The July 13 Special Election ballot was finalized as William Penterman came ahead with just a 16-vote lead in the June 15 primary, securing his place as the Republican’s candidate to fill the 37th Assembly District seat, joining Democrat Peter Adams and independent Stephen Ratzlaff Jr.
Now with less than three weeks to go, the candidates are in a race to turn out voters for what would normally be a low-turnout off-year election. Despite a handful of similarities between them, there would be little reason for confusion between the positions they intend to bring to the State Capitol.
Opioids and Public Health
Penterman, a former State Assembly aide and U.S. Army Reservist, and Adams, a former city council member, are both of Columbus, in Columbia County. About five years ago, at the height of the national opioid epidemic, Columbus, with Portage and Lodi, was hit particularly hard. As officials and grassroots activists worked together to address the issue, law enforcement often described how thinking on the issue of drug addiction had changed over the years and “we can’t arrest our way out of this.”
Adams, as a Columbus City Council member, received regular updates on the issue at the time. The Columbus Chief of Police, Adams said, would give monthly reports to the city council, and among a variety of expected traffic violations, the chief would report two or three calls of police officers dispatched to an overdose, to administer Narcan.
“I’m not sure what is going and on and what is driving people to abuse these drugs, but I will say that more effort has to go into, once they are in the system, rather than doing the whole ‘lock ‘em up’ thing, we should seriously look at rehab,” said Adams, “so that these people admit to themselves that they have a problem and so they don’t relapse, because by-and-large, if you go to jail for opioid possession or paraphernalia, as soon as you get out you’re going to try to score again and it’s just a vicious cycle and it gets repeated.”
Adams supports an approach of treating addiction more like a public health issue, approaching those arrested for low-level drug charges as suffering from a disease, offering assistance to help offenders “kick the habit” to become productive members of society. “I think that’s a better way to go rather than lock ‘em up, then release them, and rather, rinse, and repeat all over again.”
Penterman agreed that although the issue had dropped from national prominence, it remains as a subject to address: “I don’t have all the answers and I’m not going to pretend that I do,” said Penterman, agreeing that solely focusing on criminal punishment would not be the answer. “There are a lot of deeper issues here that it’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of effort to find remedies to the issue here. There is no silver bullet, and yes, we need to revisit the issue.”
Ratzlaff, of DeForest, who works in furniture sales and formerly volunteered with the Deer Grove Emergency Medical Services previously ran for the 37th Assembly seat against now-State Senator John Jagler and Democrat Abigail Lowery. He agrees with getting away from the “lock ‘em up” mentality, though offering a caveat.
“I think there should be money set aside for drug diversion programs,” said Ratzlaff, “but at the same time if there are people who are knowingly dealing the stuff, then they need to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
During that time many strategies and solutions were developed at the local and county levels, though as these programs were frequently funded through one-to-five-year grants, organizers were often in the position of always looking toward grant renewal, or finding backup plans if those funds ended.
Adams recognized this as symptomatic of needing “systemic change,” saying: “You can’t keep relying on that, because it is a band-aid fix is what it is. It’s great that it gets it running so you have data and can say, ‘this is what works, this is what doesn’t,’ and in that respect those are solid programs, but we need a systemic change to get a more permanent solution.”
Ratzlaff agreed that it would be within the realm of the state to look at funding these kinds of programs as well. “It’s the same as the prisons--do the Republicans of the Democrats really think that building more prisons--locking people up--is the answer, with building more prisons?”
He clarified that he is not “soft on crime,” not getting into “that whole social justice nonsense,” especially being turned off from that area of activism following Madison’s 2020 protests escalating to incidents of property damage and what he saw as harassment of public figures.
Similar to Adams, Penterman agreed that information has been able to come to light through grand programs, saying: “We’ve been able to find out a lot of things that do and don’t work, through trial and error, the great American experiment and we’re always learning,” said Penterman. “Issues evolve, issues spread, we do need to look for something that will be effective instead of just putting out a fire here and putting out a fire there. That’s good, but it is important to keep long term sustainability in mind, and so it should be addressed.”
Whereas stated intents between candidates run relatively parallel, the details of funding are often the diverging point, as has famously been the case in Wisconsin’s education system in the midst of current budget debates, which the elected candidate will almost certainly be voting for or against.
