Voters in the Wisconsin State Senate’s 32nd District are being offered a rather distinct choice between two very different candidates.
The incumbent Democrat, State Senator Jennifer Shilling, defeated then-State Senator Dan Kapanke, a Republican, in a recall election in the summer of 2011. Shilling is currently running in the regularly scheduled fall election for her seat against Republican challenger Bill Feehan.
Jennifer Shilling is a 43-year-old mother of two. She lives in LaCrosse with her husband Chris and sons Nathan, 7, and Zachary, 3. Chris is employed at W.A. Roosevelt, an HVAC, plumbing and electrical wholesaler.
Feehan also lives in LaCrosse and is married to Sue Kolve-Feehan. Feehan has a daughter, Cady, 19, and two stepchildren, Amy 26, and Brandon, 21. Feehan worked for Unilever, a corporate food company, for 16 years as in-house account manager. He resigned in June and currently does accounting for the two companies that he and his wife own.
Shilling served six consecutive terms in the Wisconsin State Assembly before running for the state senate in the special recall election. She also served one-term on the LaCrosse County Board, while still a student at UW-LaCrosse.
Feehan, 52, just completed serving a term on the LaCrosse County Board in April. The two-year-term is the only elected office he has ever held. Feehan said that he has started seven businesses including those he currently runs with his wife. Those businesses are the Sue Kolve Salon and Spa, a beauty salon, and the Salon Professional Academy, a beautician training school.
Both candidates are college graduates. Shilling received a BA in Political Science and Public Administration from UW-LaCrosse in 1992, while Feehan graduated with a BA in Psychology from the University of Minnesota in 1992. He also attended UW-Eau Claire and Normandale Community College.
Shilling was born on July 4, 1969 in Oshkosh, but graduated from high school in Buffalo Grove, Ill. Feehan was born July 17, 1960 in East Chicago, Indian, but graduated from high school in Wayzata, Minnesota.
In addition to working for Unilever, Feehan started a lawn care business and co-owned a bar in Minnesota.
Although the candidates are rather far apart in their political orientation, both identified some of the same issues as important.
For Shilling, her work in the state legislature is centered on:
• standing up for working families and strengthening the middle class
• insuring our children have the best educational opportunities
• protecting our seniors
• growing the economy and the creation of jobs
For Feehan, the issues aren’t that different. He listed:
• the economy and getting people back to work
• improving the political climate-people want us to start working with people from the other party
• healthcare focused on access, affordability and dealing with pre-existing conditions
• improving education
Although the issues the candidates identify are similar, their approach to working on them is not usually the same.
For instance, Shilling believes the biggest thing that can improve the economy is focusing on improving education particularly in tech schools and retraining of unemployed workers. Feehan would vote to pass the mining bill, which was defeated in the previous session of the legislature in hopes of starting iron mining in northern Wisconsin. He believes the proposed iron mine would produce 9,000 good-paying jobs in the state.
Shilling said that the compromise bill on mining proposed by State Senators Robert Jauch and Dale Schultz would have provided the definitive timeline the mining company sought without stripping the mining law of the environmental protections. She explained the mining company had not asked the state to remove environmental protection portions of the law.
The same difference of views on environmental impact could be seen on the candidates’ views on frac sand mining.
Feehan cited a meeting on economic development in Warrens he attended. He said the DNR’s Tom Wolletz stated frac sand mining posed no threat to air quality or groundwater safety. Feehan stated he doesn’t believe claims to the contrary, preferring to accept the opinion of Wolletz, the state’s “expert on the subject.”
On the other hand, Shilling said she had heard lots of concerns during the 14 listening sessions she attended on frac sand mining. The state senator said concerns about frac sand mining impacts ranged from reduced property values, to decreasing tourism dollars, to groundwater quality and more. Shilling pointed out that while sand mining in the state has been around for a long time, mining silica sand is a relatively new phenomenon that has grown very fast. She noted there were 87 frac sand mines in the state operating or under construction in July. There were also 20 more proposed.
Shilling said she co-sponsored a bill with State Senator Kathleen Vinehout that would obligate local units of government to give a 30-day notice of a frac sand mine permit application to residents living within one mile of the proposed facility.
Shilling said if she were re-elected, she would want to work hard to restore trust and integrity to the legislature, which she believes has been lost.
“We need to regain civility in the legislature and begin building back trust,” the state senator said.
Because of her long tenure and contacts with other legislators, Shilling said she was able to get support on two pieces of legislation in what she considers a hostile environment. One bill established licensure for anesthesiologist assistants, which she sees as important for rural hospitals.
Shilling also worked with Governor Scott Walker and State Assemblyman Robin Vos (R-Burlington) on building a program that makes Hazardous Materials Teams available to municipalities that do not have access to them.
Both candidates identified education as priority.
“Wisconsin has the strongest public education system in the country,” Feehan said.
The candidate acknowledged that many people are fearful that Republicans want to do away with public education, which he said would not be a good idea.
“We have an obligation to provide a decent education for all,” Feehan said. “It’s essential to provide a high quality education.”
Feehan believes the right education leads to employment. He also believes research like that done at UW-Madison is important to economic development.
While supporting public education, the candidate believes that too many times education legislation is directed at the major population centers around Milwaukee and Madison. Feehan feels the state is not adequately funding rural education, where districts face an enormous challenge in transporting students.
Improving rural education through better funding is a point the candidates agreed on.
State Senator Shilling learned a lot when she sat down with State Superintendent of Education Tony Evers at a meeting of rural school administrators, teachers and support staff held in the Kickapoo School District. Those interested in rural schools told her about the need for increased sparsity aid and transportation aid.
“It’s important to recognize the unique challenges facing rural schools,” Shilling said. “They are struggling with declining enrollment and higher transportation costs and we need to factor in poverty.”
Shilling remembers commitments made in the past by both parties to get state funding of public education up to 66 percent to ease the burden on local school boards and property taxpayers. Now, that support continues to erode. State funding stands at about 60 or 61 percent of the total cost of public education in Wisconsin, according to the state senator.
While Feehan also acknowledges the need for more state funding to support public education, he said it must wait until there is more revenue available to fund it.
Like Shilling, Feehan lists economic development and employment as priorities. However, the candidates disagree on how to achieve the results.
Feehan believes reducing taxes, fees and regulation on state businesses will create economic development and therefore jobs.
Lifting people off government relief programs, like Badger Care, through employment will result in savings and taxes paid on their income will produce more revenue. When this occurs other problems like those in public education will be easier to address, according to Feehan.
Shilling sees it differently. She believes improved education focused on specific training will close a skills gap that exists in the state. The state senator believes job training and work force development must be top priorities in economic development.
“We need to invest in our technical colleges and university system,’’ Shilling said. She noted that the Wisconsin Department of Work Force Development lists 44,000 jobs on their website and the jobs are not being filled because employers can’t find the right employee. She believes it will be necessary to align training at tech schools with employer’s needs. She also believes the state needs to encourage and expand apprenticeship programs to facilitate employment and economic development.
It seems the only thing certain in the 32nd District of the Wisconsin State Senate this year is that voters will have a definitive choice when they go to the polls on Tuesday, Nov. 6.