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Unknown Vinehout running for governor

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Steven Walters
February 20, 2012

Alma in Buffalo County is about half the size of Elroy in Juneau County. The 2010 Census counted 781 Alma residents and 1,442 in Elroy.


Both rural communities have now sent to the Capitol lawmakers who ran for governor, defying odds that they would ever be elected.


Now it’s Democratic Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, who scrapped her career as a University of Illinois college professor and administrator to milk cows on her Alma-area farm, who wants to replicate the 1986 journey of Elroy’s favorite son, four-term Republican Gov. Tommy G. Thompson.


Another Democratic state senator who serves with Vinehout observed last week: “She has a story to tell.” And maybe it’s an advantage that so few Wisconsin voters have heard her story. Vinehout can do something that Kathleen Falk, the only other announced Democratic candidate in a likely summer recall election against Republican Gov. Scott Walker, can’t do with most rank-and-file Democrats: Make a first impression.


Without referring to the former Dane County executive by name, Vinehout vowed to run a grass-roots campaign and bring the “freshness” of someone who hasn’t lost two statewide campaigns. It’s a reference to Falk’s loss in a three-way primary for governor in 2002 and in 2006 for attorney general.


But Vinehout’s name prompts a one-word reaction—“Who?”—across Wisconsin.


She’s only been in the state Senate for six years and was re-elected by 403 votes—out of 60,225 votes cast—in November 2010. Then, her opponent was Ed Thompson, Tommy’s younger brother, who campaigned in between treatments for the pancreatic cancer that killed him last October.


Much of Vinehout’s 31st Senate District hugs the Mississippi River, and many of its workers commute to jobs in Minnesota. Its economy rises and falls with milk prices. The census said Alma lost 17 percent of its population in the last decade. There’s one traffic light in Buffalo County, Vinehout jokes.


Vinehout’s story?


According to her campaign and official resumes, her father was a member of the Laborer’s Union and her first job was as a nursing assistant.


She has a doctoral degree in “health services research,” which led to her teaching at and running graduate and undergraduate programs in health administration at the University of Illinois in Springfield. Her husband, Doug Kane, served in the Illinois House. They have one son.


In 1995, Vinehout said she quit as a health care educator to “follow her dream,” and they bought the Alma farm. For 10 years, she ran it as a dairy farm, although they couldn’t afford health insurance for about two of those years, and it’s now an organic farm that raises hay and grain.


People who don’t have health insurance “feel like it’s their fault,” said Vinehout, who is 53. “It’s not their fault. The system is very broken.”


What in Vinehout’s Senate record will be used against her?


First, she was one of the 14 Democrats who bolted to Illinois on Feb. 17, 2011, to block a Senate vote on Walker’s bill that all but eliminated collective bargaining for most public employees. The 14 Democrats didn’t return to the Capitol until March 12, one day after Walker signed the changes into law.


Although Republicans say Vinehout and all Senate Democrats did not show up for work, Vinehout said she worked very hard in Illinois because she and her staff responded to 27,000 contacts in that period.


When the Republican governor refused to negotiate, Vinehout added, “The only tool I had was a filibuster.”


Second, Vinehout led the 2007 push by Senate Democrats for a universal health care plan in Wisconsin—an idea despised by conservatives.


Vinehout said “aspects” of that Healthy Wisconsin plan are still needed—starting with creation of an Internet “exchange” that would let individuals and small-business owners compare coverage and prices for health insurance.


Third, Vinehout won’t rule out, as governor, vetoing the next state budget if it doesn’t restore the collective bargaining system Walker repealed last year—a promise Falk has already made to public employee unions.


Vinehout said she would first push for collective bargaining to be restored in a separate bill. But “I’m certainly not opposed” to vetoing the entire budget over that issue, she added.


Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. This column reflects his personal perspective. Email stevenscwalters@gmail.com.

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