Asked if he would support increasing public education funding to meet the minimum threshold to receive federal COVID relief funding, totaling over a billion dollars for state schools and nearly $2 million for the DeForest Area School District, Penterman explained that he had a more personal connection to the issue, his wife being a public school teacher.
“Overall, I want what is best for our children,” said Penterman. “I want all children to receive a good, quality education, however, just spending more money on its own doesn’t solve the problem.”
Penterman highlighted a results-oriented approach focusing on increasing learning, engagement and graduation rates.
“The most important part of education is having good, quality teachers who can teach well, and that’s the very core of what makes a child’s education strong,” said Penterman. “I want to support our students with the resources that they need, and spend money on things that work.”
Part of that, he said, is “getting into the political trenches” with “certain groups that seem to only look out for what is best for themselves.”
Adams also pointed out having a personal connection with a wife in education, but taking a stronger, more specific stance.
“You still have teachers who are out there using their own money to pay for school supplies, and that just shouldn’t be,” said Adams. “In terms of getting more funds through the COVID Relief Act--whatever we can do to get more resources to the school districts to provide fair and equitable education for all students. We can do it, I don’t have any question about that.”
COVID relief funding, Adams explained would only be a temporary fix, with a need for permanent changes to funding.
“Maybe indexing funding to inflation or something like that, so we don’t have to keep scrambling to get our education up to snuff,” said Adams. “Because it’s vitally important that we get the next generation of Wisconsinites educated so they can take care of the jobs of tomorrow, because they’re going to have a lot of problems that we’re going to leave for them.”
Ratzlaff, as well, agreed to support for an increase in education funding, going on to say, “and I do support two-thirds funding from the state--I don’t think the state has ever achieved that.”
“I believe that it is some sort of shell game that they’re trying to play up at the Capitol,” said Ratzlaff.
Property Taxes and Values
In recent local elections, the most frequent topic brought to candidates was regarding the proportion of property taxes paid by residents, which is also integral to the ongoing discussion of future housing development and property values in DeForest and Windsor. When asked if there was a place for the state in addressing this issue, Adams responded with an “absolutely.”
“Especially when you’re talking about property taxes going up and up,” said Adams. Enthusiastic to broach the topic, saying he would try not to “go off the rails” on the topic, he explained framed the issue in terms of the broader national economy, with the United States having a demand-side middle-class geared economy from 1940 to 1980, in which companies like Kohl’s and Menards were paying property taxes and also households in the top 1% of income “paying their fair share.” Between 1980 and today, Adams said, the system has shifted to tax burden more toward individual property taxes, and more taxes from working class households.
“It’s not rocket science, we know what works and we know what doesn’t work,” said Adams. “And I think, in talking to people out in the district, they understand that pendulum has got to swing back the other way and it has got to swing back soon.”
More specifically, asked about a resolution passed by the Windsor Village Board earlier this year, Adams supported the prospect of increased revenue sharing to municipalities, which has been cut by $94 million over the past 20 years.
“As long as there is an equitable formula that goes with it, whether that is based on need or population, I would have no problem with that,” said Adams. “Because here in Columbus, over the last couple of years we’ve really been trying to get the lead pipes out of our city.”
Penterman described increased revenue sharing as “an option to explore.”
“Obviously municipalities provide services to their communities and it’s always important to have good fiscal responsibility in budgeting too,” said Penterman. “Oftentimes if we wanted to do everything and anything under the sun, great, but obviously finances and our resources are limited, and being good stewards of resources and not putting the strain on the residents and local communities in upstate Wisconsin.”
In regards to the broader question of residential property values, Penterman kept focus on property taxes specifically, saying that he would want to keep taxes low.
“Financially, part of the bounce back is getting the economy going again and getting people back on their feet in a good financial way, and one of the best ways to do that is to get people back to work,” said Penterman. “A lot of these good paying jobs offering benefits and wages that we’re starting to see, and it’s across the board. One of the number one issues that I’ve spoken to business leaders about is that they can’t find enough employees.”
Ratzlaff was amenable to revisiting revenue sharing, under the condition that it was with a financially responsible approach, also pointing out a change in 2006 that has led to issues for counties and municipalities.
