Tiffany, Zunker virtually debate in final days before congressional special election

    Republican Tom Tiffany (lower left) and Democrat Tricia Zunker (lower right) virtually debated Monday night (screenshot by Henry Redman).
    Republican Tom Tiffany (lower left) and Democrat Tricia Zunker (lower right) virtually debated Monday night (screenshot by Henry Redman).

    In a virtual debate held Monday evening, the two candidates in a special election for Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District started off by answering a question related to the reason the debate was held online — coronavirus. 

    When asked what should be prioritized in future federal relief packages, the Republican candidate, state Sen. Tom Tiffany, said Congress should wait and see what was working and what else was needed before moving ahead with more legislation. 

    The Democratic candidate, Wausau School Board President Tricia Zunker, said Congress needed to do more to give relief that isn’t “just a band-aid.” 

    The pandemic came up over and over throughout the hour-long debate in responses related to health insurance, agriculture, tourism, immigration and climate change. 

    The 7th district, which is the state’s largest by land mass, covers 20 counties and stretches between two state borders. It relies heavily on tourism and agriculture, two industries that have been significantly hit by the coronavirus crisis.  

    Contrary to the advice of public health officials, Tiffany argued that northern Wisconsin should reopen its economy before Memorial Day to help the region’s tourist-dependent businesses. 

    “I think that we can steadily, gradually reopen Wisconsin including Northern Wisconsin, because I think people are being responsible out there,” Tiffany said. “As far as helping the tourism industry, the greatest thing you can do to help them is to get them customers.” 

    Zunker pushed back on Tiffany, saying that allowing people to come from other parts of the state and country into Northern Wisconsin risked overflowing the region’s rural hospital system. 

    “Unfortunately coronavirus does not stop at the county line, the situation that he’s describing with thousands of thousands of people, flooding into Northern Wisconsin for Memorial Day weekend, that is something that is so incredibly risky,” Zunker said. 

    To support the district’s agricultural industry, both candidates said they’d push to be assigned to the House Agriculture Committee, but that — and touting their ancestral roots to Wisconsin dairy farmers — was as far as their common ground went. 

    Zunker listed a number of ideas to support the area’s farmers, including mental health resources and expanded broadband internet access. 

    Tiffany said farmers need to be given a bridge to get them out of the current crisis before he touted trade deals, such as the U.S.-Japan trade agreement and the United States-Mexico-Canada agreement, as being good for farmers. 

    While most of the debate went off without any fireworks — perhaps because of the virtual format — the two did get a little heated when the topic moved to immigration and working conditions for the state’s migrant workers. The question specifically focused on workers in industries hit hard by COVID-19. 

    Tiffany started off by saying it was necessary to secure the border and make sure anybody coming into the country is documented, adding that it’s important to stop human trafficking and the flow of methamphetamines across the country’s southern border. He also said sick workers should go back to their home country to receive care. 

    “We need to make sure that those people who are coming into our country, that they’re documented, and that we know who’s coming in and out of our country,” Tiffany said. “And then beyond that. I believe that in terms of healthcare that their home country should be helping them out. If they’re not here legally, they should go to their home country wherever that is, and they should get their healthcare needs covered in that location.”

    Zunker agreed that the border should be secured, but said Wisconsin farmers need access to labor, that undocumented immigrants should have a pathway to citizenship and that denying migrants healthcare is cruel. 

    “I think this notion of saying that people should return to their home country for healthcare is cruel, it’s inhumane, it defies logic and it’s only going to hurt our businesses here, businesses that rely on this labor,” Zunker said. “I support a pathway to citizenship for taxpaying individuals, law-abiding individuals that are here, I support a pathway to citizenship for individuals that came here as children through no fault of their own, and this is their home.” 

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    After a dust-up over Tiffany’s use of the word “illegals,” the debate moved on to topics including gun violence and mining in the district. 

    The debate did not touch on access to voting during the pandemic — a problem that became a focal point of the statewide April 7 election. For now, officials are encouraging absentee voting but polls will remain open. So far, more than 98,000 absentee ballots have been requested for the election. 

    The deadline to request an absentee ballot is May 7, the election is set to be held May 12. 

    Henry Redman
    Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.