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Milwaukee Dems prepare for special showdown

Source: Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch

Milwaukee Dems prepare for special showdown

After a months-long wait, the special election to fill a heavily Democratic state Senate seat in the Milwaukee area is set.

May 21, 2024 2:30 PM CDT

By: Jack Kelly / Wisconsin Watch

After a months-long wait, the special election to fill a heavily Democratic state Senate seat in the Milwaukee area is set.

Scheduled for July 30, the election will fill the vacancy created by Lena Taylor, a longtime state senator who was appointed by Gov. Tony Evers to a Milwaukee County Circuit Court judgeship in January. 

The outcome of the race will likely be determined by the results of a July 2 primary, given that the district is more than 80% Democratic.

The Democratic primary currently features two members of the Assembly: Reps. Dora Drake and LaKeshia Myers — two of more than a dozen Assembly Democrats retiring or seeking other offices.

Like three of their colleagues jostling for a Madison area Senate seat, both Drake and Myers were motivated, in part, to run for the seat because of the additional staff and resources that come with a state Senate office, the two candidates said in separate interviews with Wisconsin Watch.

The two candidates are taking different approaches to the campaign, with Drake pushing her legislative priorities and Myers seeking to tie herself to Taylor, who held the seat for almost 20 years.

Rep. Dora Drake, D-Milwaukee (Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch)

Drake, who was elected to the Assembly in 2020, wants to bring the “next generation” of public servants to the Senate, she said. The 31-year-old is campaigning on her ability to work across the aisle and pass legislation, noting in an interview that she’s worked on more than 20 bills that have become law despite serving in the minority. 

“When I was sworn in in 2020, I wanted to make sure that constituents were taken care of,” Drake said, adding that she worked to help her constituents receive their unemployment insurance payments and to secure federal funds for small business owners to help them keep the lights on during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A top priority for Drake is bolstering mental health services in Wisconsin. 

“If someone is going through a mental health crisis, the only time we intervene (right now) is when they’re actually having the crisis,” she said. “At that point, we’re not addressing the issue, we’re just responding to the problem.”

Wisconsin residents need access to more robust mental health services to prevent crisis situations, Drake said.

The state representative also wants to work on criminal justice reform, rolling back conservative labor policies, such as Wisconsin’s so-called “right to work” law, and strengthening apprenticeship programs, Drake said.

Rep. LaKeshia Myers, D-Milwaukee (Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Watch)

Myers, who ousted an incumbent Democrat in the primary to get elected in 2018, said her top priority would be continuing the constituent services Taylor offered during her two decades in the Senate.

Myers, 39, worked for Taylor after graduating from college and learned that constituent services meant solving problems, not just picking up the phone so people feel like they’re being heard, Myers said.

“That’s what people are used to, they expect that brand of representation and leadership, and I think that’s one of the things that I bring,” Myers told Wisconsin Watch.

The three-term Assembly member also isn’t afraid to speak out on behalf of her constituents, even if it’s unpopular with her Democratic colleagues, Myers said. Last year, for example, she broke with other Assembly Democrats and voted for a plan that would have implemented a new approach to redistricting in Wisconsin.

“Unfortunately, the strategy of my caucus was to not engage in the process,” she wrote in a letter to her constituents about the bill. “There was no group effort to negotiate on amendments or even ask for extended time for discussion. In my opinion, this was the wrong move. Redistricting is too important an issue for Democrats to remain silent.”

Myers’ bipartisan work is a point of pride, she said, adding that she gets “respect from Republicans and Democrats alike.” She also said she’s willing to make necessary deals in order to help her community.

“I don’t think you get 100% of whatever you want working in the Legislature. That’s just unrealistic,” Myers said. “But trying to make things better than they were when I got there has always been the goal.”

Updating the state’s school funding formula, improving state-level efforts to recruit and retain teachers and nurses and establishing paid family leave in Wisconsin are all policy issues Myers would like to work on in the Senate, she said.

Now holding a nonpartisan office, Taylor will not endorse a candidate in the race. Drake and Myers both said they plan to run for a full term in the seat in November, regardless of the outcome of the special election.

Programming note: Forward is taking a break next week to observe Memorial Day. See you in two weeks!

What we’re watching this week

Wednesday

♻️ The State Natural Resources board meets at 8:30 a.m. to approve the first updates to the state’s regulations for recycling programs since 2005. Participation is limited to those who registered in advance. The meeting can be viewed here.

⚖️ A Dane County judge will hear arguments at 1:30 p.m. in a lawsuit filed by criminal justice advocacy groups that alleges an April 2023 referendum that made changes to the state’s bail system was not submitted on time to election officials to be included on the ballot. Watch on Wisconsin Eye.

🏛️ The State Building Commission meets at 3 p.m. in Capitol Room 113E to approve several state government bond issues and construction projects, including a health services facility at Stanley Correctional Institution and improvements to a shoreline bike path at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Should we be watching your civic engagement-related event? Let us know and we’ll consider including it in future editions of Forward. Send an email to statehouse@wisconsinwatch.org.


Forward is a look at the week in Wisconsin government and politics from the Wisconsin Watch statehouse team.

This article first appeared on Wisconsin Watch and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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