“The gasoline tax was tied to the rate of inflation and reset on April 1 of every year from 1985 to 2006,” said Ratzlaff. “And now the roads are crumbling and you don’t have the money to fix them, plus you have electric cars and hybrids that are coming online now, so there’s going to be less and less money coming in.”
Districts and Elections
Another task that will certainly come before the winner of this special election is a vote on redistricting according to the 2020 Census. This is an issue at the core of Ratzlaff’s campaign, which he is out-of-the-gate ready to discuss given the opportunity.
“Basically, what I’m saying is that I’m not a career politician,” said Ratzlaff, summarizing his campaign. “I’m not beholden to any party and I don’t wan to be beholden to anyone but the voters.”
Ratzlaff says that he does not like the idea of any politician drawing their own district lines, Republican or Democrat, either having the potential ulterior motive of simply ensuring their own re-election.
Adams is not only open to options of non-partisan redistricting, but has a very concise recommendation: “Iowa.”
“Iowa has a non-partisan redistricting process and essentially, they try to make them as square as possible,” said Adams. “We know what works is what’s in Iowa. It’s really hard to gerrymander a square, so I would go with that.”
Penterman explained that he had experience on the subject, having served as a Committee Clerk of the Assembly Campaign Elections Committee, which included research into non-partisan redistricting policies.
“Our state constitution says that the legislature draws and votes on the maps. That is law and so we would have to change the law, so that would have to happen first,” said Penterman. “The way I view it is that the most important thing with districts is that they have a roughly equal number of people living within the district--and that’s the whole reason why we redraw maps, because otherwise if the population didn’t move, shrink, expand, or whatever, we wouldn’t have to redraw maps.”
When asked about municipal and county elections officials who have testified to the increased costs and complexity of organizing elections, such as in DeForest, which includes three different districts, Penterman said that is why he is in favor of keeping communities of interest together.
“I didn’t draw the current maps, so I couldn’t tell you exactly what did or didn’t go into that. I wasn’t there in 2011, I was just starting my freshman year of high school--I was 14 then,” said Penterman. “One thing that I personally would like to see, that the counties and municipalities could really take some leadership on, is if they developed a redistricting plan on their own to fit the mold that they want to see.”
An often fleeting subject of public affairs is efficiency of voting on Election Day itself. When asked what constitutes a reasonable amount of time to wait to vote before it is an issue that reflects upon the competency of the state, two of the three candidates had clear numbers in mind.
Ratzlaff set a reasonable wait at 15 minutes to a half hour, while Adams gave some more leeway.
“It should take one hour, maybe two max,” said Adams. “We’re the richest country in the world, we are the most technologically advanced country in the world, you cannot tell me that we cannot figure out a way to make these lines hum and get people in and out in less than two hours.”
Penterman was not willing to provide an estimated appropriate time for voting.
“I’m not going to throw an arbitrary number out there,” said Penterman. “Because I’m just the average person who votes and I don’t like waiting in line very long, and I don’t think that anyone does. This is why it’s good to keep efficiency as much as possible, and overall I think our clerks do a really good job.”
Over the past year many voters became much more involved in the details of election law and constitutional procedure than they would have expected, never before considering that the results of a national election would be debatable in the way that they were following the 2020 election, in which theories were floated in which state legislators could potentially send “faithless electors” to Washington to cast ballots for President that would disregard the accepted results of the election.
Asked if legislators are obligated to send delegates corresponding to election results, Adams said that legislators are obligated to back state results in national elections. Penterman’s answer fell specifically upon the letter of the law as he understood.
“The legislature overall has that authority and it is the rule that the legislature makes sure that the elections...to make sure that everything went on well and that the democratic process continues on,” said Penterman. “Constitutionally written, that is the case. So yes, I very much support the state constitution.”
When asked if legislators specifically have the authority to override election results, Penterman said that he believed “that authority rests with the state legislator,” though saying he was not an attorney or a constitutional scholar.
Asked for clarification, as to whether legislators individually determine the legitimacy of an election, Penterman answered, “Yes, I believe so.”
For more information on upcoming elections and your local polling place, visit MyVote.Wi.Gov.