The Democratic candidates for governor took turns criticizing Wisconsin's Foxconn deal in their first televised debate on Thursday night, but differences emerged as state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers pledged to improve the deal rather than kill it.
The debate began with a series of show-of-hands questions asking all of them where they stood on Foxconn. All eight said they opposed the multi-billion dollar deal negotiated by Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Six candidates said they'd kill it or stop it, including former state Democratic Party Chair Matt Flynn, activist Mike McCabe, firefighter union head Mahlon Mitchell, former state Rep. Kelda Roys, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, and state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout.
That left Evers, who has led the field in the limited public polling on the race, as one of the only candidates who said they'd keep the Foxconn deal and try to negotiate it. Kenosha resident Josh Pade said he'd do the same. Pressed on his position later in the debate, Evers called Foxconn a "horrible deal," but said the only alternative was to fix it.
"I can't sit up here and tell the people of Wisconsin … this isn't going to happen," Evers said. "We're already there. And we have to make sure since we're already there that the people of Wisconsin are treated fairly and that we don't make the same mistake again."
The response was in sharp contrast to other candidates, who argued the Foxconn deal would end if they were elected.
"We are paying a foreign company $4.5 billion to pollute Lake Michigan, and I’m not going to stand for that," said Flynn. "I'm going to go in and shut them down."
"The governor does not know what he is doing," Soglin said. "We'd like to know what he was smoking when he negotiated this deal. In China, they're laughing at us."
Reducing The Prison Population
The debate gave Democrats only a minute to answer most questions, and under the format decided by organizers, not every candidate was asked the same question or given a chance to respond to the same issues.
During another show-of-hands question, all candidates said they supported an early release program for people behind bars, though some were asked about different facets of the criminal justice program than others.
Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel has criticized Democrats for plans to release inmates from Wisconsin prisons, saying they're irresponsible and dangerous. Asked about the remarks, Roys criticized Schimel's record.
"The real threat to public safety is a backlog of untested rape kits that our attorney general, Brad Schimel, has sat on as he prints commemorative coins to help pat himself on the back," Roys said.
Mitchell said if he's elected, he'll end the state's "truth in sentencing" law that makes it difficult to offenders to shorten their sentences. He also criticized Walker for not acting sooner to close the troubled Lincoln Hills youth prison.
"We have two Walkers," Mitchell said. "We have Gov. Walker, who legislates and governs one way, and we have candidate Walker, who is now acting like he's a moderate Republican."
Mitchell said voters won't be fooled.
"We see the difference in what happens when we have a governor that doesn't quite frankly give a crap about the people of the state of Wisconsin," Mitchell said.
The one question asked of all the candidates was whether they would support the eventual Democratic nominee. McCabe was the only candidate who said he wouldn't.
"It's a mistake to make a party loyalty pledge," said McCabe. "That sends the wrong message to voters. It says that you all think that party comes before everything. And it also says that whatever the Democratic Party puts forward is good enough. It's not good enough."
Vinehout used her closing statement to stress her rural roots in western Wisconsin.
"I know what it's like to get up at dawn and milk cows," Vinehout said. "I live in a part of the state — beautiful Buffalo County — where Internet comes at a slow walk and you need a guide to tell you not only where the fish are biting but where you can get a cell signal."
Pade, who is making his first run for office, said he wasn't a career politician. He also said he favored keeping a state tax break for private school tuition that other Democrats would eliminate, saying his aunts and uncles all went to a Catholic high school.
"Offering a tax credit for people who want to keep that tradition alive I think is something that should be preserved," Pade said.
When the candidates were asked whether they would support free tuition for two-year colleges and tech schools, seven raised their hands. Evers didn't.
"I believe students should have some skin in the game," Evers said.
All of the candidates had a chance to ask one of their opponents a question. Some were aggressive. Others were softballs.
Evers used his question to discuss Flynn's work representing the Archdiocese of Milwaukee during the priest sexual abuse scandal, referencing Flynn's comment that people who wanted him to drop out of the race could "go jump in a lake."
"Can the people of Wisconsin count on you to treat them with respect?" Evers said.
Flynn, a U.S. Navy veteran, suggested his "jump in a lake" comment was a military term directed at Democrats who were attacking him instead of Republicans.
He used his question to press Evers on Foxconn.
"I have substantial litigation experience, you have no commercial litigation experience," Flynn said.
McCabe asked Mitchell whether he'd support a law that would prevent elected officials from taking any action that benefits donors who give their campaigns more than $1,000. Mitchell said he'd support campaign finance reform, but he didn't offer specifics.
Mitchell asked McCabe his favorite beer. McCabe said it's Spotted Cow.
Pade used his question to praise Roys, asking her an open-ended question about what the state can do for women.
Roys used the opportunity to discuss the prospect that the U.S. Supreme Court could overturn Roe v. Wade, which would reinstating Wisconsin's long-dormant criminal abortion ban.
"As governor, I will continue to work to overturn that cruel law, but I have also pledged that I will pardon anyone charged under that law," Roys said.
Roys asked Pade to talk about how he fought Act 10 in 2011. Pade said he was in law school at the time, but that he called friends to tell them about the importance of teachers.
Vinehout used her question to press Soglin on how Madison's mayor could win over voters in western Wisconsin. Soglin said he'd conducted a poll showing he'd do well.
Soglin asked Vinehout to criticize McCabe's pledge to only accept small donations.
State Republican Party director Mark Morgan issued a statement saying Democrats wanted to erase Walker's accomplishments.
"Tonight, each of the Democrats running for governor offered nothing but promises to undo these reforms and undo the Wisconsin comeback — taking us back to the days of double digit unemployment, record job losses and massive tax increases," Morgan said. "Hard-working Wisconsin families can’t afford the Democrats’ dangerous race to the left."
The Democratic primary is Aug. 14. The winner will face Walker on Nov. 6.