Its slight Democratic tilt notwithstanding, Western Wisconsin’s 96th Assembly district is a gorgeous area. Stretching from Prairie du Chien and the Wisconsin River on its southern border to the I-90 corridor between Sparta and Tomah to its north, the district encompasses the Kickapoo River Valley, the grand bluffs dropping off sharply into the Mississippi, and countless small towns and family farms.
It’s an old district: the towns are historic, the businesses are community mainstays, and the population is aging. It’s surely a district in demographic flux, changes the Democrats have been trying to turn into political power for a decade.
The Dems are going all-out in their attempt to defeat Lee Nerison this year, the Republican who has represented the district since 2004. Their candidate: a clone of Nerison himself, Democrat Peter Flesch of Soldiers Grove.
A few drives up and down the highways leading from Prairie du Chien to Viroqua, from Westby to Cashton, will reveal the eye-popping natural beauty of the area, as well as those historic storefronts, farms, and a palpable hometown tradition dating to well before the area’s men returned from World War II and established traditions of their own.
The drive also reveals a very competitive campaign being run by both candidates for the seat, evidenced by the numerous houses with dueling yard signs.
Respected, Respectable Candidates
Lee Nerison has represented the district for ten years. The lifelong dairy farmer and chairman of the Vernon County Board, a native of Westby, was first elected to the Assembly in 2004 to succeed exiting Republican DuWayne Johnsrud. Since then Nerison has taken various leadership roles and used them for the betterment of his district.
He’s been a leader in the Republican majority for the interests of rural Wisconsin, a vital role. He recently led an effort to update the regulations on implements of husbandry (farm trucks and trailers, for the city slickers) and, along with fellow rural Republican Ed Brooks, spearheaded an effort to remove from the next state budget a provision that would make it easier for companies from foreign countries to purchase Wisconsin farmland.
Nerison earned the pre-emptive endorsement of the Vernon Broadcaster, which said, “Simply put, it would be foolish for 96th Assembly District voters to not send him back to Madison.” While the endorsement relies on the false premise that experience in politics is the paramount consideration in whether a candidate should be re-elected, it’s well-earned. Experience outside of politics and the results the candidate has achieved while in politics are better gauges.
Nerison is a no-nonsense guy who has gotten those results for the folks back home. As the man himself might say, he just wants to go to Madison to get the job done.
Pete Flesch is making his first run for state office. On paper, he is essentially Nerison with a different letter next to his name and tweaked talking points. He’s Chair of the Crawford County Board, the President of Crawford County’s Economic Development Corporation Board, and a lifelong dairy farmer, an operation he bought from his grandparents decades ago. Though he sold the dairy operation just last year, Flesch maintains a beef herd.
Flesch agrees with Nerison on many issues; the big difference is simply that he peppers his phraseology with DPW talking points. Like Nerison, he supports more local control over issues like frac sand mining, and both see the need to do something to mitigate the damage these heavy operations do to the area’s roads, which are designed for F-150s, not the weight of a semi full of sand.
Both agree on the need to address the shortfall in the state’s transportation fund, a leftover of the reckless budgetary practices of the bald guy who was once governor; related, the need to rebuild the state’s transportation infrastructure; the importance of rural schools to their communities; the need for economic development in the district, and so on.
There is at least one big difference besides their respective party affiliations, one I’ll admit is based on conjecture. As a newbie who emanates a less-than-confident aura about many important issues, Flesch would almost certainly toe the line of the state Democratic Party, a line that leads the state right back into rust belt status.
Nerison, by contrast, has the independent personality and experience to buck the establishment when it’s the right thing to do for the district. A crucial rural voice in the Republican caucus, Nerison has led his party, rather than having been led by the party.
A Bushel for a Barrel
By all accounts, Flesch himself has run an effective campaign; his last campaign finance report, filed Sept. 17, shows that Flesch had $30,980 on hand. That includes $350 from Tawni Kind, Rep. Ron Kind’s wife. Nerison had $30,812 on hand. And while signs don’t vote, one sign of a healthy campaign is the ability to purchase and distribute yard signs en masse.
Flesch isn’t the best public speaker; I’ve seen him in action a number of times. He stumbles over words and often struggles to make a smooth presentation. Nerison, while no Ron Kind, can speak the language of policy fluently while eschewing the typical language of politics.
