Kelda Roys Puts Family Front And Center In Democratic Bid For Governor
Former Lawmaker Says She'll Turn Out Party's Progressive Base
Former Lawmaker Says She'll Turn Out Party's Progressive Base

Kelda Roys is bouncing a baby on one knee, balancing a laptop on the other and reaching for a jumbo-sized thermos of coffee.

Her baby, Avalon, leans toward the coffee, extending with her chubby baby arms and making just enough contact with the thermos to spill a little.

"Coffee isn’t for you!" Roys laughs, brushing the stain and resituating Avalon on her lap at her Madison home.

Avalon, sometimes called "campaign baby," has appeared in Facebook posts on Roys’ campaign page and joined her mother at events across the state. Perhaps most notably, though, was Avalon’s cameo in her mother’s campaign video earlier this year.  

Roys’ campaign got a major boost from the video, which shows her breastfeeding her then-4-month-old daughter.


The video got coverage across the country and the world by outlets like the BBC, CNN, Glamour magazine and "The Today Show."

Roys says she didn’t plan to record herself breastfeeding for the ad. But, when it needed to happen, she decided to stay in front of the camera because she thought it was something voters should know about her — and might appreciate.

"Sometimes I think it’s hard, especially for women, to be taken seriously as professionals when they’re also seen as parents, and it’s past time for that to be the case," she said.

Bringing Avalon and her other young daughter, 4-year-old Arcadia, to campaign events hasn’t been a problem, she said — except for perhaps when a grandparent comes along for babysitting duty.

"Sometimes the issue is I’ll have a grandparent along and they’ll say, 'I didn’t get to hold Avalon at all,' because everybody in the Democratic Party of Ozaukee County wanted to hold the baby," she said.

At 38 years old, Roys is one of the youngest Democrats running to challenge Gov. Scott Walker in the fall. She says she brings the energy and enthusiasm necessary to fire up Democrats.

"We can’t win in Wisconsin without engaging our progressive base and giving them a reason to show up at the polls," she said.

Roys said she can do that for the party by focusing on issues like student loan debt.

"It is a huge millstone around the necks of my generation, Gen X, and our friends, the millennials," she said. 

Roys represented Madison in the state Assembly from 2009 until 2013.

"She was young, and brilliant and she had a plan," said Cecely Castillo, who served as Roys’ chief of staff from 2011 until 2013.

Castillo said a highlight of their work together in the Capitol included implementing a bill that banned the chemical BPA from childrens' sippy cups. Roys co-sponsored that bill, which passed in 2010.

"We can’t win in Wisconsin without engaging our progressive base and giving them a reason to show up at the polls," Kelda Roys said.

When asked about her other accomplishments in the state Assembly, Roys lists a number of initiatives pushed by Democrats, who were the minority party for part of her term. Those include an expansion of BadgerCare, passed when Democrats still held the majority, and early childhood education grants.

Before her time in the Assembly, Roys was the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin.

And that could be a problem for Roys – particularly if she makes it to the general election, said Marie Griffith, director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.

Griffith has written a number of books on the overlap between morality and politics, including her latest, "Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics." 

She said surveys have shown many Americans support abortion in at least some cases, but it has nevertheless become an incredibly fraught political issue, especially since the 1980s.

"The anti-abortion movement has really been very successful at spreading a message that abortion is murder," she said. "And once you say abortion is murder, there’s not really a lot of middle ground."

Griffith said navigating the issue with Independent and Conservative-leaning voters may be especially hard for Roys, because she’s not just pro-choice, but made money off the pro-choice movement. 

"If the Republican political establishment seize that as a really powerful symbol, to say not only is a person pro-choice him or herself but she made money off of the pro-choice movement through her employment with an organization like NARAL, that might be very successful," Griffith said.

But Roys said she’s proud of her work with NARAL. She considers it a big part of what makes her a good candidate.

She highlights work she did with the organization in addition to supporting abortion rights, which she said included pushing for more access to health care and decreasing the infant mortality rate of African-American babies in Wisconsin.

"People are ready to turn the page," Kelda Roys said of the Walker administration.

Roys’ 2012 campaign against incumbent Democratic U.S. Congressman Mark Pocan could be another sticking point for her campaign.

Some Wisconsin Democrats have less than fond memories of Roys’ campaign, as some of her advertisements and comments were seen as unnecessarily aggressive for a partisan primary. One of her ads accused Pocan of "caving in" to Walker.

"At the beginning, when it counted, he could have stood up to Walker. But instead, Mark Pocan caved in," the ad said.

Roys said she has supported Pocan since he won that primary, and that she learned a lot of important lessons in that race — lessons that have made her a stronger and better candidate for governor.

During that 2012 race, Roys was also accused of misleading voters at one campaign event by implying she is gay by calling her husband her "partner" and pointing out she got married in Iowa. Pocan is openly gay.

"This has got to be the most ridiculous attempt at a 'hit' in politics," said Brian Evans, Roys’ current campaign spokesman.

Evans pointed out Roys’ partner, Dan, was present at the campaign event in question and "gave her a big embrace as she came down from the stage after her speech, with the crowd cheering."

In August, Roys will face a crowded field of fellow Democrats attempting to oust Walker from office. She said she’s confident her track record and policy platform will distinguish her from the crowd.

"People are ready to turn the page," she said of the current administration.

But Roys says Democrats aren’t going to beat Walker unless they engage the party’s progressive base and that she’s the progressive candidate to do it.

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