Republican Rob Swearingen, Democrat Merlin Van Buren and Independents Todd Albano and Kevin FitzPatrick will will be on the ballot Tuesday.
The following canidate profiles spell out how they stand on the important issues of the day.
Swearingen says mining
would be top priority
Assembly candidate would put support
behind legislation that aids job creation
By Kyle Rogers
of The Northwoods River News
All of the candidates running for 34th Assembly seat being vacated by Rep. Dan Meyer (R- Eagle River) have called the Northwoods home for a couple of decades. But only one of the candidates, Republican Rob Swearingen, can boast Northwoods residency beyond that. It’s a fact that Swearingen, a Rhinelander native, often points to when answering that age-old election question: Why should people be voting for you?
“I’m the only candidate that was actually born in the district,” Swearingen said. “I’ve lived here all my life. I went to school here. Raised a family here. I never left the district, so I would argue I think I know what the district needs.”
Swearingen, 49, is a 1981 graduate of Rhinelander High School and has been a small businessman in the area for most of the last 25 years. He owned and operated “The Hop,” a ‘50s and ‘60s nightclub for four years on Lincoln Street where a BP gas station now sits. He sold that business in 1991. Two years later, Swearingen and his wife, Amy, bought the Al-Gen Dinner Club and have been operating that long-standing area institution ever since.
Swearingen has had less time to be involved in the daily operations of the Al-Gen since declaring his candidacy for the 34th Assembly District last April. In the August primary, he defeated Rhinelander City Council alderman Alex Young to move on to Tuesday’s general election.
“We’ve been trying to get to every little nook and cranny of the 34th District,” Swearingen said of his campaign. “It is all consuming.”
“You have to develop a thick skin,” he added, referring largely to some of the public comments that have been made regarding his absence at different forums over the past few months that other candidates have attended.
“That’s why I want to meet people in person, so they can form their own opinion about me instead of reading something on somebody’s Facebook page or seeing an attack ad,” Swearingen said.
He said he hasn’t avoided the forums. Rather it’s a matter of when invitations were received and whether or not they worked into a busy schedule. He said he has chosen not to weigh in on the debate though.
“It’s not worth the negative impact,” Swearingen said.
On the other, he said he’s had people approach him out of nowhere offering messages of support. Swearingen is calling Nov. 6 “the most important election of our lives.”
“Every election, we say, ‘This is the most important election of our lives,’ but I think this is,” Swearingen said.
He said Madison needs representatives with open minds who can work together for the betterment of the state and thinks he can be that person for the 34th Assembly District.
“We need to stop the shouting and get back to work,” Swearingen said. “One of the reasons I'm running is the frustration on some of these issues where either side may take the opposite position just because. They’re not looking at the piece of legislation. They’re just looking for another wedge. If you’re going to get something done, you’ve got to be able to extend your hand across the aisle.”
“I’m no stranger to the Madison process,” Swearingen added, citing his time representing the interests of 5,000 businesses across the state as president of the Wisconsin Tavern League. “I would like to take a crack at doing it from the inside out versus the outside in.”
If elected, Swearingen said mining would be his top issue.
“Clearly we had a missed opportunity with the mining last session,” Swearingen said, noting that he thinks, beyond the direct mining jobs created, there would be a trickle-down effect and jobs created in other areas.
“If Minnesota can do it and Michigan can do it, Wisconin can do it safely and responsibly,” Swearingen said.
He said timelines need to be established so potential mining companies understand the process and aren’t just continuously waiting on a decision from state officials.
“I understand there has to be an amount of red tape because of the environmental issue, but we also need to cut some of that red tape so we can keep things moving and keep these companies interested,” Swearingen said.
Ultimately, with how far technology has come, Swearingen said he thinks mining can be addressed in a safe way that appeases all parties.
Like the mining issue, Swearingen said he would look at any introduced legislation under the scope of job creation.
The promotion of the Northwoods is another area that should be emphasized in order to grow the area’s economy, he said.
“Not only is (the Northwoods) a great place to live, work, retire, raise a family, it’s also a great place to start an industry. So we need to promote the Northwoods in general,” Swearingen said.
Tourism, specifically, continues to be an important part of the Northwoods economy and should be an emphasis of that promotion, he said.
