One thing I love about city politics is that it creates inner-party debates not often seen outstate. In most Assembly and Senate districts it is at least conceivable that a member of the opposite political party could unseat an incumbent. Not so in Milwaukee. The action here is Democrat versus Democrat.
In a perfect world city primaries would allow voters and candidates to challenge the definition of what a Democrat can or cannot be, and specifically call attention to urban issues such as education, transportation, and city governance. But alas the world is not perfect and productive debate often devolves into a much uglier type of litmus test politics.
This happened during a forum last week when Milwaukee State Representative Elizabeth Coggs told a group of mostly African-American voters to “vote for someone that looks like you.” Coggs is being heavily criticized for her comment (from Black and White Milwaukeeans alike), but it would be dishonest, unfortunately, to claim that race does not play a role in politics. Representative democracy most often results in the election of candidates that match the demographic profile (including race) of the majority of a voting district.
There are of course many exceptions (especially at the individual level) and the election of Barack Obama in particular provides hopeful evidence that the country is progressing in a positive direction on racial politics. Perhaps Coggs’ biggest mistake was making a direct appeal to race, as the public discussion of race in politics is more progressive than the actual role of race in politics.
Somewhat lost in the controversy caused by Coggs’ comment is the criticism being heaped on Milwaukee State Representative Jason Fields. Fields, who recently authored or co-authored bills on topics as diverse as creating targeted economic development zones for Milwaukee, creating concussion guidelines for high school athletes, adding financial literacy to school curriculums, encouraging businesses to offer public transportation benefits to employees, and addressing collateral consequences for people with criminal records, is facing a tough primary challenge spurred by his support for school choice policies*.
The issue of school choice exposes a disconnect between Milwaukee policy elites and citizens. Polls by WPRI and others indicate a majority of Milwaukee residents support the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. And most importantly, over 20,000 Milwaukee students participate in the program; presumably that number includes many of Fields’ constituents. Given that, Fields’ efforts to expand access to school choice and to increase regulations that have closed dozens of low-performing schools is not surprising.
Also not terribly surprising is that the American Federation for Children, an organization that supports pro-school choice candidates, supported Fields with a mailer. I can understand why campaign finance reform advocates do not like the mailer (it has nothing to do with education), but much of the ire at Fields stems from the mere fact an organization that sometimes supports Republicans supports him. Apparently, lending bi-partisan support to an issue important to Milwaukee residents is a punishable offense for a Milwaukee Representative.
Litmus test politics such as appealing solely to race, dismissing the work of a legislator because of singly policy stance, or dismissing a candidate because of a refusal to sign a pledge prior to an election cheapen Wisconsin’s policy discussion. Neither party has a monopoly on good ideas, and blind devotion to a single set of policy preferences only ensures good ideas never see the light of day. The policy preferences of voters across and within races and party affiliations vary widely; it only makes sense that the policy preferences of elected officials should vary as well.
*In the interest of full disclosure I volunteered on Rep. Fields’ assembly campaigns in 2006 and 2008. At the time I was a fairly enthusiastic Democrat. Since then I have evolved into something more of an independent and have no connection to Fields’ campaign.