Wisconsin State Assembly District 43 candidates responded to questions, most of which were submitted by approximately 30 constituents in attendance, during a forum conducted by the Whitewater Area League of Women Voters on Oct. 13. The forum was held in the Whitewater Municipal Building city council chambers.
League board member and secretary Ellen Penwell served as moderator during the 90-minute forum, posing to each candidate 19 questions. Seventeen questions were submitted by the public and two came from a questionnaire, which had been prepared by league board members and submitted in advance of the forum to candidates: incumbent Don Vruwink, D-Milton, and challenger Gabriel Szerlong, R-Milton. The names of both candidates will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Each candidate was given an opportunity to submit a short biography, which Penwell read aloud, as well as make a two-minute opening statement. At the end of the forum, candidates were given opportunity to make a two-minute closing statement.
Bio and opening statements
According to his submitted statement, Vruwink grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm, graduating from Auburndale High School in 1970. He attended UW-Stevens Point, earning a bachelor’s degree in social studies with a minor in coaching, and attended UW-Whitewater, where he earned a master’s degree in history in 1986. He was a Milton school district teacher for 37 years, serving also as a sports coach. Now retired, he continues to substitute teach in other districts and serves as a sports umpire. He is a former Milton Parks and Recreation director and city council member. He serves currently as a member of the Milton school board.
Vruwink was elected to the State Assembly in 2016. In his first term, he served on the education, agriculture, tourism, colleges and universities, and rural development committees. He is a member of the Wisconsin Dairy Task Force as well as “a committee studying investment and use of school trust funds.” His wife, Beth, is an elementary school library aid.
During his opening statement, Vruwink said he has enjoyed working on different levels of government, adding: “I think my biggest thrill was helping to build the veterans’ memorial (in Milton). “I can make things better for communities, and that’s what’s important to me,” he said.
According to his submitted statement, Szerlong, a lifelong resident of Milton, is a UW-Whitewater 2017 graduate with dual degrees in political science and public administration. He has served in the offices of both Gov. Scott Walker and Speaker Paul Ryan, while working full-time elsewhere for his means of support. He also worked at the State Capitol where he fielded constituents’ calls, wrote press releases, assisted in bill writing, and helped on the floor “as needed.” He became an Eagle Scout when he was 14. Service to the people is his mantra, he wrote.
During his opening statement, Szerlong said: “In 2015, my family lost my sister at the age of 30 … the 43rd came together for our family … They took care of everything we needed … and that’s when I truly found my calling to serve the people … and I want to give back to them what they gave to our family during its darkest time.”
Szerlong described working with the Wisconsin Legislature, saying that while he worked for “a gentleman” who was “in the majority,” it did not guarantee that legislation would pass. “I had to work day-in and day-out for that gentleman … to get what that district and the state of Wisconsin needed at that time for that piece of legislation,” he said.
Q and A
Questions posed to candidates covered a broad range of state and local themes, including gerrymandering, rural economies, gun violence, funding for roads, short-term borrowing and school funding, the outlook for UW-Whitewater, the impact of the Affordable Health Care Act, the opioid epidemic, Foxconn and more.
Of gerrymandering, Vruwink said that he had authored an Assembly bill that was not brought forward, designed, he said, to follow an “Iowa model,” taking “politicians out of the process of creating these districts.” He blamed both Republicans and Democrats for taking part in gerrymandering Wisconsin’s districts.
Szerlong said he wanted to work with both sides of the aisle, and spoke about redistricting opportunities in the future: in 2020, federally, he said, at the time of the next census, and in 2022 at the state level. Drawing fair district lines is more challenging within cities, he said, adding: “unfortunately, we are not going to be able to please everybody in the long term.”
When asked about the rural economy, Szerlong talked about funding for projects at the local level. He pointed to an environmentally driven project, which helped bring $200,000 to the Fox River area to rehabilitate that waterway, causing, “ripple effects,” he said, citing growth in property values and tourism. Gas tax monies were used to fund that project, he said.