“The governor increased the tourism budget last year, and I would love to see that increased again if the funds are available,” Swearingen said. “Let’s keep the promotion of the Northwoods going and these JEM (Joint Effort Marketing) grants. Three Lakes got a JEM grant this past summer for their Heritage Fest and that gave them the opportunity to promote something brand new in the area. I think we’re on the right track.”
However, Swearingen emphasizes that he supports things like an increase to the tourism budget only if the funds are available. He said he doesn’t want to put any more of a burden on taxpayers.
“One of the pledges I made to the people of the 34th District is I want to hold the line on taxes,” Swearingen said. “So anything that would raise taxes, I would have to take a serious look at.”
He said he wants to look further into any fraud that may be occurring in government programs like FoodShare. There are some people who truly need such programs, Swearingen said, while others are wasting tax dollars with fraudulent claims.
“Anything costing taxpayers wasted money needs to be looked at,” he said.
Taxes are also why, on the issue of school funding, Swearingen said he doesn’t support state superintendent Tony Evers’ Fair Funding for our Future plan, which includes redirecting the school levy tax credit.
“Ultimately, that means a tax hike,” Swearingen said. “I respect Tony Evers, but I don’t want to put an extra burden on the taxpayers.”
But Swearingen said he is willing to look at changes to the current funding formula. The constant heard from area school officials is that the formula doesn’t provide enough state aid to northern school districts that are property rich, but income poor. Too much of the funding burden is on the taxpayer.
Swearingen said he’s in favor of looking at changes that would add an income portion to the formula, so it isn’t based solely on property values.
“The problem is if you start messing with the formula, it’s going to impact every district in the state, not just the Northwoods,” he said. “So you’re going to get push back from especially school districts in the south. But I’m willing to look at and entertain any ideas.”
He said because there are certain expenses (i.e. transportation) that cost more in the northern districts, the way to direct more state funding to area schools may be to focus on categorical aids.
Van Buren making second
bid for Assembly seat
Education is his top priority
By Kyle Rogers
of The Northwoods River News
\In 2010, Merlin Van Buren ran for the 34th Assembly District because he wasn’t happy with the representation citizens of the Northwoods were getting from Rep. Dan Meyer. Van Buren ended up garnering about one-third of the votes in a loss to Meyer.
Two years later and Van Buren’s motivation for again running for the Assembly seat is largely unchanged. He’ll be facing three new candidates and not looking to defeat Meyer, who chose not to seek re-election. But Van Buren, 52, wants to make sure this time around that the Northwoods does get properly represented at the Assembly level, and he thinks he’s the man to do it.
“I want to make sure the Northwoods is represented and represented properly in Madison,” Van Buren said. “That’s tough to do because you don’t have the voting power the southern block has but I think it’s still important to be a voice for the Northwoods.”
With Meyer, Van Buren said he saw an Assemblyman who played it too safe — voting mostly along party lines and doing what was necessary to ensure he kept the large contributors to his campaign “warchest” happy in order to secure re-election every two years.
“It’s not what you should be doing as a representative,” Van Buren said. “You should be doing what’s right for your constituents.”
At the heart of the issue is the money in politics, Van Buren said. That’s why making changes to the way campaigns are financed would be one of Van Buren’s top priorities if elected to the 34th District seat.
“In an Assembly race, the money should come from people inside the Assembly district,” he said. “We need to limit the amount of money a candidate gets from outside the district.”
If that happens, Van Buren said he thinks candidates will be more likely to actually represent the interests of their district.
“Money influences representatives,” Van Buren said. “As much as they say it doesn’t or, I would’ve voted that way anyway, I think it does influence.”
Van Buren said campaign finance reform is a long-term problem that will take some time to make progress on. Ultimately, on the national level, he said he would like to see political action committee money completely removed from the election process. However, small gains could be made immediately, he said, such as restricting the money a candidate can take in from outside the district.
“I think that would help a lot in some of the Assembly races to level the playing field,” Van Buren said.
The money in politics is also what is causing division between the two major parties and a reason why Republicans and Democrats have been finding it difficult to compromise, Van Buren said.
“I think it takes a concerted effort by the people that are elected to, first of all, get to know each other on a personal level instead of just a work level and then finding the issues that you can work together on and building off of that,” Van Buren said.
If elected, Van Buren said he would like to form a voting block comprised of the Northwoods’ various state representatives, both Republicans and Democrats.
