It was an opinionated but civil meeting of the minds Wednesday when three of four candidates for a vacant 13th State Senate District seat met via the Zoom platform to debate campaign issues in a forum sponsored by the American Association of University Women.
The election April 6 will determine who will succeed Scott Fitzgerald, who vacated the seat to serve on the United States House of Representatives after being selected to replace the retiring F. James Sensenbrenner.
Featured in the approximately one-hour-long event were Democrat Melissa Winker, Ben Schmitz of the American Solidarity Party and Spencer Zimmerman of the Trump Conservative Party. Declining to participate in the forum was Republican Candidate John Jagler, who represents District No. 37 in the Wisconsin State Assembly. The event was mediated by former Watertown cable television personalty Jill Nadeau.
The 13th Senate District encompasses large portions of Dodge and Jefferson counties, including Watertown, Columbus, Beaver Dam, Oconomowoc and Lake Mills. It extends as far west as the Deforest area.
During the introduction portion of the forum, Schmitz talked of his front-line experience in emergency response during the recent Black Lives Matter conflict in Wisconsin, as well as his contributions to battling the COVID-19 pandemic here. He said there is great need for dialogue among politicians and members of the public, and everyone needs to make an effort to be patient and listen to the ideas of others. He also said there needs to be a clear-cut definition of what is acceptable use of force by law enforcement. He added that he is "passionately pro-life."
"The nation's moral character is more important than affluence," Schmitz said.
Winker came out of the blocks hard, with immediate criticism of Jagler for his absence from the forum.
"I will always show up for you," she told the public, adding that safety, jobs and the community are among her highest priorities.
She also mentioned that she was raised in the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod and that helped instill in her certain positive values.
"I know we can do better (as a society)," she said of her desire to become a governmental leader. "I will fight for decency and responsible government."
Zimmerman also initiated an attack on Jagler at the first opportunity.
"Where is John Jagler? Why won't he face the voters?" Zimmerman asked, noting he felt Jagler's absence was, in part, what differentiates Jagler from the rest of the field.
Jagler was contacted by a reporter Thursday for comment on the forum, but did not respond.
Zimmerman talked of his support of term limits for governmental representatives and accused Jagler of a lack of support for such limits.
When asked how they would improve the legislature's response to the pandemic, Winker said the body would need to be guided by a strong compass and the response of experts. She was critical of Republicans and what she characterized as their weak response to the need for face coverings to be worn by all when in public.
She said the health needs of society and the requirements of business need to be balanced better in the future.
Zimmerman said pandemic lockdowns must to be ended. He also spoke of the need for more secure U.S. borders and noted that there are people coming into the country who are likely transporting the COVID-19 virus in with them.
Schmitz said there must be a uniform response to any pandemics, or similar emergencies, in the future. He said the state should have done more to support businesses in the pandemic if it was going to force them to close. He also said more checks should be put into place to end government's abuse of its powers.
When asked what the most important issue is in District 13, Winker said she has heard members of the public say, overwhelmingly, that it is the need for affordable healthcare. Second, she said, is the need for greater support for area businesses.
Zimmerman said the presidential election was "stolen" from Donald Trump and America must restore confidence in its election process.
"That is a No. 1 priority," he said.
Schmitz said he feels people have to relearn how to disagree peacefully.
"We need to listen and be open," he said. "We also need to help the weak through charitable acts and we have to set up better healthcare."
Nadeau asked the candidates what they would do to promote economic development in District 13.
"We need to support business and create opportunities to grow, move around and reduce restrictions," Schmitz replied.
Winker said Wisconsin is near the bottom of all 50 states in terms of start-up businesses coming into existence. She said there needs to be more support of farmers, as well, and that the undue pressure on farmers and small business is the direct result of what she called right-wing extremism in government.
Zimmerman was critical of what he labeled President Joe Biden's attack on oil pipelines — such as those of Keystone and Enbridge — and noted that, if elected, he would offer his support to railroads and their infrastructure. He said he would back oil and gas pipeline projects that made sense, so the U.S. can gain more energy independence.
The candidates discussed schools and how they can be improved.
Winker, an educator herself, said she believes in school choice, but it should not be attained through the use of tax dollars. She said she values every student in Wisconsin.
Zimmerman said it is time for the schools to reopen and for students to attend face-to-face. He also said there is a need for "traditional values" to be taught again and society should get away from what he called "socialistic indoctrination."
"We need to teach our history, or we are destined to repeat it," he said.
Schmitz said he supports private school vouchers that are universally available.
"All parents should have a choice about where their kids go to school," he said.
Explaining why he is the best candidate for the 13th Senate District, Zimmerman talked of his love for living in Wisconsin and his service in the military.
"I've always wanted to serve the country," he said. "We need people who will fight."
He again maintained that Biden stole the election and is not a legitimate president. He also said he does not believe that Jagler, if elected, will fight election fraud.
"The system is rigged," he said.
Schmitz said he has grown tired of voting for "the lesser of two evils" and that the common voter should not be afraid to take on the powerful in society.
He said he will show strong leadership as part of the Solidarity Party.
"If you dare to hope, you will be heard," he said.
Winker said the state needs to look to its elected officials and she will work across party lines for the betterment of all.
The AAUW is a non-partisan advocacy organization focused on gender equity for women and girls through research and education. The AAUW Watertown Branch is part of the National and Wisconsin AAUW organization, formed in 1921.