Race a Factor in Primary for Kleczka’s Seat?

Posted May 11, 2004 at 5:02pm

With just two months to go before the July 13 filing deadline, the pool of candidates has finally begun to settle in the race to replace Rep. Jerry Kleczka (D-Wis.), who surprised political watchers in Milwaukee and Washington, D.C., with his retirement announcement in January.

Already two Democratic contenders have picked up key endorsements in the safely Democratic 4th district.

But a lingering question is whether Milwaukee’s shaky race relations will become a factor in the primary campaign. The city has just come off a racially charged mayoral election that saw white former Rep. Tom Barrett (D) defeat acting Mayor Marvin Pratt, who is black.

In the 4th district race, state Sens. Tim Carpenter and Gwen Moore, state Rep. Shirley Krug and ex-Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Matt Flynn are all vying for the Democratic spot on the ticket in the Sept. 14 primary. One Republican, former Health and Human Services Regional Director Corey Hoze, has thrown his hat in the ring, and Brian Verdin, a teacher and labor activist, is also running for the seat as a Green Party candidate.

So far, the candidates seem to be tip-toeing around the race issue in a district that is 50 percent white and 33 percent black. But a simple endorsement by the Congressional Black Caucus of Moore, the only black Democrat running in the Milwaukee-based district, served as a reminder of its potential.

After meeting with Moore last month the CBC decided to endorse her in the primary, and the CBC Political Action Committee has agreed to support Moore and has already contributed $5,000 to her campaign fund.

“She has an excellent record in the state Legislature, she is aggressive, she has a solid base of support and she is putting together a solid campaign,” said Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.), who chairs the CBC PAC.

Wynn said CBC members have assured Moore that they are willing to travel to the 4th and stump with her to make sure that she becomes the first black Representative from Wisconsin.

And while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee doesn’t endorse candidates in primaries, Wynn said the CBC is “going to take an aggressive leadership role in the primary and once she wins we expect the DCCC will come in and support her. We would be surprised and concerned if the DCCC came in for any other candidate.”

Pratt, the former acting mayor, has also been mentioned as a possible candidate.

But according to Seth Boffeli, communications director for Wisconsin’s Democratic Party, Pratt is looking to run for Moore’s state Senate seat.

In an interview with The New York Times just after his defeat in the City Hall election last month, Pratt expressed bitter disappointment with the state of race relations in the city, and said his missteps in office were magnified by local media practicing a double standard.

“I want to say it’s getting better,” he said. “But it’s still very polarizing.”

In the same interview, Pratt’s wife, Dianne, said, “Racism is alive and well in Milwaukee.”

For decades, Milwaukee had been divided into two Congressional districts, with the white south side of the city in one and the north side, where most of the black residents live, in the other. But Wisconsin lost a House seat in the last round of reapportionment, forcing the city into a single Congressional district.

Republicans seem to delight in the fact that Hoze, a former aide to HHS Secretary and ex-Gov. Tommy Thompson (R), is black. But Boffeli is quick to point out that Republican candidates don’t finish well in the 4th district regardless of their race.

“The numbers are just so strongly Democratic that we’re confident it’s going to stay in Democratic hands.”

Moore’s biggest challenge in the 4th district may be Carpenter. The 20-year veteran of state politics from Milwaukee’s south side is openly gay and picked up the endorsement of the Victory Fund, a PAC that supports gay and lesbian candidates.

“He is one of our top priority candidates this year,” said Robin Brand, vice president of campaigns and elections for the Victory Fund. “This is a great open-seat opportunity and we’re going to do everything we can for him.”

Brand said the group has already raised close to $15,000 for Carpenter, is dropping a mail profile of the candidate to voters this week and is planning a fundraising event in D.C. for Carpenter at the beginning of June.

One other important endorsement that all four candidates are actively seeking is the state AFL-CIO, which will select its favorite candidate on May 20.

Financially the Democratic leader is Flynn, who according to the Federal Election Commission had $235,783 cash on hand as of March 31. Krug had $63,044, Carpenter had $55,711, and Moore had $50,034.