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Mr. Inside, Mr. Outside
It’s one of those fish-out-of-water social moments when you think some big shot might just grab you by your sleeve. “Hey you,” I keep expecting to hear, hoping nobody in the ornate ballroom notices the road-salt stains on my shoes. “Get me another Chivas, will you?”
For the record, that never happens – everybody here is as cordial as can be. Still, considering the surroundings, I won’t apologize. I’m at a late-January Republican fund-raiser at the opulent Maple Bluff Country Club, and it’s filled to the brim with the proverbial well-heeled political mucky-mucks. The beneficiary: Monona Mayor Tom Metcalfe, who hopes this fall to unseat Democratic State Senate Minority Leader Chuck Chvala, the GOP’s idea of the liberal anti-Christ.
“This is a personal thing for Tommy Thompson,” says Chvala aide Doug Barnett, recalling the bitter 1994 gubernatorial campaign, in which Thompson waxed Chvala with, among other things, taunting TV ads built around a stuffed koala bear. “The Metcalfe campaign will be flush with cash. We definitely expect to be outspent.”
Indeed, some predict this race will set a new campaign-spending standard in the 16th Senate District. Metcalfe -- who never got past the 8th grade, but still amassed a small fortune through his local Sentry grocery stores -- thinks it could take as much as a quarter of a million dollars to beat Chvala. That would be roughly seven times the amount spent by Chvala’s 1992 foe, Eric Gordon, and about three times what Dane County GOP stalwart Mike Blaska coughed up in 1988. Both got blown out of the water.
And yet, there’s something different in the air this time around. Chvala, for one thing, might be more vulnerable than usual after his disastrous run for governor and a few years of general Democratic decline in Wisconsin. Many see the 14-year legislative veteran as ripe to be cast as an ultimate liberal insider who’s out of touch.
What’s more, some say, he might not even have the die-hard support of his own Democratic troops. Lingering internal animosities may still exist about the way Chvala won his Senate leadership position last year – ultimately beating at least one candidate to whom he had initially promised his support.
To Republicans, any chink in Chvala’s armor becomes more tempting – like blood drops in a shark tank – in a year when the power balance in the Republican-controlled state house seems especially precarious, more so after in the Democratic rebound in April’s County Board elections. Analysts note that in 1996, a small handful of key state races could solidify – or reverse – the current GOP majority in the State Legislature.
Hence, Metcalfe fund raisers have been clocking Republican wallets in droves. The party faithful would dearly love to have Chvala’s political head on a stick come November.
Plus, say the experts, Metcalfe’s down-home style figures to play very well with the masses. A fourth-generation grocer, he’s a self-made success who knows the nuts and bolts of Main Street business and retains a calloused-hands affinity with the Common Joe. As mayor of suburban Monona, he’s also got one or two high-profile political notches in his belt. Metcalfe is fond of reminding people, for example, how he vetoed a proposed 1996 budget that would have raised spending by seven percent.
Even better that the veto was overridden by Monona’s City Council, say some Republican operatives: Here’s a guy who’ll stand all alone to do what’s right.
“I’d say Tom Metcalfe is a formidable candidate, and the personality contrast between him and Chuck is about as good as it’s going to get,” says veteran Wisconsin political observer Bill Kraus, who, like many, expects Metcalfe/Chvala to be affected by Clinton/Dole and Klug/Soglin, this year’s other showcase local race.
“On one hand,” Kraus continues, “you’ve got Metcalfe, a sort of hale fellow, well-met. On the other, you’ve got Chvala, who’s seen as something of a strident screecher. Now passion isn’t bad for a politician, but he really is a screecher. I mean, he’s never been in a skirmish once in his life. Everything is World War III with Chuck.”
Counters former Wisconsin Democratic Party head Hannah Rosenthal, honing in on the insider-outsider issue: “How much more ‘inside’ can you get than a fund-raiser at Maple Bluff? There’s no question that Chuck knows what he’s up against – big money – but he’s been there before. He’s a fierce campaigner; he knows his stuff; so he’ll shine in one-on-one debates. And nobody’s better going door-to-door. He’s got a very effective organization in place.”
Rosenthal adds: “I think the Republicans are underestimating Chuck Chvala, especially his connection with mainstream voters. My advice to Metcalfe: ‘Don’t quit your day job.’”
Tall and grinning genuinely with a certain friendly-bear informality, Metcalfe does move easily among the crowd at Maple Bluff, where 50 or so people are sipping drinks, spearing little meat balls and nibbling veggies and cheese served – literally – from silver platters. A few luminaries in attendance: John Matthews, Governor Tommy Thompson’s chief of staff; Bill McCoshen, the state Secretary of Development; public relations guru Al Zins; and Republican state Senators Scott Fitzgerald and George Petak, who, a few months removed now from a Brewers Stadium recall effort, looks like maybe he could use a room full of Republican friends himself.
