The two Democrats running in the Aug. 11 congressional primary in interviews last week expressed confidence they can be the next congressman from Wisconsin’s 1st District.
The Gazette talked to Roger Polack and Josh Pade about their approaches to government and taking on the well-funded incumbent, Republican Rep. Bryan Steil of Janesville, in the fall election.
Pade and Polack look alike on paper: They are of similar age—Pade 40 and Polack 37. They both tell stories of humble beginnings in blue-collar families, Pade in Kenosha and Polack in Racine. Both are lawyers.
Their backgrounds diverge when it comes to job history. Pade has deep experience in the private sector, first for Festival Foods, working on a variety of management projects as the chain expanded in the early 2000s, and overseeing operational risk management for J.Crew as the retail clothing chain expanded globally later in the decade.
Polack has more government experience. He worked in counterintelligence at the U.S. Department of the Treasury from 2007-17, tracking down sources of funding of Middle East terrorist groups, including work in Afghanistan. He worked on U.S.-China intelligence issues and also on the team that forged the 2015 Iran nuclear deal under President Barack Obama.
Gazette: What would be your approach to getting things done in Congress? Are you willing to compromise to make progress on key issues?
Polack: “I have a history of working both in Republican and Democratic administrations. I worked in the (George W.) Bush administration on counterterrorism. I worked with a lot of Republicans to get a lot of great work done on countering terrorism around the world.
“There’s a proud history in our country of working across the aisle, and recently that seems more difficult than in past times, but I would certainly be working to compromise with Republicans across the aisle and would push hard for issues that I care deeply about and that bring up the well-being of the people of southeastern Wisconsin.”
Pade: “I’m not reflexively partisan. I’m also not a purist. I have my core beliefs. There is never going to be one bill that fixes all the problems, so I shouldn’t reject a bill that improves things because it doesn’t do everything I think it should do.
“I’m not going to reject something because it doesn’t come from my ideological group or my political party. If there’s something that’s conservative that makes sense that is genuinely wanting to fix something, if I as a member of Congress listen and give credibility to that, then that goes a long way to creating working relationships.”
Pade went on to agree with conservatives who are trying to change Wisconsin’ occupational licensing laws: “I’m a Democrat, probably left of center, (and) I think (licensing reform is) something that should be seriously considered from a bipartisan standpoint, and starting with that and saying, ‘OK, you’re on the opposite side; I don’t think you’re evil because you have some good ideas.’”
Gazette: There is a lot of distrust between the two parties. How do you reach those on the other side who could be suspicious of you?
Polack: “I sat across the table from Iranian officials, and I think it’s safe to say that the animosity between the United States and Iran is deeper than the animosity between Republicans and Democrats, and we were able to get a deal done, and that’s through a process of good-faith, incremental steps to get to where we need to be, and I have a history of doing just that.
“I would be an effective negotiator and mediator, as needed, to work across the aisle.”
Pade: “You have to prove that you have an open mind about things. You can’t just say you have an open mind. You have to actually do it. … You can be ideologically entrenched and never get anything accomplished.”
Gazette: How would you defeat Bryan Steil, who is so well funded in a district that often leans Republican?
Polack: “A grassroots campaign is hugely important. We outraised Bryan Steil in individual contributions in the first quarter of this year and are proud of that.
“Another thing is working to get endorsements from key institutions and leaders around the country. For example, President Obama’s former chief of staff Denis McDonough endorsed me. … We are going to be announcing that Seth Moulton’s Serve America PAC has put me on their list of candidates to watch, and we’re working hard on getting endorsements from other organizations” (Pade has garnered endorsements from student-led political organization Our Democracy USA and U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, a top surrogate for presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden).
“Building a coalition here locally is also incredibly important,” Polack continued. “I’ve got fantastic relationships with local government incumbents and people who are running, and we are working to build a strong coalition with them and also working with the Biden campaign.
“President Obama won here (the 1st District) in 2008. (Sen.) Tammy Baldwin came within 0.6% of winning (in the district) in 2018. We ran a poll just two weeks ago showing that Biden and (President Donald) Trump are neck and neck and that I’m within single digits of Bryan Steil, and we have just begun to do our strong voter outreach through our ads. And so there’s a lot of room for growth, and I’m confident we’re going to win the primary and then win the general election.”
Pade: Two recent Supreme Court races and Baldwin’s results show the district closer to 50-50 than people think.
“One of the things I’ve learned in politics is people respond more about what you stand for and what you’re going to do rather than just how terrible the other side is. I don’t shy away from criticizing Steil for being on the wrong side of issues that I believe in, but I’ve been focusing on what I want to do, what my background is.
“Our own data shows 39% of the district identifies as independent. … Obama won the district in 2008. So we can win, and we’re going to win by having a positive message and reaching out to folks and building on the (local Democratic) organizations that have been built over the last few years.”
The Gazette will have more on the candidates’ backgrounds and policy stances in an article later this week.