“Getting together on the issues that are important to the Northwoods and working on those, that might get the ball rolling,” Van Buren said. “It’s going to take some time but it has to be a concerted effort.”
He said he sees several areas where bipartisan efforts are possible. In the Northwoods, Van Buren said the issue of aquatic invasive species is something he thinks area legislators can all agree on. It’s his hope that some common ground could also be found on the job creation front.
Education is Van Buren’s top priority though. His position on the Rhinelander School Board hasn’t pushed that issue to the forefront since the last time he ran for the Assembly. Rather, he said, it has made him more cognizant of some of the issues, such as the school funding formula.
Van Buren said it’s imperative that area legislators work together to help bring on changes to the school funding formula so that rural, northern school districts can see more state aid. Van Buren said a minimum base amount per student needs to be established. Beyond that, school districts should receive additional funds based on two factors: transportation costs and taxpayers’ income level, two areas that greatly affect the Northwoods.
Van Buren said he thinks additional money can be found for schools without affecting taxes.
“There are two areas we can pick up money and not increase taxes,” he said. “First, fully staff the Department of Revenue. Right now it’s not fully staffed and not collecting all the money owed to the state. Second, get rid of the tax breaks put in place in the name of job creation that don’t create jobs. I think we’ll find we do have money to put back into education. If we tax fairly and equally across the board, we don’t have to increase taxes. We just have to be smarter with our priorities.”
Education is Van Buren’s top priority because he says it also ties into other areas such as job creation and the economy.
“I think the standard of living, we have that nailed,” Van Buren said of the natural beauty of the Northwoods. “People want to live up here. You just have to have the opportunity for them.”
Van Buren said that means solid infrastructure in order to support companies that want to be stationed in the Northwoods and a school system that people want to send their children to.
“If you don’t have that, they’re going to choose to go elsewhere,” Van Buren said.
In addition to schools, Van Buren thinks the state could find more money within the budget to aid municipalities. During his campaign travels, he said he sat in on a meeting of St. Germain’s town board where town officials were struggling to find about $2,000 to fix a fire department tanker.
“I think there’s room in the state budget to help municipalities out more,” Van Buren said. “It all comes down to setting priorities when you budget. What’s important and what’s not. We have to go back to the beginning, see what money is available and prioritize how we spend it. I don’t think we did that last time.”
He said municipalities also have to be allowed more flexibility on how funds are spent.
“We don’t trust our county boards, our city councils and our school boards enough at the state level,” Van Buren said. “We put a lot of controls on what they’re able to do. I think the state’s responsibility is to try to increase funding to our local governments and then allow them creativity on how to spend it because up here needs are different than southern Wisconsin.”
FitzPatrick stresses majority representation for the 34th District
Independent candidate says party politics
have made current legislators ineffective
By Kyle Rogers
of The Northwoods River News
There’s a contingent within the halls of Lakeland Union High School that is against the campaign of Kevin FitzPatrick, an Independent candidate for the state Assembly’s 34th District. But it’s not necessarily because FitzPatrick isn’t the right man for the job. It’s because, if FitzPatrick wins Nov. 6, they will be losing a teacher and a coach.
For the last two decades, FitzPatrick, 53, has taught at-risk students at LUHS. He also coaches track and cross country. If he gets elected to the Assembly seat, that will no longer be the case.
“If I get elected to this role, that’s my job,” FitzPatrick said.
He said he thinks it shows that he would be fully committed to representing the people of the 34th District, especially since it means leaving behind a teaching and coaching job that he loves.
“I love what I do. I think I’m good at what I do,” FitzPatrick said. “But I also feel I have an obligation to serve.”
FitzPatrick said he leans toward the Republican Party though he has always voted independently. However, in recent years, he said both major parties have drifted farther apart. The result is a political climate of extremes, and nowhere is the true majority of people being represented. That’s why he entered the race as an Independent.
“I’m hoping I can represent a majority of our citizens because I don’t believe either party is representing the majority,” FitzPatrick said. “I think we’re just forced to vote for one because we don’t want the other one to win. So we’re actually voting against people rather than voting for people.”
FitzPatrick knows it will be difficult to win on Nov. 6 as an Independent. He said he doesn’t have any money to run a campaign, and without the backing of one of the major political parties his exposure to the voters of the 34th District has been slim. Teaching and coaching have, of course, cut into potential campaigning time. FitzPatrick said his campaign has consisted of attending forums and talking to people whenever he is out in the community outside of school hours.
