In contrast to the sometimes tense 12th District Senate debate an hour earlier, the candidates for the wide open 34th District State Assembly seat-Rob Swearingen (R-Rhinelander), Merlin Van Buren (D-Rhinelander), Kevin Fitzpatrick (I-Minocqua) and Todd Albano (I-Woodruff) remained civil toward each other during their portion of the radio forum held at the WXPR Public Radio studios on Stevens Street in Rhinelander Sept. 19.
“It’s obvious we have a divide right now among the two major political parties in this state” said Swearingen, the owner of the Al-Gen Dinner Club in Rhinelander. “This may sound like a novel concept, but what about trying to cross the aisle and work with the other side? It shouldn’t be that revolting of an idea.”
Van Buren, who’s currently a member of the Rhinelander Board of Education, echoed that sentiment, saying that it would be his goal to “Get to know the other legislators on a personal level. We need to get the special interest money out of elections, and find individuals, regardless of party affiliations, I can work with.”
Both Albano and Fitzpatrick, longshot candidates running as independants, said the Assembly needs more independent thinkers who won’t be tied to a particular party.
“The only divide I see in Madison is between the two major parties,” said Albano.
“We need to look for the opportunity to work together,” said Fitzpatrick.
The mining bill
As it did with the Senate candidates earlier, the state’s controversial mining bill came up. The failed bill pertaining to a mine proposal in Iron County, and its connection to possible sulfide mining in other areas of the state, such as the Town of Lynne in western Oneida County, was one of the topics where the candidates’ opinions were similar.
Van Buren said, “Mining is important to Wisconsin’s future, but it needs to be done responsibly.” Of the potential environmental risks involved, he said, “I think the law should be re-written from the ground up, like what is currently happening in the State Senate. The environmental effect of the mine should not extend beyond the site.”
Swearingen agreed that it needed to be handled in a responsible manner, but argued that Wisconsin should follow the example of other Midwestern states which have had successful mining operations for years. “If Michigan and Minnesota can do it, we should be able to do it,” he said. “We’re talking about a lot of long term jobs we shouldn’t be turning our backs on.”
Albano, who lived for several years in Alaska before moving to the Northwoods, said that there should be more incentives offered to citizens before he signs off on mining. “In Alaska they gave each of the citizens a dividend check from the mining profits,” said Albano. “If standards can be put in place, it will help put people at ease.”
Fitzpatrick said his fear with mining didn’t necessarily affect his immediate future, but those of future generations. “What will happen in seven generations?” he asked. “We have to look at responsible stewardship of our lands.”
Jobs was a another key issue that came up in the debate, with all four candidates presenting a different view.
Albano said, “We have a lot of potential for job retention, but we have a deteriorating infrastructure that needs to be improved.”
Van Buren said he supported small business growth, as he didn’t believe the Northwoods should cater to industries.
“We have to make an area where people want to live,” he said. “We need to create an environment here that gives entrepreneurs an opportunity.”
Fitzpatrick agreed with Van Buren that industrial growth would likely not happen quickly in the Northwoods. “We will always have some manufacturing up here, but it isn’t the key to the economy,” he said. “We need to expand on timber sales and tourism, and also give more opportunity to telecommuters
Swearingen said that he had embraced Gov. Scott Walker’s “Wisconsin is Open for Business” mantra, and said the Northwoods needs to be promoted more.
“I believe that this area of Wisconsin is a hidden gem,” he said. “It’s a great place to start a small business or an industry.”
The Candidates On Key Issues:
Act 10 (Removal of collective bargaining rights)
Fitzpatrick: “It was a political measure, not a fiscal one. We all understand that we need to take some cuts.”
Swearingen: “Frankly we have to wait and see what happens in the court system. I was in favor of it, but I think more time should have been spent unveiling it.”
Van Buren: “As a member of the school board, it’s led to bid negative changes in the way we operate. We have to cut $3 million out of our budget. I’m not for taking away the rights of our employees.”
Albano: “I’m not against fiscal responsibility, but I’m not in favor of doing it the way Act 10 provided.”
Swearingen: “I think we should take this state’s sporting clubs at their word, and they say that a wolf hunt is direly needed. A lot of research backs that up.”
Van Buren: “I don’t disagree with the premise behind the hunt, but this was a case of politics coming ahead of science.”
Albano: “I’m all for second9o Amendment rights, but I do not hunt. This decision should be based more on science.”
Fitzpatrick: “I’m honestly not sure I’m in favor of the wolf hunt. I think it was a political move, and environmental decisions shouldn’t be based on that.”
Perceived Northwoods Brain Drain
Van Buren: “We moved here from Chicago years ago because we saw the Northwoods as a great place to raise kids. We can help make it an even greater place for families”
Albano: “The two biggest factors are lack of opportunity and entertainment for young people. With the availability of better jobs, the culture and entertainment options will improve.”
Swearingen: “I never left; I’m in love with the Northwoods. To make it easier for young people to stay, we need better jobs. That means cutting the red tape to make it easier for companies to come in.”
Fitzpatrick: “I hope my daughter will have the opportunity to come back here. The environment will always be a draw, but improved technology would help. I don’t think a lot of young people realize what they had here until it’s gone.”
Editor’s note: The forum can be heard in its entirety on WXPR.org.