This week, we’re taking a look at races in four congressional districts in the WORT listening area. We’re kicking things off today with a hotly contested seat: Wisconsin’s first congressional district — representing Kenosha and Racine counties, as well as other areas to the immediate south and west of Milwaukee.
Since August, Kenosha — situated in the southeastern corner of Wisconsin’s first congressional district — has become the emotional heart of Wisconsin’s police reform movement. After Kenosha Police officer Rusten Sheskey shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back in late August, the debate around police reform has become a pivotal issue for the district.
Democratic congressional candidate Roger Polack is a supporter of stronger federal standards for the nation’s police forces. Back in June, Polack voiced his support for the federal George Floyd Justice in Policing act.
That reform package would pass the Democrat-controlled house, but collapsed later that summer as it succumbed to partisan bickering in the Senate.
“The provisions in there I think are important amongst others include provisions that hold police more accountable, while also creating a national use of force database, banning chokeholds and allowing the U.S. Department of Justice to initiate investigations,” Polack said.
Polack is challenging the first congressional seat of Republican Bryan Steil, the incumbent. Steil has a different response to the question of police reform. Speaking with WisPolitics in June, Steil said that he supported police reform, but not in any shape that would defund the nation’s police.
“Let me be clear, I don’t support defunding the police.”
He adds that setting federal standards — as enumerated in the now-defunct Justice in Policing Act — are not the right vehicle for reforms.
“What I don’t want to see us do is nationalize our police force with a one-size-fits-all approach,” Steil added. “New York City is very different from Milwaukee and Milwaukee is different from Elkhorn, Wisconsin.”
The two also differ on the federal response to Coronavirus relief. In addition to advocating for more federal relief funding, Polack argues that federal relief funds should be more closely tracked.
He makes the argument that money should be primarily allocated to small businesses.
“Bryan Steil claimed that he voted against the [relief] bill because it hurt small businesses,” Polack argued. “But, look at where small businesses are right now. They’re in a place where they can’t get help. We need to make sure that relief money is getting to working families and small businesses, not the large corporations.”
Steil, meanwhile, acknowledges that the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic has been a bit slapshod.
“Washington is building the ship as we paddle out to sea,” Steil said. “There’s a lot of duct-tape on this. This isn’t some sort of well-built machine, but it’s definitely floating.”
But, Steil argues that carelessly increasing financial aid through coronavirus relief programs could have negative long-term financial impacts. He points to the trillions of dollars the U.S. has already spent to combat the pandemic.
The candidates differ on other policy platforms. Polack has made supporting access to healthcare a major policy platform, while Steil is a vocal opponent of federalized universal healthcare.
Polack — who was born in Racine and attended UW-Madison — has a history of public service. He’s served in foreign intelligence and Senior Policy positions for both the Obama and Bush administrations. During that time he spent about twenty months on the ground in Afghanistan as a civilian analyst.
Steil, meanwhile, is a Janesville native. He’s worked in private business, served on the UW Board of Regents, and was an aid to former Rep and Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan. Steil has represented this district for nearly two years, after Ryan’s resignation in 2019.
Ryan held Wisconsin’s first district for twenty years, from 1999 to 2019. In 2018, Steil edged out Democratic candidate Andy Bryce to win the district by more than twelve points.
Polack has also faced criticisms for alleged carpetbagging. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that he claimed his principle residence as a $1.3 million Washington D.C. home — one of two pieces of property Polack owns in the D.C. area.
During his tenure at the D.C. law firm Covington & Burling, he served as part of a legal team that negotiated a plea deal for former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.
Steil also has a much larger war chest to fight this battle — his campaign committee has taken in nearly three million dollars in contributions. That’s compared to less than half a million in contributions for Polack.
All of that money, says Polack, is from small, grassroots donors.
(Photo courtesy of Element5 Digital on Unsplash)