Vruwink talked about a need for “keeping young people in our state.” In Wisconsin, he said, when young people leave the rural areas, they don’t return. He talked about a bill designed to give loan forgiveness to out-of-state students who were studying to become teachers. He amended that bill to include students from within the state, but it did not pass, he said. He cited a lack of grants to fund amenities like high speed Internet and parks, and a concern in the rural areas about losing their schools, which, he said, was linked to their local character.
On the subject of gun violence, Vruwink said, $100 million in grant money has been made available to fortify schools. In Milton, he said, bullet-resistant glass was being installed in school buildings. He said he would prefer to see money used to improve mental health options rather than install barriers.
Szerlong called the grant money “a step in the right direction,” he called “hardening the targets” a “good idea,” but, he said, he agreed addressing psychology was a good idea, too.
On the topic of roads, Szerlong said he believed in shared revenues as a funding approach. He pointed to Milton’s wheel tax, saying he had yet to see any improvements coming as a result of that funding, asking: where is that money being spent? He supported moving some funding away from larger projects in support of local roads.
Vruwink said he was learning from constituents, car and truck drivers alike, that they would be in favor of raising the gas tax to improve roads. Milton’s wheel tax, he said, had been in place for one year, so benefits were yet to be seen.
Looking at short-term borrowing for schools, Vruwink said, a change in the schedule through which schools receive monies from the state would help address the issue. Schools borrow to fill gaps between payments and accrue interest as a result.
Szerlong described himself as a “huge advocate” for K-12 education. He said he wanted to work with school districts. Pointing to Milton’s recent attempts to create a $60 million capital improvements referendum for inclusion on the April ballot, he said voters within the Milton school district had “shot down” previous referendums. He cited the most recent attempt as evidence that the school board was not listening to its constituents.
Looking at the future of UW-Whitewater, Szerlong said he chose the university because he was impressed with its programming and it allowed him to stay close to home. He would encourage growth for the institution by working with the chancellor to grow enrollment and make tuition affordable, he said.
Vruwink said he would stop funding freezes and give professors raises. Pointing to a decline in enrollment at UW-Whitewater over the last two years, he suggested investments such as a four-lane highway to access the university, and more affordable housing, both of which could benefit students, professors, and future Foxconn employees, he said.
On the topic of heath care, Vruwink said Wisconsin is currently part of a lawsuit to withdraw from the mandate to provide health insurance to those with pre-existing conditions. “That’s a concern to me,” he said. He advocated for the state to accept federal Medicare funding as well as extend the state’s BadgerCare program to include a broader range of coverage.
Szerlong said he was born prematurely, and his father, then a small business owner, made arrangements with the heath care provider to pay his bill in small monthly payments. He advocated for more insurance companies to come to the state, thus driving, through competition, the cost of insurance down.
About opioid addictions, Szerlong said he thought “the Hope agenda” was a good step. “Every case is different. We need to start working with first providers,” he said.
Vruwink said it was a major crisis bringing effects to people in all walks of life. He said he thought pharmaceutical companies needed to be held accountable so that they don’t put addicting substances in medicines. Also, he said, he worries that with so much attention paid to one form of addiction, other forms get less attention. He cited meth (methamphetamine) labs as an example.
Relative to state support and benefits of Foxconn, Vruwink said he believed Foxconn was passed too fast by the Legislature. It was not properly vetted, he said. Since its proposal, the project has been cut back in scope and used eminent domain to take property. “This could have been thought out better,” Vruwink said. To benefit Whitewater, he said, he advocated for a wider State Highway 12, but he said, because there is a lack of funding for roads, Foxconn, could be closed by the time those highway improvements might be realized.
“Foxconn was the right decision,” said Szerlong. He said people are excited about it, and many have already benefited through jobs created to help build it. He pointed to investments made by Foxconn within the UW system to help train people to work at the facility.
For more questions and written answers as submitted by Vruwink and Szerlong, visit the League of Woman Voters in the Whitewater Area website: lwvwhitewater.org.