While a silver-tongued mastery of rhetoric isn’t important in a district like the 96th, a thorough understanding of the issues facing the district is. Policy chops and influence are crucial due to the dearth of rural leadership in the Assembly.
Listening to his ideas on several occasions, I have the impression that Flesch’s experience comes from just a few strenuous projects in his roles in local government; the breadth of his experience comes off as being wider on paper than in practice. Nerison brings an expertise and a genuine drive to pen policies like the ag tourism legislation he sponsored to the benefit the district.
Flesch is no doubt an intelligent, capable, and likable guy. But Nerison can readily point to his leadership on any number of issues over the years that are important to the 96th, and the results of his work are his district’s values on parade. He’s also a member of and leading rural voice within the Republican majority.
Trashing a Tradition
Pete Flesch has indeed run a good campaign. But in the moral sense of the word, there are question marks. His supporters in Madison’s Democratic Party hive are running a campaign of trash over which Flesch should be incredulous, but there is no indication that he is.
The Democrats have targeted Nerison for years. In 2008, for example, $400,000-$650,000 was spent in the battle over the 96th; there’s little doubt that the Dems are once again emptying the purse in their quest to topple Nerison.
One splashy mailer paid for by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin in recent weeks attacks Nerison for his votes on school vouchers. It features a sad little girl and claims that he voted to take away money from her schools to send it to private schools in Milwaukee. That’s a gross exaggeration of the move to grow the voucher program which allows people who aren’t rich to make the decision to send their kids to private schools. It’s hyperbolic politics at its worst, but it’s big, splashy, and no doubt effective.
In reality, the rural schools of Western Wisconsin are of a much higher caliber and held by the community in much higher regard than schools in other areas of the state. In fact, Nerison has prioritized better funding for rural public schools’ transportation – their buses have to drive farther. It makes sense.
Another mail piece accuses Nerison of voting to sell Wisconsin farmland to China, an echo of the Burke campaign’s attacks against Walker. This piece is a straight-up lie. I mentioned up top that Nerison actually helped lead an effort to remove that provision from the budget. But Democrats never let the truth get in the way of a good smear.
In his opus about the race, the editor of the Crawford County Independent wrote,
Nerison cited his work in turning back a proposed law that would have allowed foreign individuals, corporations and governments the right to own more than 640 acres of property in the state. He noted that he got 25 Republicans to join him and Democrats in rejecting the proposal to drop the 640-acre restriction.
There have been other attack mailers, but they’re hard to track down – which is the advantage of direct mail. The two I obtained were sent to a Republican friend in the district, so they’re probably being sent to a very wide audience. All are 8.5×11, glossy, full-color, and feature heart-touching photos and photoshopped graphics.
It’s not clear how much money the Democrats are willing to spend to squash Lee Nerison. It’s also not clear why Nerison keeps winning in a district that tilts blue, but the area certainly has a preference for results-oriented politics, Jennifer Shilling’s negative campaigns for the Senate notwithstanding.
A Rural Flavor
Being well-liked and getting good results is good armor for a politician in any political era, and Nerison has thus far been wearing kevlar.
The Democrats are putting the full weight of their Madison consultancy behind an effort to squash a grassroots representative with the largest caliber attacks they can pull out of the arsenal – not unlike the state party’s successful effort to snuff out Ernie Wittwer’s campaign for the Dem nomination in the 17th Senate seat.
I believe Nerison will not just survive, but he’ll win by a margin that will disappoint the Democrats.
It’s important for Nerison to return to Madison. Republicans will retain control of the Assembly, but the lopsided GOP caucus – many of the more powerful Republicans come from suburban southeast Wisconsin – means that rural Republicans bring an exceptionally important perspective.
Representatives like Nerison bring more than a rural voice, they bring solid values to a city that seems so often to be a giant landfill that wafts its stench into the countryside every two years.
Alas, the stink of Madison politics has again drifted into Western Wisconsin. The style of hyper-modern laser beam campaigning took many years to permeate Western Wisconsin, with its small-town tradition of honest handshakes and the long-ingrained expectation of fair dealing by politicians.
After the fall of Dan Kapanke, Lee Nerison might be the last holdout of that old fashioned brand of politics in which people are “folks” and the folks simply want the man they know as “Lee” to get the job done down in Madison.