Small business owners grill Democrats running for Senate

Forums highlight differences among a group that is largely in agreement

By: - June 28, 2022 7:00 am
Main Street Alliance panel

From left, Steven Olikara, Kou Lee, Sarah Godlewski and Tom Nelson take turns answering questions from small business owners at a forum in Madison on Wednesday, June 22. Another forum took place in Milwaukee on Friday, June 24, with additional participants Mandela Barnes, Alex Lasry and Peter Peckarsky. All are seeking the Democratic nomination to run for U.S. Senate. (Photo courtesy of Main Street Alliance)

Corrine Hendrickson operates a child care center in New Glarus. She wants to know  what the Democrats vying to run against Sen. Ron Johnson plan to do about child care. 

“Do you support investments in the child care workforce, and also increasing subsidies to make child care more affordable, accessible and available and higher quality? And in particular, to increase equity for women of color?” Hendrickson asked at a candidate forum in Madison last week. 

Patrick DePula wants to know about tax policy that treats corporate giants differently than local enterprises like Sal’s Tomato Pies, his small collection of restaurants in Madison. “Do you think it’s fair for Amazon and other large corporations to pay a much lower tax rate than small businesses?” he asked.

Kat Klawes is self-employed as a consultant who advises small businesses and buys her own insurance through the federal health care marketplace under the Affordable Care Act. Enhanced tax credits that have lowered her premium costs, which had been one-third of her take-home pay, will expire at the end of 2022. “Many people like me will be faced with their health insurance premiums skyrocketing,” she said at a companion forum in Milwaukee. “Will you work to extend those enhanced subsidies in the ACA marketplace — or, ideally, make them permanent?”

All three posed their questions during roundtable sessions, one in Madison and one in Milwaukee, aimed at giving small business owners and those who work with them an opportunity to be heard on the policies that are their top priority.

The roundtables were organized and sponsored by the Main Street Alliance and the Wisconsin Farmers Union.  A third one is scheduled for July 6 in Appleton. They are intended to showcase small-business concerns ahead of the August 9 primary, and the November 3 general election, when Johnson will be running for a third term.

Small business owners “are busy running their businesses, and they care about the communities,” said the Main Street Alliance’s Midwest manager, Shawn Phetteplace, in an interview after Friday’s roundtable wrapped up. “But they aren’t following the Senate race as closely. So it’s great for them to hear directly from the candidates on what they will be doing.”

Main Street Alliance is nonpartisan, and Phetteplace says that Johnson has been invited to take part in the roundtable sessions. The GOP incumbent initially had agreed to take part in at least one, but backed out citing responsibilities in Washington. Phetteplace says his organization still hopes to arrange a meeting between members  and the senator.

Values-based organization 

Forum questions reflected the overall viewpoint that the association brings, which Phetteplace describes as values-driven and generally progressive.

Among the Democratic Senate hopefuls who turned out for the first two events, the questions did not expose sharp policy differences. All favor government action to expand health care access and affordability; all voice support for reining in monopoly power; all endorse the need to make child care more accessible and affordable, including with help from the federal government.

Alex Lasry headshot (courtesy of Lasry for Wisconsin 2021)
Alex Lasry
(courtesy of Lasry for Wisconsin 2021)

On the subject of taxes, Alex Lasry — on leave as an executive of the Milwaukee Bucks, where his multibillionaire father is a co-owner — said, “I think Democrats have won this argument — right? — that corporations and wealthy individuals aren’t paying their fair share.”

Democrats, Lasry said, get unfairly tarred with being bad for the economy, when “every time a Republican president comes in, we have some big economic collapse, and then the Democrats get in there to clean it up.”

The problem for Democrats, he said, is that “we talk a lot about who we want to tax, and we don’t talk enough about how we can help small business grow.”

The clearest distinctions among the candidates were contrasts in style, demeanor and focus. “It sort of demonstrates what kind of senator they would be, how they carry themselves and how they connect with folks,” Phetteplace said.

Peter Peckarsky
Peter Peckarsky (Campaign website photo)

For some candidates, who’ve gotten virtually no news coverage and have yet to register at all in public opinion polls, the events have been a chance to be heard by at least a few dozen business owners. 

Peter Peckarsky is a Milwaukee lawyer whose campaign combines a promise of technocratic expertise and focuses on “curbing the power of big tech” while embracing the full range of economic and social positions common among Democrats. 

Kou Lee (campaign website photo)

Answering a question about closing tax loopholes, he connected the lack of news coverage of an unfair tax system to the economic collapse of the news industry and the hegemony of large technology companies. “So when it comes time for a newspaper to find somebody who can explain what’s going on in the tax code in Congress, they don’t have the money to do it,” he said. 

Kou Lee,  a Fox Valley restaurateur whose family emigrated from Southeast Asia, mostly concurred with the others on issues, with a particular focus on  income inequality but also warned against divisiveness from both the left and right. “I fear that our democracy is about to crumble, ripped apart by tribal warfare, identity politics,” he said.  

