 30,000 district voters and even in off-year competition can easily garner 23,000.

Yet both parties estimate Dec. 17 could attract a total of 6,000– and maybe not that many if the weather is bad or citizens are behind on holiday shopping.  The GOP remains supremely confident that some 2,500 to 3,000 of their diehards will vote the R side of the ballot whomever.  Buying into that view, much of the local media has ignored this race because it is not partisanly juicy on the surface.

It’s an old off-year story. “The best qualified should win public office” – that’s  what  the people  always say. Yet they let a tiny group that actually turns up at the polls decide -- especially with these bizarre special elections for the Madison legislature that fall way outside the normal voting calendar.

But there is a contrary mood heavily at work when you talk with the residents – an underlying dislike for labeling expectations, a growing agitation about the pundit assumptions about past practices.

The contest is a perfect test tube for a strategy that may roll out in many Wisconsin state elections in 2014:  Emphasize the local desires and downplay the partisan gridlock. Get through to voters’ real concerns even at a weird time in an off-year.

The Republicans are  banking on how Romney won the district over Obama in 2012 and how GOP Rep. Jeff Stone – who rode a moderate conciliatory image in the late 1990s to win and maintain after decades of Democratic control – got  60% over popular teacher but novice politico Kathleen Wied Vincent in 2012.

But there is a relevant counter-narrative that exposes the danger of relying on old labels, past laurels and selective voting data. This is also the district where Tammy won handily over Tommy for US senate in 2012. And Stone lost all vestiges of a moderate label when he jumped away mid-term this fall to take a better-paying job with the Gov. Scott Walker administration, forcing this odd election.

“I know where these families came from,” noted Milwaukee historian John Gurda, recalling how these suburbs on the edge of Milwaukee County grew dynamically through government incorporation after World War II. Even the area’s state senate seat had for decades before Mary Lazich been the domain of Democrat Lynn Adelman, now an influential federal judge.  “This is hardly a locked Republican area,” Gurda commented. “And certainly not in this climate.”

There is no joining at the political extremist hip between Franklin and Greendale (the 50,000 population heart of the district) and AD82 includes a sliver of Greenfield and key tracts of the city of Milwaukee that lean more liberal.

Republican planners concede that their choice, Ken Skowronski, faced a lot of opposition within the party to win its Nov. 19 primary and draws little of the outside money that helped other GOP candidates survive.  He has been described by peers as “notably crusty” and gave a WisconsinEye interview that emphasized his faithfulness to whatever his party leaders are backing in Madison. He actually told a neighbor that he was running mainly because the Assembly would be a “feather in my cap” after combative terms as Franklin alderman.

But even left-leaning Daily Kos senses the right’s confidence. After noting Skowronski is “certainly not a top candidate,” Kos analysts  slyly added, “However, he may not need to be.”

Yet Hermes has won handily in a conservative environment since 1998 as village president (a position he will resign if he wins the Assembly).  He is a leading force in 76th St. business corridor expansion.  He’s an influential leader in the private-public Aerotroplis to interconnect and galvanize regional transit and is a respected commissioner on the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District. He champions academic ties to improve southeastern Wisconsin job creation through the Water Council and the University of Wisconsin NanoTechnology Hub.

All that, along with a clean campaign pledge, leads him to expect the opposition to play nice.  “I don’t think the Republicans would dare come after me on economic issues,” Hermes said, who modestly rated his own WisconsinEye interview at “80% okay” though his answers were forthright and his command of the issues voluminous.

But his Democratic roots (including negotiator and committee chair for the Air Traffic Controllers Association during his three decades as FAA controller) are not on blatant display in this contest. His campaign is hardly hiding the fact but rather emphasizing experience, service and rounded support from municipal leaders, education and community groups and such unions as the nurses and operating engineers.

That may not be enough for the Democrats that spit bile at the mere mention of Gov. Scott Walker, his agenda and tactics – an exorcism moment that creates hostility even among traditional Republicans now discovering the governor does not represent the Party they grew up in.

Hermes’ early literature was not developed around his reputation as pro-choice, anti voucher schools, pro equal pay for women and pro environment sensibility – though he frankly discusses all positions at the doors and has given speeches strongly defending women’s rights.  “I don’t think of those as left or right issues, just sensible,” he told me.

As village president he conceded some temporary gains from Act 10 he could take advantage of for taxpayers while excoriating the exclusion of police and fire unions that would have most helped Greendale’s bottom-line.  He also disliked Walker’s methods and treating “professional managers as wimps” incapable of negotiating across an even collective bargaining table. “To pretend we don’t know how to deal with our workers was just insulting,” he said in an interview. That’s a stance on Act 10 that Wisconsin could see more from many Democrats in state races in November.

Hermes was also one of the first municipal leaders to publicly attack the GOP assault on residency rules as destructive of local control.

This  “big tent” approach -- though embraced in national Democratic strategy -- has chilled a few activists in the party’s left-most wing. They want the D more prominent on his campaign literature and more “in your face” political tactics.

 “Everyone has their own style,” said Hermes in an interview. “All campaigns say they will reach across the aisle to work with the other side. The difference is that when I reach out, the other side actually wants to reach back.”

That’s why he has emphasized broad endorsements from municipal chiefs across ideological lines – Whitefish Bay, Cudahy, Brown Deer, city and county of Milwaukee, West Allis and even the mayor of Racine. “They know me as a common-sense facilitator, to get both sides together,” said Hermes.

His campaign manager, Democratic strategist Brandon Savage, thinks Hermes is the ideal candidate for the district and has strictly controlled the messaging, even stiffing more absolutist party voices. 

 “We’ve got to express the urgency of keeping local representation front and center in Madison rather than using the same old playbook,” Savage said. “We have to think outside that narrow box.”

But Dec. 17 still comes down to which voters jump out of the box.  Hermes needs to draw from traditional Democrats (11,854 turned out for Vincent) as well as crossover Republicans and those disenchanted with intrusive state politics.  

Vincent, who withdrew from the race in October with enthusiastic praise for Hermes --- “he’s the real deal,” she told me – has cooled of late, feeling her doorbell and signage techniques were not given fuller hearing by the Hermes managers. “I know he’s the better candidate,” she told me Nov. 30, “but I don’t feel my role should be endorsing anyone directly, more preserving my own options.  These are citizens who should make up their own minds.”

 “It’s the main thing I hear at the doors,” Hermes said. “People are tired of no middle anymore, of being told what brand to vote for. They want party extremists to stay out.”