MADISON, WIS. | When the race for Green Bay mayor began months ago, the main issues looked clear-cut: planning downtown development, dealing with dwindling state aid and debating whether the city should have spent millions of dollars to build a replica of Elvis Presley’s favorite roller coaster.
But after Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s battle with public employee unions erupted, the constant uproar in the Capitol at Madison quickly became the only thing anyone wanted to discuss. Suddenly, challenger Patrick Evans‘ campaign strategy fell apart.
“The people calling me never said, ‘Hey, Pat, what do you think about the downtown?’ The electorate didn’t want to hear that,” Mr. Evans said.
The passions that filled the Wisconsin Statehouse with round-the-clock, ear-splitting protests have cast a long shadow across the state’s political landscape, influencing even small-time races for mayor and village boards - nonpartisan jobs traditionally focused on matters such as parking meters, garbage collection and snow removal.
Mr. Evans said his campaign did not expect the abrupt shift in voter interest. He eventually declared his support for the public employee unions but lost to incumbent Mayor Jim Schmitt, who praised Mr. Walker at the start of his campaign and was briefly considered for a position in the governor’s Cabinet.
“We didn’t expect what was going to happen in Madison. We couldn’t wrap our arms around it,” Mr. Evans said. “We couldn’t control it. We got swept up in the tidal wave.”
Mr. Walker’s plan sought to ease the state’s budget problems by eliminating most collective bargaining rights for public employees and forcing them to contribute more to their health care coverage and pensions. Mr. Walker signed the measure into law, but a court challenge has blocked it from taking effect.
“I don’t know what Pat’s talking about,” he said. “People were asking about collective bargaining … [but] that wasn’t the big issue to me.”
Mr. Evans complained early and often about his opponent’s decision to build a replica of the Zippin Pippin roller coaster at a cost of $3.5 million at the city’s amusement park.
But, he said, the collective bargaining storm sucked the oxygen out of his run.
“When you have [only] so much news time, so much space, and it’s being used to talk about the chaos in Madison versus the chaos in Green Bay, it does take away,” Mr. Evans said. “I’ve never seen people so up in arms. I had to get involved with a topic I didn’t need to be involved with.”
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