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Wisconsin Democrats Off To A Fresh Start

Wisconsin progressives make sweeping changes in the state Democratic Party

At the beginning of the year, I reported that the Democratic Party of Wisconsin was in disarray, thanks to the ineffective leadership of its chairman, Mike Tate:

When Mike Tate was elected to be the chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, he was the youngest state chair in the nation. He also had been given a state where the Democrats controlled the governor's seat and both houses of the state legislature. Liberals also had the majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Now the Republicans have a stranglehold on both houses, Scott Walker has won three times (including the recall), conservatives control the Supreme Court and we lost a US Senate seat when Russ Feingold lost to Ron Johnson.

Tate finally saw the writing on the wall and announced that he would not run for reelection.

Five candidates entered the race to be the next chair of the party:

  • Jason Rae - A long time Democrat even though he's only 28 years old. Rae was Tate's hand-picked successor and the establishment candidate.
  • Joe Wineke - Former state legislator and former chair until he passed the reins to his hand-picked successor, Mike Tate.
  • Steve Smith - Former state legislator. His bid for the chair never gained any traction.
  • Jeff Smith - Another former state legislator running as the rural candidate.
  • Martha Laning - A relative newcomer to the party. She ran as the rural candidate and the outsider. She picked up the support of rural voters, unions and progressive grassroots groups.

The months leading up to this weekend's state convention was rather contentious, to say the least. There were a lot of smear attacks and accusations coming and going between each of the camps.

In the final weeks, it appeared that Rae would be the winner, not necessarily because he was the best, but because of shenanigans in the choosing of delegates.

However, a last minute maneuver proved to be a game changer.

On the eve of the convention, Jeff Smith pulled out of the race and endorsed Laning. This allowed Laning to win very decisively:

Wisconsin Democrats have chosen a newcomer to lead their party: Sheboygan businesswoman and community activist Martha Laning.

More than 1,300 party delegates elected Laning from a field of four candidates Saturday at the Democratic Party of Wisconsin convention in Milwaukee.

The winner needed a plurality of delegate votes to become chairperson. Laning won a majority with 721 votes, or 53 percent.

The other candidates were Democratic National Committeeman Jason Rae of Milwaukee, former state lawmaker Stephen Smith of Shell Lake, and former Democratic Party of Wisconsin chairman Joe Wineke of Verona. Former state lawmaker Jeff Smith of Brunswick had been a candidate but announced Thursday that he would urge his supporters to back Laning.

Rae finished second with 428 votes, or 32 percent, followed by Wineke with 191 votes, or 14 percent, and Stephen Smith with 6 votes.

Laning has her work cut out for. As I mentioned, the race for the chair was very contentious and drove wedges deep into the party. Laning will have to work quickly to bring the different factions together and prepare for next year's election cycles. This task has been made all the more difficult due to the scorched earth policies of Scott Walker, drying up a lot of the Democrats' usual supports, such as organized labor.

But even with these challenges facing us, the sense of renewed vigor and eagerness to start taking our state back is undeniable.

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