Still, with many voters frustrated by party politics, more people may go the route of an Independent candidate than in years past. FitzPatrick said he thinks he would have an even better chance at winning if it wasn’t a presidential election year. He said some people may make their choice for president, then vote a straight party ticket from there. He hopes that isn’t the case though, and that voters consider him when they see his name on the ballot.
“I think people are looking for someone who represents them, not someone who represents special interests,” FitzPatrick said. “My selling point is talking to people word-of-mouth — who I am, what I’m all about — and hopefully through that people will see I’m just like they are. I’m not representing some organization. I’m representing them. And that’s what I hope to do in this role.”
“We need to vote for issues based on merit, not based on party politics,” he added. “People can talk about, I want to reach across the aisle. That’s wonderful and I hope that it can be done. But I honestly don’t feel that our parties will allow their candidates to reach across the aisle.”
With the right people elected Nov. 6, FitzPatrick said he thinks bipartisan efforts can occur. Take the issue of job creation.
“Let’s try to work together,” FitzPatrick said. “Maybe it doesn’t mean giving tons of tax breaks to corporations, but it probably does involve giving some tax breaks. Maybe it does involve reducing taxes on the middle class, but maybe not as much as we want. We have to look at compromises. Right now, everyone wants to tip one way or the other way and nobody wants to find that balance point.”
For FitzPatrick, the top issue is school finance reform.
“It’s broken,” FitzPatrick said of the current state school funding formula. “It needs to be re-done from the ground up. It just doesn’t work.”
He said he doesn’t have the perfect solution, but knows that funding schools largely through local property taxes is not the most efficient way. He also said it’s not fair to designate a funding amount per student, noting that costs vary from district to district. His school, LUHS, for example, has transportation and heatings costs that other schools in the state don’t have, he said. FitzPatrick said other sources of income need to be looked at and districts need to have more control over what they can and cannot spend.
“You’re going to find a lot of school districts up here in the next few years going to referendum because they just don’t have enough money,” FitzPatrick said.
But he said he thinks taxes could remain unchanged for the most part if changes are made to how state funds are distributed. Again, he noted, he doesn’t have all the answers right now but is open to any and all solutions. That’s the philosophy he says he would take to Madison.
“We always want people to come and say, I’m going to do this when I get [elected], I’m going to do that. But until we actually set foot onto the floor of the Legislature, we don’t know what’s going to get thrown at us. So what we need is creative people, intelligent people, people who are willing to listen to others with an open mind and really try to figure out what needs to be done and how to go about doing it. I think if you come in with an agenda, you’re going to struggle.”
There’s a lot of information FitzPatrick says he doesn’t have. For example, he said he doesn’t know enough about the state budget to propose ideas for potential cuts or cost savings. However, he said he thinks he has the skills to effectively make the right decisions once armed with the appropriate information.
“I’m pretty open-minded,” FitzPatrick said. “I think I’m good at analyzing situations. One of my strongest skills is that of team building. I’m good at bringing people together. I’ve been a college and high school coach most of my career. It takes a certain amount of skill in order to bring people together to focus on a common goal and I think that I’m pretty good at that. Again, I need to have people give me information, but I don’t need people to tell me how to make my decision because I can analyze that information.”
Albano says he would bring moderate approach to Assembly seat
Woodruff resident cites overhaul
of school funding system as top issue
By Kyle Rogers
of The Northwoods River News
If you want to understand the essence of 34th Assembly District candidate Todd Albano’s campaign, look at the controversy surrounding the U.S. Highway 51 project in the Minocqua area.
That project, Albano says, is a prime example of the state doing something unnecessary and expensive that the local residents don’t even support.
“There is no real reason to have to do what they’re proposing,” Albano said. “I think that’s the difference between doing things locally and having Madison dictate what is best for the 34th District. It’s an example of why what’s proposed in Madison is not always best for the 34th District and that’s why I think we need strong representation and I don’t think we’re going to get that with every candidate.”
In Albano’s view, there is an opportunity in every facet of government for things to run a little more efficiently, to find waste that can be eliminated.
He also sees opportunities for more control at the local level than the state level. The main issue that embodies that philosophy is education, which Albano says would be his top priority if elected to the Assembly.
“I think our current education system and funding formula are an utter disaster,” Albano said.
