BY HOWARD HARDEE
In this time of nasty partisanship, the candidate from The Moderation Party is realistic about his chances of winning a seat in the Wisconsin State Assembly next month.
“Very slim,” said Steven Shevey, a 21-year-old steamfitter from Brookfield. “If I do win, great, but the one thing I want out of this is to get someone better.”
Shevey was inspired to run under the banner of his invented political party after getting fed up with the two-party system during the 2016 presidential election.
“You had two candidates no one liked,” he said. “After that, we had two government shutdowns that cost taxpayers billions of dollars. And then seeing the direction of everything and how it’s going, you have the two parties trying to outdo themselves. As in, ‘I’m a Republican, I’m going as far right as I can because I don’t want to be next to you Democrats.’ And the Democrats do the same. We need to find the middle.”
An usually crowded field is jostling for the open seat in Assembly District 14, which covers portions of the Republican-leaning towns of Brookfield and Wauwatosa, as well as part of blue Milwaukee. Four candidates are running to replace outgoing Republican Assemblyman Dale Kooyenga: Wisconsin State Treasurer and Republican Matt Adamczyk, Democrat Robyn Vining, Libertarian Rick Braun, and the independent Shevey.
During a recent interview in downtown Madison, he described himself as a family-oriented, working-class guy who likes to go fishing and keep up on the Packers. He has a “huge Christian background” and said he goes to church with his parents every Sunday.
A graduate of Brookfield Central High School, he briefly pursued an associate’s degree in accounting from Waukesha County Technical College, but dropped out to become a steamfitter’s apprentice.
Now he’s feeling squeezed financially.
“I’m trying to buy a house soon,” he says. “I’ve seen how the cost has skyrocketed to where you can’t really afford a house. You’re kind of forced to rent. It’s basically done a 180 from when my parents could get out of high school and get a good-paying job.”
“Nowadays, you can’t get a good-paying job unless you go to a four-year college or something like that,” he continued. “So, you’re kind of stuck at your parent’s house for a long time.”
When it comes to politics, he tends to lean to the right, but prefers middle-of-the-road over the extremes he sees today. He’s critical of both Obamacare and Trump’s tax plan, and he’s also turned off by the generally ugly tone of today’s political discourse. Shevey believes voters are ready for a younger candidate with an independent voice — someone who won’t engage in tribalism and personal attacks.
Enter his main opponent, Adamczyk. The outgoing state treasurer and likely favorite in the red 14th District fits the increasingly common mold of a brash and uncompromising politician.
Secretary of State Doug La Follete, a Democrat, and Attorney General Brad Schimel, who is from his own Republican Party, have both accused him of abusive behavior toward the state employees they oversee. The three elected officials sit on the State of Wisconsin Board of Commissioners and Public Lands, whose nine-employee agency manages a billion-dollar fund and caretakes some 80,000 acres of state land.
Adamczyk had previously voted to prevent staff from discussing climate change on the job, and also tried to have the administrator fired. She eventually resigned.
Most recently, Adamczyk butted heads with Schimel and La Follette during an August meeting.
After Adamczyk questioned the credentials of agency staff and suggested they didn’t have professional backgrounds, he interrupted repeatedly as a staff member attempted to explain his work experience. That prompted Schimel to say, "just shut it for a minute," calling him “abusive and unreasonable” to staff, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.
“Matt, I gotta tell ya, I’m counting the days ‘til you’re not on this board,” Schimel told Adamczyk in the meeting. “I’ve had enough.
Adamczyk did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
The contrast between Shevey and Adamczyk is representative of the statewide shift away from relatively moderate and civil politics. Wisconsin has morphed from the moderate-to-progressive Midwestern state it had been for decades, said Joe Czarnezki, a former state assemblyman, senator and Milwaukee County Clerk. A lifelong Democrat, he said personal attacks were rare when he served as an elected representative in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and across-the-aisle collaborations were much more common.
“You would argue about the issues,” he said, “and go get a beer together afterward.”
In recent years though, partisanship in state politics has become much more overt, said Larry Anderson, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin - Whitewater.
“I’m left with the impression that it’s not as clean as it used to be,” he said. “It’s hyperpartisan now, reflecting the divisions in the United States, and it seems like nobody is happy.”
Yet Anderson disagrees with Czarnezki, saying the process of political polarization began long ago, well before the famously divisive 2012 recall election of Gov. Scott Walker. He referred to a political saying dating back to 1895 - “politics ain’t bean-bag.”
“It’s always been nasty,” he said.
The rise of social media has played a role, Anderson said. He also cited globalization, immigration and the changing economy as the primary forces behind the decline of civil politics.
But, he emphasized, it all starts and ends with us.
“We get what we ask for,” Anderson said. “If we start asking for more decency and more cooperation, I think we get that.”
“I don’t think Scott Walker or Donald Trump have done anything other than what some people want them to do,” he continued. “On the other side, I don’t think Democrats have done anything other than fight hard and take what they can, when they can. I think that’s what we’re asking for, so if we want things to change, we have to be really clear about expecting our politicians to be more decent.”
From Czarnezki’s viewpoint, the polarization of Wisconsin’s politics is a reflection of “voters losing control of democracy.” Big money talks in a big way, he said, often influencing politicians to act against the majority’s will.
Shevey said he isn’t accepting donations, noting he doesn’t want to owe anyone on the off-chance he’s elected. He’s self-funding his campaign through his work earnings, reporting about $2,700 in contributions from himself. His opponents certainly are taking donations though. Adamczyk has raised nearly $37,000, but has been outraised by Vining, his Democratic challenger, by nearly $6,000, according to the most recent campaign finance filings on www.followthemoney.org. The Libertarian Braun has raised $755.
Czarnezki also noted that thousands of Wisconsin voters were essentially barred from participating in the 2016 presidential election thanks to the state’s strict voter ID law, pointing to findings from a study at the University of Wisconsin - Madison.
However, Czarnezki is encouraged by the surge in young, first-time candidates running for office throughout the country. Shevey’s politically-moderate campaign and others like it may cause his Democratic and Republican counterparts to “modify their positions on issues and soften their hardline stances,” Czarnezki said.
Shevey believes voters are tired of lifelong politicians who are more interested in career preservation than serving the public. And so he views youth and relative political inexperience not as a hindrance, but an advantage.
“I think that makes the best candidates,” he said.