There’s also Columbus Mayor Joe Marks, one of several whose support could be crucial if Metcalfe is to score big in the rural areas of the 16th District, which includes Madison’s populous East Side, but also towns like Mazomanie, Marshall, Cottage Grove, Stoughton and Edgerton. Brandon Sholz, a mastermind of US Rep. Scott Klug’s miracle 1990 campaign, works the room like a pro. So does Monona advertising exec Barbara Slack, who filed Metcalfe’s original mayoral nomination papers for him and was pivotal in persuading him to take on Chvala.
We all mill around for about an hour or so before Fitzgerald steps to a microphone to get things rolling. Introducing Metcalfe, he declares: “This is THE race to watch in the Senate this year, folks.” Then it’s time for the main event: the keynote comments of James Klauser, Tommy Thompson’s longtime right-hand man.
“I don’t want to be negative about Tom Metcalfe’s opponent. This is not a time for that,” Klauser says in his understated “I’m in charge here” tones. “I want to be positive. …”
After a brief pause for effect: “And Tom Metcalfe is truly a positive answer to the DOGMATIC … VINDICTIVE … LIBERAL alternative.”
The comment brings the house down.
Remember: It’s only January, when most candidates haven’t even gotten out of the starting gates yet. And Metcalfe says he’s already got something like $26,000 in his war chest.
It remains to be seen, though, how much good it’s going to do him on election day.
Two months later – just after Dane County liberals regain their majority on the Dane County Board – Chvala appears anything but worried during an interview in his office on Martin Luther King Boulevard. A big-money opponent? No problem, Chvala says; he’s faced them nearly every time out – and he holds up his past victories as evidence of his own grass-roots appeal.
This year, his average campaign contribution will be about $26 per person, compared to as much as $150 for Metcalfe. But Chvala will likely have more contributors, he says, so he’ll have “a good chunk of cash too;” and he describes the 16th District as traditionally the sixth-most Democratic in the state – borne out this spring, Chvala adds, by the fact that a liberal County Board candidate drew about 60 percent of the vote in Metcalfe’s back yard.
“There were six Democratic takeaways overall, and five were in my district,” he notes of the final County Board tally. “That’s no accident.”
Rather, Chvala says, it was only the beginning of what he predicts will be a political sea change in Wisconsin as 1994’s nationwide “Contract with America” Republican juggernaut loses more steam. State voters, he insists, are seeing the Republicans’ current bread-and-butter issues for what they are: populist window dressing hiding welfare for the rich.
Among the other hot buttons Chvala promises to push during the campaign: the Brewers Stadium “bailout;” tuition hikes at the University of Wisconsin, which he says have limited access for thousands of working-class students; and Republican property tax relief, which he sees as skewed toward the state’s most affluent school districts.
“Just about every school district I represent lost money on that deal,” he comments. “Why are we shipping Wisconsin property taxes to the kind of silk-stocking Republicans who are at every Tom Metcalfe fund-raiser? You won’t see me at a Maple Bluff fund-raiser. I want people in Maple Bluff to pay their fair share.”
Metcalfe, Chvala says, is the one who’s out of touch with common folks; and a 14-year incumbent’s experience has shown Chvala how to wield the state bureaucracy effectively on their behalf. To underscore his point, he produces scores of letters from “average” constituents thanking him for intervening in everything from a South Beltline community clean-up project to a new stop light in Black Earth.
“When I first came to the State Capitol, someone said to me, ‘The best thing you can do is to be a good legislator – if you do, people will remember,’” Chvala recalls. “And I think I’ve done that.”
A few weeks later, Chvala’s office calls me to flag new developments in the Monona budget. For the sixth straight year, the city is in the red, and now it’s dangerously low on cash reserves – something that has scuttled the municipal bond rating in suburbs like Fitchburg in recent years. You can bet the Monona budget situation will be trumpeted, too, as Chvala’s campaign heats up in late-summer and early fall.
Among his main campaign tools: a veteran grass-root organization, including a small army of door-to-door volunteers and a phone bank Chvala rents from the Democratic Caucus. There will also be TV ads, of course (“You don’t spend a quarter of a million on just walking around,” Chvala notes.), as well as one-on-one debates that have Chvala chomping at the bit.
“I will be more than happy to stand side-by-side with Tom Metcalfe in front of a group of Oscar Mayer workers and see at the end who they want,” says Chvala, a lawyer whose rhetorical skills are considerable. “In the final analysis, they know Chuck Chvala will stand with them on the issues.”
Republican analyst Bill Kraus, meanwhile, predicts Chvala could end up with egg on his face if, A – he depends too much on TV and B – he gets into a mud-slinging match with Metcalfe. Kraus attributes at least part of Chvala’s 1994 debacle to a basic flaw in his strategy: “There are a few small, encouraging signs that politics is moving away from TV back to door-to-door and face-to-face – TV might be too expensive and too ineffective with only about half of the people voting these days.”
“I had lunch with Chuck before he ran against Tommy Thompson,” Kraus adds. “I said, ‘You should say Tommy’s been a wonderful governor … but he’s run out of ideas – be nice. But, Jesus, he ran his entire campaign as an attack, and you should never do that against someone people like.”
