The Rise of Chris Larson
Is he a young liberal heavyweight? Or a punching bag for Republicans?
Chris Larson is a young man in a hurry. He had barely served half of his first term as an elected official, when the still-green county supervisor announced his run against incumbent Democratic state Sen. Jeff Plale for state senate. Larson didn’t just upset Plale in the September 2010 primary, he crushed him, winning 61 percent to 39 percent. Then, less than two years after taking office as the youngest state senator in Wisconsin, Larson upset veteran Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Madison) in the election for senate minority leader.
Just four-and-a-half years ago, Larson was a manager of some sporting goods stores. Now he could be the most important Democrat in the state legislature.
That’s fine with Republicans, who seemed gleeful about Larson’s selection. “Sometimes, God gives you a gift,” crowed Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Janesville).
Veteran State Sen. Tim Cullen (D-Janesville) conceded the GOP legislators saw Larson as an “inexperienced kid,” but said Larson is “anything but a lightweight.”
Larson is an avid runner and has finished several marathons. He has been just as energetic when it comes to politics. Larson graduated from Thomas More High School and got a degree in finance and political science from UW-Milwaukee. During his freshman year, Larson, then 19, was ticketed for shoplifting, which he has called “a dumb mistake.”
Voters apparently agreed, electing him twice to two different seats. And each time he hit the ground running. Just a few months into his term as a county supervisor, Larson helped organize the Quality of Life Alliance, which was the galvanizing force behind the advisory referendum passed by Milwaukee County voters in November 2008, approving a one percent sales tax increase to provide funding for parks, transit and property tax relief. (Gov. Jim Doyle and the legislature declined to approve this.)
In little more than a year, Larson began lining up support for a run against incumbent Plale, a pro-life and pro-voucher Democrat who had enraged liberals by effectively killing a clean energy bill. Plale’s maneuvers “took it to a level of cartoonish evil,” Larson told Isthmus.
“A lot of people are painting this campaign as the Don Quixote of the left, but we’re getting a lot of support from moderates,” Larson told the Madison weekly. Indeed, the challenger won remarkably broad support, with endorsements from the Milwaukee County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, AFSCME, Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 998, the Service Employees International Union, Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, and the union representing MATC faculty and staff. Larson also did an aggressive door-to-door campaign. I moderated a debate between the two candidates, and Larson proved a smart, knowledgable speaker with a good feel for his audience.
As a state senator, Larson won considerable publicity, often serving as a spokesperson for the 14 state senators who fled to Illinois in a futile attempt to stop the legislature from passing Act 10, the bill curtailing public employee union rights.
Even before his victory against Plale, Larson had created the “Dem Team,” whose goal, Larson says, was “to give grass roots volunteers and campaign staffers the tools they need to run for office or help someone run for office. In Madison, people know how to run for office because there are a whole lot of people who are activists.” But Milwaukee didn’t have that sort of network, he felt.
Milwaukee, Larson believes, doesn’t get a fair shake from the state legislature, and part of that is because it lacks strong enough leaders.
Among the many trained by the Dem Team, Larson says, were Nikiya Harris, who ran successfully for the Milwaukee County Board in spring of 2010, Jason Haas, who succeeded Larson as county board member in 2012, Jose Perez, who won a race for Milwaukee alderman this year, and two new candidates who defeated incumbent legislators in the September Democratic primary: Mandela Barnes, who defeated incumbent representative Jason Fields, and Daniel Riemer, who ousted 29-year incumbent Peggy Krusick. Meanwhile, Harris won an open seat for state senate, defeating incumbent representative Elizabeth Coggs. All three of the winning legislative candidates were supported by Larson. He also supported another neophyte Democratic candidate, Evan Goyke, who defeated a huge field to win an open assembly seat in the Milwaukee area.
When State Sen Mark Miller (D-Monona), who had served as Democratic leader in the senate, chose not to run for minority leader, Larson decided to run against the more likely choice, the far-more experienced Jon Erpenbach. The election became controversial, because lobbying groups like the Wisconsin Education Association Council (the formerly all-powerful state teachers union) and the League of Conservation Voters pressured senators to elect Larson. Some observers said this was unusual, though Larson claimed there were lobbyists calling on Erpenbach’s behalf as well.
One of Larson’s supporters was John Lehman (D-Racine), a former state senator who won back his seat in a recall election, and says Larson helped him win election. “What Chris sold himself on was being involved in many other races, recruiting candidates, raising money and effectively helping people get elected,” Lehman told Wispolitics.
Adding more controversy to Erpenbach’s defeat was that a last minute switch by one legislator gave Larson his victory. Insiders have speculated that State Sen. Bob Wirch (D-Pleasant Prairie) changed his vote. Wirch declined to confirm this, but did tell Wispolitics he wanted an appointment to the joint finance committee. No sooner was Larson elected than he appointed Wirch to joint finance, along with Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse).
In giving Wirch the position, Larson dropped Milwaukee state Sen. Lena Taylor from joint finance. Taylor decried this, noting that its the first time in 30 years there was no African American on joint finance. Larson and Taylor have butted heads before. Taylor supported Plale against Larson and probably supported Erpenbach over Larson.
The two were also on opposite sides on legislative elections. Taylor supported Millie Coby against incumbent Sandy Pasch, Elizabeth Coggs against Nikiya Harris and Jason Fields against Mandela Barnes in the September primaries. All three of her candidates lost, all to candidates supported by Larson.
Then there is the question of Taylor’s effectiveness. A February 2009 Milwaukee Magazine ranking of all state legislators by Marc Eisen ranked Taylor as one of the ten worst legislators. With Republicans controlling both houses, they get 12 of 16 appointments to joint finance, so the outnumbered Democrats need very strong choices. Larson gets only two appointments, and his two picks, Wirch and Shilling, both have more than a dozen years experience in the legislature.
Republicans and conservatives have taken great glee in mocking Larson. Besides Vos’ swipe, radio talker Charlie Sykes called Larson “clownish” and conservative blogger James Wigderson asked “why does Larson hate African Americans?”
C’mom Jim. That comment is beneath you. (It also exemplifies the difference between reporters and cheap shop bloggers.) Larson’s Dem Team has trained a long list of minority candidates, including African Americans Harris, Barnes and Eyon Biddle, Sr. who won a county supervisor seat and then lost a race for alderman. As for Larson’s support of Pasch against three black candidates, this race divided many Milwaukeeans and was the direct result of Republican redistricting — or was it mischief making? — that deprived Pasch of her district and forced this kind of election.
The truth is that if Larson was a Republican, Widgerson and the rest would be falling all over themselves praising him. Here’s a bright, hard-working guy who is trying to revive the Democratic party and aggressively recruiting and supporting candidates and fundraising for them in order to make that happen. And when told of Vos’ dig at him, Larson didn’t take the bait, instead replying, “I do believe we can find a way to work together.”
In defeating Plale and replacing Fields with Barnes and Krusick with Riemer, Larson seems to be moving the Democrats further left, just as the Republicans have moved further right. We’ll see how that works for his party. And Larson and the Democrats will have a tough time having any impact in Madison, with the GOP controlling both houses.
But Larson has injected a burst of energy into a party that appears to need all it can get. Maybe that’s what’s got Wigderson and company worried.
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