He describes the current method of the state Department of Public Instruction laying down the instructional mandates, the state Legislature controlling funding and the schools’ teachers ultimately held accountable for results as “destined for failure.”
“It doesn’t make sense that the system we have in place would even begin to be effective,” Albano said. “We don’t fund it appropriately. We limit ourselves monetarily and don’t match that with the demands on the school system for achievement. We leave it to [school districts] to figure out how to squeeze the two together and get to the end result.”
He proposes more control at the local level and a comprehensive approach that looks at both desired goals and funding at the same time.
He said state superintendent Tony Evers’ Fair Funding for our Future plan has some good ideas and is a good start, but is simply more “Band-Aids” for a school funding philosophy that needs to be tossed out and started again from scratch.
“I think we need to solve it long-term,” Albano said. “The only way to fix it is to start at the beginning, look at it beginning to end and determine what the best approach is.
“Because of waste and abuse we spend more than we need to,” Albano added. “I think we can be more efficient in our approach and get better results. Because of political unwillingness and because we, as human beings, are creatures of habit, the willingness to go there and revamp the whole system to make a big change is a tough one to overcome.”
As an Independent, the 47-year-old Albano hasn’t had the easiest time getting his message out.
“I get a terrific response one-on-one,” Albano said.
But he acknowledges he’s a longshot to emerge the victor Nov. 6. He doesn’t have the support that comes with affiliating oneself with the Republican or Democratic Party, and continues to work full-time as an HVAC service technician. Albano, a Woodruff resident, said he attends various meetings and events, and covers as much of the expansive 34th District as he can (which now includes portions of Forest and Florence counties.)
“Once you step out of that personal space, you tend to see less recognition for an Independent candidate and that’s the big problem to overcome – getting people to know you and what you stand for,” Albano said. “There are people out there who will just vote one party or another without paying attention to what a candidate stands for or the issues.”
He said he believes if all voters of the 34th District knew what he stands for, he would be “overwhelmingly elected.”
That’s because Albano said he represents a moderate viewpoint.
“I considered running under both parties, but I don’t find one that my views are consistent with,” he said. “I share views of both parties. I’ve voted both ways in the past as well as Independent. I felt it would be most fair to be in the middle where my views truly are. I believe in representing all people no matter what side they’re on. I don’t see other people running who represent that position.
“I see room for compromise on every issue,” Albano added about what kind of Assemblyman he would be. “Our system is set up for representation for all which is compromise. And it’s only because there’s a play for power between the two major parties that they refuse to compromise and that’s why things don’t get done. If people were there to truly represent the people instead of special interests or a political party, legislation would get passed.”
Take the issue of mining. Albano said he thinks it’s possible to approve legislation that would be fair to companies wanting to mine in Wisconsin and appease the environmental concerns mining opponents have.
“I’ve attended a lot of mining meetings,” he said. “The opponents have one thing in common and that’s environmental safety. I can’t blame them because proponents argue we have the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Natural Resources and there are [safety] steps in place. But those haven’t proven to be effective in the past. People don’t have a comfort zone that the regulations and agencies we have in place are going to prevent us from being left with a site to clean up. If we can give them the comfort zone and show regulations are in place that work, they would be OK with [mining].”
Mining is an example of taking advantage of resources that already exist within the 34th District that Albano said is important to economic recovery. He also talks about doing more to help the local timber industry.
“We have an overabundance of timber and a lot of restrictive legislation right now that prevents us from harvesting it and putting that industry to work,” Albano said. “I think we can responsibly harvest our timber and manage our forests and put a lot of people to work.”
Albano said he doesn’t believe in “trickle down” economics and that the key to economic growth and job creation is to make sure the middle class is healthy with money to spend.
If elected to the Assembly seat, Albano said he would also bring the experience of having lived in many different parts of the country.
Before settling in the Northwoods about 20 years ago to raise his family, the Illinois native said he lived in Alaska, Colorado, Kentucky and Oklahoma.
“I hear [Rob Swearingen] campaigning on the idea that, ‘I was born here, I was raised here, I’ve been here my whole life and I’m still here.’ That’s great, but what it says to me is: I have no worldly experience. I’ve lived in Chicago, Anchorage and Denver. I’ve lived in remote areas. I bring a lot of experience because there are a lot of great ideas out there that cities and towns have done that we don’t have exposure to here. You learn a lot about how people overcome adversity and solve problems by [living in different places].”