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Eau Claire Forum Draws Most Of 2018 Democratic Gubernatorial Candidates

Candidates Asked How They'll Address Student Loan Debt, Corporate Ownership Of Farmland, Retirement

Democratic 2018 gubernatorial candidates
Democratic candidate Mike McCabe stands to address audience members at the FVW Post 305 in Eau Claire during a forum sponsored by the AFL-CIO, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees subchapter 63, Wisconsin Farmers Union and the Wisconsin Alliance for Retired Americans on Monday, Dec. 11, 2017. Rich Kremer/WPR

Several of the Democratic candidates hoping to challenge Gov. Scott Walker in 2018 were in Eau Claire on Monday for a forum sponsored by liberal-leaning advocacy groups.

It was standing room only both on and off the stage at the VFW Post 305. Twelve candidates sat two rows deep facing an audience of well more than 100 people.

The forum, featuring 11 Democrats and one Republican, was sponsored by the Wisconsin Alliance for Retired Americans, Wisconsin Farmers Union, Wisconsin AFL-CIO and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees subchapter 63.

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Some of the more familiar Democratic candidates included State schools Superintendent Tony Evers, state firefighter union leader Mahlon Mitchell, state Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, longtime activist Mike McCabe and former state Rep. Kelda Roys. Democratic State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, was not present. The lone Republican at the event was Ryan Cason.

Other Democratic hopefuls included: Michele Doolan, former state Democratic Party Chairman Matt Flynn, Milwaukee businessman Andy Gronik, Bob Harlow, Dave Heaster, and Jeff Rumbaugh.

Because of the abundance of candidates moderators were only able to ask three questions.

The subject matter of those questions ranged from whether investment firms should be able to buy farmland, to whether college students should be allowed to refinance student loan debt, to whether the state should establish a defined benefit retirement plan for private sector employees similar to the Wisconsin Retirement System used by public employees.

On the retirement front, most candidates at the forum stressed the importance of not allowing future lawmakers to tamper with the state WRS pension fund. And said they supported a Democratic bill that would set up a state retirement plan for private sector employees that mirrors WRS.

Mitchell, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin, riled the crowd up when he denounced attacks on the retirement benefits enjoyed by public workers.

“So the question should be not why do these public sectors have this great retirement?” Mitchell said. “The question should be how do we make sure that everyone has something that mirrors what we have in WRS and how we bring everybody up?”

When the issue of student loan debt came up nearly all of the candidates expressed concern about the cost of a college education and the growing amount of debt students carry with them when they graduate. McCabe, who previously headed the left-leaning Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said students should at least be able to refinance their student loan debt much the same way homeowners are able to refinance their mortgages.

“Our goal as a state can’t be anything less than affordable, debt-free education for everyone,” said McCabe. “We need to make sure that access to education and job training is as affordable for our kids and grandkids as it was for their parents and grandparents.”

Overall the common theme of the afternoon was the need to rally behind a candidate that would be able to beat Republican Gov. Scott Walker next November.

On the way out of the VFW hall the group of potential challengers busied themselves shaking hands while campaign volunteers handed out piles of leaflets listing their experience and top platform issues.