There will be two special elections for US House seats on May 12. One of them is relatively high profile: the California District 25 contest between Democrat Christy Smith and Republican Mike Garcia for the seat vacated by the resignation of Democrat Katie Hill from the House. If Smith prevails in a hard-fought race, she will hold a seat for the Democrats.
The other special election could flip a seat to the Democrats. It’s taking place in northern Wisconsin, where the party was once strong but has suffered significant setbacks in recent years.
Northern Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District was represented by David Obey, a fiery populist Democrat who rose to chair the House Committee on Appropriations, from 1969 to 2011. Like many of the other Democrats who were elected in that period, from northern-tier districts in Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, Obey was fiercely pro-labor, a defender of small farmers and small-business owners, and an outspoken critic of corporate monopolies and the influence of billionaires on our politics. He served in the Wisconsin progressive tradition, embracing his state and its history, and focusing intensely on the concerns of a district that was made up of small towns, small cities, and a lot of open space.
When Obey decided not to seek reelection in 2010, however, big money poured into the district and elected a former reality-TV star, Sean Duffy, as its “representative.” Gerrymandering of district lines in 2011, by then-Governor Scott Walker’s Republican allies in the state legislature, helped Duffy to retain the seat.
Duffy wasted the last decade complaining that his $174,000-a-year congressional salary was insufficient and appearing on right-wing radio and TV shows. Instead of developing a distinctive vision for representing northern Wisconsin—as had Obey and previous Democratic and Republican House members from the region—Duffy did what former House Speaker Paul Ryan told him to do. Then, when Donald Trump came on the political scene, the congressman quit trying altogether and made himself over as a round-the-clock spokesman for the president.
On May 12, voters will get a chance to choose a new representative. But it is unclear whether they will get real representation, of the sort that Obey provided, or another yes-man for Trump.
Republican primary voters passed over Jason Church, a serious-minded conservative with an independent streak and some sound ideas for putting the district first. Instead, they gave their party’s special-election nomination to a political careerist, state Senator Tom Tiffany, who has offered no indication that he would be anything more than a rubber stamp for Trump and the corporate special interests that define the agenda of the House Republican minority.
Democrats, on the other hand, picked a dynamic contender whose deep roots in the district and record of service mark her as a dramatically superior contender. Tricia Zunker, an attorney, law professor, and member of the executive committee of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, currently serves as the elected president of the school board in Wausau—the district’s largest city. A member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, she has, since 2013, been an associate justice of the Ho-Chunk Nation Supreme Court. If elected, Zunker would be the first Native American to represent Wisconsin in the US House. She would also be the first woman to represent the district.
Coming from a family with a history of farming in rural Marathon County and working in the industries of Wausau, Zunker displays an understanding of the values and unique needs of the sprawling district. “We have child care deserts,” she explains, noting that people often “have to drive an hour one way just for child care or else make the decision not to work, which isn’t a decision that some people can make.” The district also suffers from limited broadband and cell-phone service, long-term problems that, Zunker argues, have become even more serious concerns. As small-town schools and libraries have been shuttered, she explains. that’s made it hard for students to pursue online studies.
Recognizing the ongoing threat posed by Covid-19, Zunker has advocated for voting by mail, while Tiffany has joined other Wisconsin Republicans in resisting efforts to hold safe, high-turnout elections amid the pandemic. “I was deeply saddened to see the thousands of people standing in lines on April 7, risking their lives to exercise their fundamental right to vote,” Zunker said. “I called for mail-in election for both the April 7 and May 12 election, because I am concerned about the health and safety of Wisconsinites. My opponent did not join me in that call for health and safety of Wisconsinites.”
The biggest difference between the candidates may be their approach to money in politics.
Zunker is staunchly independent and has signaled that she would serve in the tradition of former senator Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who always made it clear that his constituents would define his priorities—as opposed to the campaign donors who support political insiders like Tiffany.
While Tiffany has been busy bartering off his political soul to out-of-state special interests—collecting more than $1.2 million in campaign cash from donors in 33 states and Washington, DC—Zunker says, “I’m running to be a voice for the people of Wisconsin, not special interests and corporate lobbyists. Because of Citizens United, campaigns are becoming more expensive, and citizens who would make strong representatives are finding it harder and harder to run for office as a result. In order for our government to become more representative, and accountable to their constituents, we need serious campaign finance reform.”
Zunker has raised only a quarter of what Tiffany has taken in. However, most of her money is coming from Wisconsin, a source of pride for the Democrat, who proclaims, “Unlike my Republican opponents, I refuse to accept a dime in corporate PAC money. We’re going to deliver a fair deal to the people of Wisconsin and end special deals for corporations and special interests.”