Chvala says he learned many such lessons two years ago. And if there’s a silver lining to the experience, it’s that it helped him expand and solidify his campaign organization.
And the back-stabber charges he heard after winning the Senate Minority Leader position? Water over the dam, Chvala shrugs. “Any time you have leadership battles, you get wounded feelings, and I’ve worked hard to heal that. At this point, I know I have broad support in the caucus – if we took a vote now, I’d get at least three-quarters or more. The fact is that my colleagues elected me to be their leader, which shows they believe I deserve it.”
The interview ends with a comment he’s repeated several times over the past hour or so: “I feel sorry for Tom Metcalfe. He’s been sold a bill of goods. … The day after election day, he’ll be sitting there saying, ‘These guys said I could do it. So what happened?’”
Metcalfe, it turns out, isn’t exactly a babe in the woods. A lifelong Republican from Butler, Wisconsin, near Milwaukee, Metcalfe grew up with politics. His father, he jokes, “was probably the only registered Republican in Waukesha County” and a member of the Waukesha County Board.
The family grocery business, which kept him in daily touch with the man and woman on the street from the day he was old enough to push broom, also had a political component. With the local welfare system administered by the county, for example, a good grocer had to know the ins and outs of food vouchers, etc., to keep the customers happy – and here Metcalfe, of course, had the inside scoop. He also watched how his father wielded influence on everything from road projects to local postmaster appointments.
Eventually, Metcalfe developed quite a network of political contacts himself as he built his own business. He got involved in an array of community projects ranging from the Wisconsin Dance Ensemble to Monona’s community swimming pool. But he didn’t give public office a second thought until his two kids were out on their own. Even then, he might not have entered the Monona mayor’s race at all if his friend Barb Slack hadn’t filed nomination petitions herself. He won handily in 1993.
When approached about taking on Chvala, Metcalfe initially worried that his eighth-grade education might be an albatross. But given his business triumphs, he was quickly convinced that it could work for him, not against him.
“I feel that I bring a different motivation – I’m not coming from a totally political environment like Chuck,” Metcalfe says from his office, which is adorned with a photo of him, Tommy Thompson and longtime GOP henchman Lee Atwater, along with a painting, entitled “Man at the Helm,” of a sailboat in heavy winds. “My experience is totally real-world. I really think you need to go through the business environment before you go on to the legislature.”
Whatever the case, his school-of-hard-knocks success has left him with a kind of aw-shucks modesty that endears him to almost everyone he meets – expect to see it in his TV ads and on the stump. And while Chvala’s forte is the slick, fast-laden, off-the-cuff speech, Metcalfe’s is simplicity and self-deprecation.
“I’m used to four-word sentences,” he quipped at a Monona fund-raiser in late-April, “like, ‘upper left, aisle four.’”
Make no mistake about it, he knows exactly what he’s doing. While working hard to build a $250,000 campaign fund, he can nonetheless deflect fat-cat criticism by calling the cost of getting elected an “appalling” fact of 1996 political life. He can even make the 16th District sound like bedrock Republican territory.
“Look at the Assembly representation on it,” he says, pointing to a district map on his office wall. “You’ve got two Republicans – Rudy Silbaugh and Eugene Hahn – but only one Democrat – Doris Hanson.”
“Chuck doesn’t fit the district outside the east side of Madison,” he adds. “I look at the district as more rural. There are a lot of farms in the district.”
His key issues in the campaign: traditional Republican “hot phrases,” Metcalfe admits.
“I think it’s more getting government out of our lives,” he explains. “The cost of government is the major issue. I see it every day, working on a city budget for Monona. But when it comes time to sit at the table and make it happen, too many politicians tend to get UNDER the table. And that’s just not the kind of person I am. It’s very simple, really: You’ve either got to increase the budget or reduce services. There’s nothing that gets me out of my chair faster than red ink.”
Another pet issue – welfare. Here, Metcalfe invokes his working-class roots near Milwaukee, whose neighborhoods, he insists, have been “devastated” by the public-assistance merry-go-round.
“My grandfather landed on a boat here from Hungary, and we all learned that you move from place to place, if you have to, to find employment. Yet today, the government just keeps sending checks out to people,” he says, linking the issue to the proliferation of drugs. “Do I have a magic answer? No. But I know there’s a magical feeling when you do a good day’s work and get paid for it.”
He is quick to add: “OK, so maybe 60 percent of our welfare system is really helping people who have no choice, but that means 40 percent isn’t – so let’s fix the 40 percent. The answer – well, it’ll probably mean some pain and suffering; I wish I could say it won’t. But I will say this: Over the long haul, it’s going to benefit people.”
Prominent on Metcalfe’s office is a sign reading, “Strategize or agonize.” Both candidates, obviously, have been working hard on the strategizing part. We’ll see who’s doing the agonizing on election day November 4.
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