Staying on brand

The sessions gave candidates an opportunity to showcase their particular campaign brand and how they size up the issues. 

Steven Olikara (Campaign photo)

Steven Olikara is pivoting from having founded and built the Millennial Action Project, a nonpartisan group of young lawmakers. His Senate platform calls for overturning the political culture in Washington and forging bipartisanship, and he underscored that message when he answered Hendrickson’s child care question at the Madison event.

“So I’m running first and foremost on getting big money out of politics and change that equation,” he told her. “Now, once you do that, you change the incentives and get members of Congress to care about an issue like child care.” 

Olikara went on to emphasize child care through the lens of entrepreneurship, calling for changes that allow people starting a business to count their business revenue, not just personal income, in the calculations for child care tax credits.

Tom Nelson, the Outagamie County executive and former Democratic state representative, whose campaign has centered an “economic security” message, highlighted his support for Medicare for All. “I’m the only one who’s been campaigning hard on this,” he told the Milwaukee audience.

Thomas Nelson
Thomas Nelson (Nelson campaign | Facebook)

Nelson also declared his support for universal child care along the lines offered in many other industrialized countries. To support one of his campaign arguments that he has won as a progressive in a Republican county, Nelson also described a local joint child care project. The project includes the Outagamie County government, small businesses, the local Head Start program and a school district among other partners, “all under one roof.”  If the federal or state governments won’t help, he told the Milwaukee forum, “we need to do it at the local level.”

For State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, the child care question was an opportunity to combine her personal story as the mother of a young child with facts-and-figures policy specifics including her support for maintaining expanded child tax credits and paying child care workers a living wage. She highlighted the high  cost of care — “over $12,000 a year for one child” — and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic: “We saw about 25% of our child care centers closed.” 

Sarah Godlewski (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

The disproportionate distribution of benefits from the 2020 pandemic relief bill, the CARES Act, was “one of the reasons why I’m running,” Godlewski said. “And when I saw that Delta Airlines got more money than childcare … this is a problem that, you know, I will tell you as a working mom, I’d absolutely be prioritizing that.” 

Godlewski attended only the Madison event, on Wednesday, June 22; she bowed out of the Friday, June 24, Milwaukee roundtable at the last minute to focus on the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that came out that morning overturning Roe v. Wade. Abortion rights have been another central focus of her campaign.

Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, meanwhile, attended only the Milwaukee roundtable, having stepped back from the Madison event when it conflicted with Gov. Tony Evers’ special session that day to overturn Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban ahead of the Supreme Court ruling. He joined in with abortion rights protesters after the Republican leaders in the state Legislature gaveled the session open and shut without acting — leaving the Wisconsin ban in place.

Drawing connections

At the Milwaukee event, child care center operator Brooke Skidmore asked the Senate hopefuls a wide-ranging question that drew connections between the low pay of child care workers, the need for workers to have paid leave in childbirth or when they are ill, and the loss of health autonomy for women, reflected in the just-released Supreme Court decision. “Do you support a woman’s individual health rights and paid family leave?” she asked. “How are you going to make the change?”

Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes is seen prior to Governor Tony Evers' first State of the State address in Madison, Wisconsin, at the State Capitol building on Jan. 22, 2019. Evers addressed a joint meeting of the Assembly and the Senate. Photo by Emily Hamer/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
Mandela Barnes (Emily Hamer | Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism CC BY-ND 2.0 )

Barnes cited his involvement in a campaign that passed a paid leave ordinance in Milwaukee a decade ago (later overridden by the state Legislature and then-Gov. Scott Walker) and jumped ahead to how the lack of paid leave likely led to the spread of COVID-19. 

“Think about how the virus spread,” he said. “People were coming to work sick, because they had no other option — they thought they’re going to lose their job. And then people came to work sick and made even more people sick.”

Yet there are “billion-dollar companies” that don’t offer paid leave, contributing to “the lowest level of women’s participation in the workforce right now,” Barnes said. “And that just continues to exacerbate the levels of inequality that we have been experiencing.”

On health care,  Nelson and Barnes both name-checked Medicare for All, while Lasry focused on expanding on the Affordable Care Act and adding “a public option” that would compete for insurance clients with the private insurance companies.

Nevertheless, “we all agree with universal health care,” Lasry said, calling it “not just a moral issue, but …  also what’s going to make us continue to be the most competitive and innovative and entrepreneurial country in the world.”

Skidmore said she appreciated the opportunity to learn more about the candidates. 

“When I hear their personal stories, where they have also had similar experiences, that resonates more with me,”she said. 

The Milwaukee roundtable was held at Cactus Club, a nightspot in the city’s Bay View neighborhood. Kelsey Kaufman, the venue’s owner and operator, found hearing from other business owners and watching how the hopefuls engaged the questions to be enlightening. 

“I do think there’s value in putting [candidates] in a room and having conversations to hear about people’s real world experiences,” Kaufman said.


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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary.